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  • Sandy Sullivan

The Importance of Allies





“Scared”

“Fearful for her future”

“Not knowing which way to turn”

People have asked me how I felt when Em shared with me that she was transgender just over a year ago. We sat in our living room and, unable to look at me, she said that she needed to tell me something. As her Mum I knew that things hadn’t been right for a few years, but just put it down to being a teenager in 2020. I’d helped and supported her as much as I was able through a couple of episodes of poor mental health and recognised that for Em, cycling seemed to be the thing that helped her through each time.

“I’m transgender, Mum”. Just 3 simple words.

I recognise now how much courage that took to reveal her true self . How I responded would have an equally massive impact.

I recalled a conversation we’d had when she was 14 after noticing her following several LGBT+ posts on social media. I’d mentioned that if I was able to see what her interests were then others could too. Em said she was questioning her sexuality and my reaction was in many ways very straightforward but important. I hugged her and said “I love you, no matter what. You know that you can talk to me when you need to”. That message was consistent from her immediate close contact family. My attempts to appear supportive those next few years were probably embarrassing for her. I’d often question whether she fancied or liked a particular girl or boy as a way of trying to encourage her to open up and reinforce the message that to me, it didn’t matter and that her sexuality was really none of my business, and I did, “Love you, no matter what”.



Back to those 3 words. I remember us both crying, hugging and then talking. Mainly me talking as I had so many questions. If I look back, some of those questions weren’t the best to ask, but what I did recognise is that I needed to educate myself on what being transgender meant and quickly. At that point, I’d never met a transgender man, women or young person. I recall my early knowledge of the LGBTQIA+ community being linked to the Government’s Public health announcement featuring tombstones, the “messaging” around the AIDS virus. Later, I was fortunate that work provided connections with the Terrence Higgins Trust. I felt that I was up to speed on LGBT+ despite having no direct connections with the community at that time.

Em recommended that I watch the documentary “Disclosure”, which I did. That made me realise how my own perceptions, opinions and unconscious bias had been influenced in the previous years .

Over the coming weeks with Em preparing to return to Manchester (that’s where the GB cycling squad are based) we’d had a conversation about her future and what she wanted to do. As a Mum my instinct was that she should disappear, remove herself from the cycling world and concentrate on her transition without the pressure or judgement that I knew elite sport would bring. Simply, I wanted her to be protected, to be safe and not become a target for some of the hate and rhetoric I’d seen in the media.

Her response?

“Mum, I know and understand what and why you’re saying what you do, but I feel that with the position I’m in I have a responsibility to help change things. I know that isn’t going to be easy and know what that entails. But I think, if I don’t, then it’ll be something I’ll look back on in 10/15 years’ time and regret. I’ve already discovered there is research into transgender athletes and how athletic performance is impacted through transition, so I want to be involved in that too because that is going to be really important”.

How could I do anything other than support her? To have that insight, show that maturity and to carry that decision at just 19 years of age? I recognised that in making that decision, this WAS far bigger than us. So, I made the commitment to do what I could as her Mum to help her journey be as easy as it could be.

Em had already discovered that there was no Transgender Policy in place at British Cycling (they did launch a policy just a few days before Em came out to them) but there were policies in place in other sports and from Cycling’s World Governing body the UCI. As part of her own support network, she’d already been in touch with the charity Mermaids so the first thing I did was facilitate a meeting with their Head of Legal to clarify Em’s legal position as a transgender woman. I then contacted the British Athletes commission (support network for funded GB athletes) and UK Sport, reaching out to ensure that the necessary support would be in place for Em’s future discussions about her being transgender with British Cycling.

At the same time, I sought out support & guidance from LGBT+ sports networks with our first point of contact being Lou Englefied of Pride Sports UK. Lou then facilitated links with LGBT Sport Cymru and LGBT Sport Media network as we recognised that once the word got out that Em was trans there’d be a media frenzy. This was based on our own initial perceptions, but was reinforced once we’d met (virtually) with two high profile trans women who’d shared their stories of how they’d been outed and hounded by the press. Controlling the narrative became very important and it was members of the LGBT+ community themselves - Jon Holmes (Sport Media LGBT), Beth Fisher (ITV Wales) and Michelle Daltry (LGBT Sport Cymru) - who held our hands in those early days and continue to be our go to allies and part of our support network. In fact, I’d say we’ve been embraced by the LGBT+ community. It’s been such a welcoming and supportive experience which has been much needed as Em has become the target of anti-trans activists. But that’s a story for another day.

I’m in a different place now. Em’s resolve inspires me to keep pushing and keep supporting. I know that I have become something of an activist and have already had meetings with politicians as I look to ensure that her path becomes less bumpy. I’m not afraid to reach out and push for change where it’s needed, after all this is my child, my daughter that we’re talking about. And that’s what I’d urge other parents to do. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others. Despite what you think or what the response might be, there IS amazing and welcoming support available. By telephone, online, one to one within communities. You just need to work out which works best for you.


For further support the follow organisations and individuals are available:

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Other LGBT+ Sports Networks











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