‘Now that I’ve left the women’s team, I’m ready to start playing for the men’ The Times 30.03.20

The original article is here.

How much are you missing it? There may be no one missing their rugby, right now, more than Spencer Seales, and he was in retirement anyway.

Seales is feeling the loss of the community. He is missing the club, the network, the feeling of belonging, the group, the laughter, the contact. You may understand all that without having to have any of it explained.

Seales had already stopped playing. He played his last game for Old Caterhamians a month ago. He is only 30, so it wasn’t his age. He decided to stop because he didn’t think it was right to be playing for the women’s team any more. He knew it was time to be playing for the men.

However, he is still missing it badly. He is missing hanging out with his old team. He was hoping that maybe there would be some kind of a farewell. At the very least, that could have happened on the end-of-season tour, but that is not happening now, is it?

Spencer Seales used to be Sarah Seales. Rugby, he says, has played a huge part in helping make that transition. Or not so much rugby, but his club, Old Cats.

He wanted them to know that, and so he wrote a letter to the club that was read out at the end-of-season dinner last year. “At every turn, this club has supported me,” he wrote. “Words cannot express how grateful I am for the opportunity you have given me.”

He only came to rugby three years ago. He was out one night with his good friend Pam Davies, who persuaded him to come and watch her play for the Old Cats Girls the next day. On arrival at pitchside, he was told that they were a player short. Would he play?

Of course not. It wasn’t that he hadn’t played before or that he didn’t know the rules and didn’t know what position to play. It wasn’t that at all. “They were going: ‘Please play, please play,’ ” he says. “And I am standing there going, ‘No. I am transitioning, I am Spencer, I want to be Spencer, this is a ladies team.’”

There was still a lot of the old Sarah in him back then, though. Sarah was timid and wouldn’t hold her ground. So he said yes. He got given a five-minute tutorial about how to play the game and that was it. He remembers playing lock forward and being scared for much of the game. He also remembers the adrenalin rush. Above all, he remembers what happened afterwards: his team-mates thanking him for playing and beseeching to come back the following week. That was how it started.

Back then, he had already started the process of transgendering, but had had no surgery or hormone treatment. He liked enough of what he experienced to go back yet still felt anxious, particularly about changing and changing rooms. He offered to change in a different changing room if anyone felt uncomfortable, but they insisted: no, you will be treated like everyone else.

Old Caterhamians have helped to give Seales, middle right, lying on the ground, a ‘coat of confidence’
“So I stayed at Old Cats,” he says, “and I am really glad I stayed. I really do love that club.”

Old Cats should be proud because it isn’t necessarily every club that is that way. Seales doesn’t drive and, at one point, he felt he should join his local, closer club instead, “but they said: they didn’t have a place for someone like me.”

He wasn’t bitter. He is on a group chat with other players who are transgendering and the stories aren’t always like his. One player has told him about being spat on during a game.

The rules for transgendering in sport are ethically complicated. Rugby is working through new processes. At present, in England, you have to have permission to be playing in a women’s team if you are transgendering to male. Seales was given the green light for this season, but after Christmas, he felt the hormone therapy kicking in, he was also working in a bakery and hefting around big bags of flour, and the combination of the two made him aware of an enhanced athletic power.

It was this that prompted his retirement from Old Cats Girls. “I don’t want to risk hurting someone,” he explained. “I wouldn’t forgive myself.”

It was not as if he hadn’t seen this point coming. It was just that for so long he had presumed that that would be it. End of rugby.

However, this isn’t the end at all. Seales’s story became known around the club and last year, he was approached by some of the men’s team with a straightforward question: when are you going to come and play for us?

At that end-of-season dinner last year, the same question was repeated. In his letter to the club that was read out that night, he gave the answer: “To the men — if the offer is still there, then I would be more than happy to join your team.”

At the start of this season, the men’s captain called him and asked: are you ready to join? No, was the answer, one more season with the Girls and then I am in.

So that is the other reason that Seales is longing for the end of the coronavirus crisis: he wants to join his new team.

Seales says it feels “surreal” to find himself receiving the same kind of welcome from the men that he did from the women. “I’ve suffered with mental health all my life,” he says. Old Cats has given him a coat of confidence. “When you are part of a team and you feel you belong somewhere,” he says, “it helps a lot.”

At the end of last season, Old Caterhamians submitted an entry into the National Clubs Association club-of-the-year awards. Their citation consisted pretty much of the letter that Seales had written for the dinner. And, no, Old Cats didn’t win. And no that doesn’t matter.

Yet they should be proud, especially now, when they are an inspiring reminder of how great teams and clubs can be — when we are allowed to play.