#EachforEqual – Helena reflects on the role hockey has played in her journey

Posted On 6th March 2020

We continue our journey this week of celebrating women in hockey around Europe! Today is a blog written by Helena Thomas at the end of January 2020. We are very proud that her hockey journey has been a welcoming one! Thanks to Helena for allowing us to share her story with you this week and best of luck to Hillhead 4ths for the rest of the season.

It was all going to end on April 1st, 2017. That was the day I would play my last hockey league game for EK/Avondale Men’s 2nd XI. And in some senses, it did end that day. We played the game- against Irvine-and lost, as we had done for much of that season, and that was that. Seventeen years at EK/A, prior to that six at Wigan, four at Cliftonville, three at SDUC Lampeter, in fact, I’d played hockey since I was twelve. A clueless schoolboy given a hockey stick and told to get out there on a grass pitch that until two weeks before had been used for rugby and get on with it. That was about the extent of my youth coaching. This was a grammar school in the mid-1970s., a proper old school (excuse the pun) grammar school. Masters addressed as “Sir”, cold showers, Oxbridge entrance exams and Rugby, Hockey and Cricket. And no girls. They, whatever they were, went to the school down the road. Unless you were destined for Oxbridge or made it to the 1st XV, or 1st XI you pretty much didn’t matter. And that was me – plodding through, never good enough to play for the School but decent enough for the House team (mind you Sean Kerly was few years above me so no surprise there), and no-where near Oxbridge but clever enough to get to University- (that was expected from all pupils), The University of Wales as it turned out, Coleg Y Prifysgol Dewi Sant, Llanbedr Pont Steffan. For those of you whose Welsh is a bit rusty, St David’s University College, Lampeter. Wales at its most rural, most Welsh and as it turned out, the most wonderful educational institution one could hope for.

And something odd happened, from not being good enough to play for my school, I discovered I was good enough to represent my University. No league games then though, but against all the other colleges of the University of Wales; Cardiff, Swansea, UWIST, Bangor and Aberystwyth (b*****ds – some rivalries never leave you). I suppose given that the total student roll was about 750 at Lampeter and I couldn’t really play for the Ladies team (more on that later), perhaps being selected for the 1st XI wasn’t that much of an achievement, but I was proud, so very proud. Get it up ya, Chatham House Grammar School!

‘All things must pass’ (George Harrison 1970) though and Lampeter was followed by a Post Grad degree at Loughborough, the most sporting university in Britain. Normal service was resumed, not good enough for the 1st XI, or 2nd XI or 3rd XI or…

That could have been the end but following my brother’s lead, I joined my local club when I returned home and got my first proper job. Cliftonville Hockey Club in 1988, still on grass pitches and still no league structure but a thriving local club. In my four years there I went from 4ths to 1sts, went on tour to France and later, much later, would return for veterans’ tournaments in Holland and Belgium.

By now it’s 1992 and my career, if that is what you want to call my employment in the Travel Industry, was taking off. A move up to the wilds of Lancashire meant a new club, Wigan. I was introduced to a lot in Wigan; Rugby League, astroturf pitches, pea wet (just Google it) meat and potato pies.

Someone must have thought I was trustworthy enough to collect the weekly match fees as I ended up as captain of the 3rds. I must also have paid them in regularly as I was captain for 5 years. A league structure was introduced, the club built its own pitch, I was an honorary Lancastrian, life was good… but please refer back to George’s comment above…

More career moves, this time even further north to Scotland. A long way from the sunny Kent coast of my youth. Now the damp, cold, grey, concrete post-war new town of East Kilbride. “Conveniently situated for Glasgow and with excellent local facilities” it almost certainly would have said had there been a Tourist Brochure, which there wasn’t.

It’s 1998, I’m settled, so I thought, family, career and 33 years old. Time to put the stick away and accept that my best days are long behind me. And I did for a while, but actually I missed the hockey, I missed the competition, I missed the camaraderie, and though I didn’t really miss training on a dark, cold, wet Wednesday night, I knew that was part of it.

On the possibly flawed theory that “you never lose it”, I thought let’s have one last hurrah, so aged 35 in 2000 I joined East Kilbride/Avondale. What a last hurrah that was, 17 years, one league championship, two runners up places, tours to the wilds of Nairn and the best bunch of teammates one could ever possibly hope for. And above all else, the proudest, most emotional moment in all these years, playing with my two sons in the same team. What hockey parent could ask for more? Thanks boys.

And we are at full circle. April 1st, 2017. Defeat against Irvine. Battered old stick in the bin, trainers thrown away – just memories left.

On the outside I was retiring because I was too old, every muscle in my body ached on a Sunday morning, it took 15 minutes to walk down the stairs, on the pitch not only couldn’t I catch the opposition to tackle them, I couldn’t even get close enough to foul them. And we had lost pretty much every game that season, losing is no fun – time to call it quits.

There was another reason though, a much more significant reason – which I certainly couldn’t share with my teammates. I was about to start my gender transition. During all those years I’d known something wasn’t quite “right”, I’d never been able to put my finger on it but by 2017 after a period of personal crisis and despair, of talking to Counsellors, of deep reflection, I had finally worked out what it was and finally decided to do something about it. Dealing with the family was, and still is, the hardest part, but equally, how do you tell colleagues, by now friends, that have known you for so long? How will they react? And of course, changing gender anyway meant no more men’s hockey…obviously!

Retirement it was to be.

Coming Out, so to speak, can be difficult, but as I took my first tentative steps in my new life, I finally found the courage to tell my EK/Avondale team. Sometimes through their wives, sometimes directly, the picture became clearer for all. And the reaction? I don’t honestly think I could have asked for anything better, and whatever private surprise there may have been, and there must have been some, the level of support, love and kindness overwhelmed me. I suppose once you’ve shared the common bond of foggy 1-0 wins at Uddingston, or near-riots at Irvine, you are bound together forever. The annual trip North relocated from Nairn to Tain, I re-joined the tour, I was part of it all.

By 2019 I had a new job, working with Scotland’s LGBTI sports charity, LEAP Sports, who arrange a festival of participation every year. Step forward, fate or destiny or karma.

Hillhead Hockey Club were to be part of this and arranged a “taster” session in the summer for members of LGBTI community.

On the basis that “you never lose it” (see above), despite the fact that I’m 54 at this stage and have no “stuff” I thought I could do that. It would be different no doubt, I may meet and compete with some of the Hillhead players I’d spent the past 17 years playing against, but they have always been a good club, with good guys. What’s the worst that can happen? I turn out to have forgotten how to hold a stick, can’t run and make a fool of myself. So what? Side note, one thing being Transgender and going through gender transition teaches you is that very quickly you must stop worrying about what others think – otherwise you will implode.

So, I borrowed a stick and along I went – and two things happened. I realised I hadn’t completely lost it and I really enjoyed it (probably not unrelated).

It must be said that Hillhead players were wonderfully welcoming and supportive, and a few Summer league games followed – and it, whatever it is, slowly came back to me.

Now mixed summer friendlies are one thing, but when it was mentioned about joining the Ladies section properly, well that’s another. That means an annual subscription, registering with the governing body and playing competitive league games against other clubs – that’s a whole different bag of sticks. Scottish Hockey’s Trans inclusion policy is good, unless I wanted to play for Scotland at the Olympics there is basically no issue (good on you SHU), and realistically my chances of an international call up are limited, so I decided to go for it.

I became a fully signed-up, paid-up member of Hillhead Ladies Hockey Club, 42 years after first picking up a stick at school. Actually you know, sometimes, not very often, but sometimes I do step back and say to myself, jeez, you should be proud of what you’ve achieved, not everyone could do that.

One of the key requirements of being a member of any sports club is, or should be, going to training, so once again I found myself on a cold dark hockey pitch on Wednesday nights. Dragging myself round laps of the field and attempting to catch the youngsters as they showed amazing stick skills having been coached properly from an early age. No ex-rugby pitches and a “just get on with it” for these kids.

The prerequisite of playing league hockey is playing against other clubs and though by now I felt part of Hillhead, and they, I hope, felt comfortable with me, my fear, well anxiety really was how the opposition would react. Being realistic it’s unlikely that many would have played in such a situation before and possibly (probably more like) never have come across anyone who is transgender. Armed with the SHU’s trans policy just in case and with a strange mixture of excitement and anxiety flowing through me, my first Women’s League hockey game began. My worries proved groundless, we played, we won, which always helps, and my retirement of 1st April 2017 was well and truly undone.

Since that day in September 2019, we’ve played more games, we’ve won some, drawn some and lost some, which of course is the natural order of things. Some weeks I’ve played reasonably well, some weeks less so – that too is the natural order of things.

I’ve even been persuaded to dust of my whistle and umpire a few games. Perhaps everything reached its apogee when I umpired the very same EK/Avondale men’s team I had been part of for so long – to a man the guys welcomed me back and to a man they used my “new” name. Never easy after knowing someone as something else for so long. Thanks gents, really does mean so much.

Thanks also to all at Hillhead for being so supportive, especially to all in the Ladies 4ths for accepting me and making me feel so welcome. And thanks too, to LEAP, without the synchronicity of events who knows what would have happened.

This started off as a few jumbled thoughts but has flowed as a stream of consciousness rambling on about hockey, transgender and me. If you have made it thus far, thanks – you probably deserve a cup of tea and a lie down.

And the point to all this, if there is one, especially if you are struggling with being transgender, just get out there and be who you want to be, don’t stop doing the things you love because of transition.

If you want something to happen, you can make it happen.

Written by Helena Thomas on 31st January 2020.

Helena is Senior Business Support Officer for LEAP sports, Scotland

Click here for our interview with Alex Danson, here for Mies Veerger, here for Lucy Newman and here for our focus on coaching in Ukraine and Russia

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