It wasn’t until the relatively late age of 23 that Charlie Martin – now 40 – decided to pursue a career as a racing car driver. Just out of university and without the traditional financial backing needed to pursue racing, she saved up £1,500 from a summer job and borrowed £400 from her mum to buy a run-down Peugeot 205. It was this car (with quite a few improvements) that she would use to take part in her first professional race in 2006.
Martin knew she was trans from an early age, but didn't transition until the relatively late age of 30. The sports star, who has competed in endurance races across Europe, had felt torn over whether she was “trans” enough, not to mention existing within an industry that had – and still has – almost zero LGBTQ representation.
It wasn’t until 2011, well into Martin’s career, when she realised something had to change. After experiencing a dark period of depression and suicidal thoughts, she decided to transition. Having lost her dad when she was 11, and her mother when she was 23, both from cancer, Martin had already faced considerable challenges in her life. Coming out as trans, however, in an industry that was barely welcoming to women would be another huge hurdle in the athlete’s life. Martin, unsure of what reception she would receive as a woman, quit the sport for a while but later returned to the industry. In 2018, she came out as trans publicly and has continued to campaign for trans rights in sports.
Today, Martin lives in Leicestershire, in the Midlands, spending most of her time training for races and going to the gym. She campaigns for LGBTQ rights within sports and hopes to be the first transgender driver to enter Le Mans in the endurance race. She has competed in various endurances races, including placing third place at the Bugatti Circuit in 2017 and being the first transgender person to compete in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring race in 2020.
VICE World News spoke to Martin about being an elite trans athlete, the transphobic legislation passing through the UK and the US, and trans visibility at the Olympics this year.
VICE World News: Hi Charlie. What was early life like for you?
Charlie Martin: I wanted to be a fighter pilot when I was a kid, pretty much entirely down to my favourite film Top Gun. When I was that age, I was obsessed with planes and flying. I think I became aware of being trans probably around six or seven years old. I remember reading an article about a trans woman who was a model and a Bond girl back in the 80s [Caroline Cossey], who was probably one of the most high-profile trans people at that time. And, I remember being like, ‘Whoa, OK, right. This is how I feel. This is the thing. It's not just me.’
I was quite a ‘typical’ little boy in many respects, in terms of the things that I liked to do – climbing trees, playing soldiers, building model aeroplanes – which I found all the more confusing because I think back in the 80s, the conventional wisdom was, if you're a boy that feels like they're a girl, you should want to wear pink all the time and not get dirty etc. etc. So I didn't really feel...I didn't feel like there was a box that I fitted into which perhaps, in many respects, led me to be in a position where I waited so long to transition.
What was your experience transitioning while working in the motorsports industry?
Motorsport is a funny one because although it is a very exclusive sport by its very nature – you can't go racing without a certain amount of money, whatever level you're at – it is also quite a welcoming place. It has a really amazing feeling of community.
[But] walking into the paddock [for the first time after transitioning] was really, really terrifying. It was a really uncomfortable experience. Thankfully, about seven or eight of my closest friends that I used to race with knew I was coming that day and knew what was going on. They basically came over and gave me a big hug.
[I realised] I would just have to do a lot of heavy lifting and win people over. Which is basically what the first year was – gradually explaining what was going on. The level of awareness was just low. It was just a case of educating people. And then, actually, people were really nice. People were generally like, ‘Oh God, I never realised that. Wow, OK. Gosh, that's really brave.’
Have there been moments when you’ve felt like racing wasn’t a space for a trans person?
[When I came out as trans] It was absolutely a leap of faith because I just didn't know which way it was going to go. I don't come from a rich family, so I've always had to work to get the [sponsorship] backing.
I've certainly had experiences whereby I've been denied opportunities. I'm pretty sure that that was transphobic. There are two that really stick in my mind that were quite high-level stuff, and they're not all that long ago. It's difficult to be specific because I could probably put myself in a lot of hot water.
I mean, you get everything from low-level stuff, or people just misgendering you or people asking you really direct questions about, like, what surgery you've had, or you're planning on having.
There have been lots of discussions around trans athletes this year, particularly after US states like Idaho and Florida banned trans girls from competing in college and school sports. How does it feel to know young trans women are being subjected to this today?
I just find it absolutely shocking that this is actually happening in a relatively liberal Western society. It's just the worst discrimination – adults basically dictating small children that they can't play sport. It’s wrong on so many levels.
You think back to being in school, when someone has a party and you're not invited, because I don't know, there's something wrong with you. Well, you’re basically doing that on a statewide level. It's like legitimising the fact that these kids have got something wrong with them, which couldn't be further from the truth.
How do you reflect on the Olympic coverage of trans athletes like New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard and Canadian footballer Quinn?
I've seen some balanced reporting in the media. But equally, I think there needs to be a better representation of the facts sometimes. I've done quite a bit of looking into studies and research [on testosterone] because I think that's a really critical element that, unfortunately, very rarely gets to the light of day in the press.
[The situation] is really complicated. It's not an easy thing to come up with a one size fits all solution because a lot of sports, football, surfing for example, it's not just about physical strength. It’s about the ability to read the game, spatial awareness, vision, your balance, your agility, your control on the ball, you're surfing, your abilities to spot a wave and get to the right place, all these other things. Yes, physical strength is important, but there are so many other elements that actually come into that, that define whether you are at the top of your game.
In December, the High Court in London banned puberty blockers, a decision that was recently overturned. Today, there is a lot of transphobia in mainstream politics. How do you reflect on the current attitude to trans people in the UK, where you live?
I think 2015 really felt like a year where suddenly the trans community was making some big strides forwards and everything was positive. But obviously, since then, there has been this whole backlash.
It's hard because I live in the countryside, and I guess my transition was quite a long time ago for me now. So I have this strange situation whereby in my day-to-day life, I blend in and I don't ever worry that I'm going to be the victim of a hate crime, or someone's going to confront me in a toilet or anything like that. In the day-to-day sense, I feel like it's difficult sometimes for me to quantify the lived experience of a lot of transgender people in the UK. I'm no longer trying to access med medical care, [etc.]. So really, a lot of my exposure is down to what I hear about and read about in the press, which is predominantly all really negative, really toxic, really upsetting, like statistical information or that someone has been murdered.
There is a vocal minority of people who just want to argue and write horrible things on Twitter. Undoubtedly they are people that exist, who do have these views. But what percentage of UK society they actually represent, I feel like is probably quite small and yet they managed to have a huge impact through what they're doing. [But] I feel like most people that I do meet are pretty, pretty progressive and open-minded these days.
What’s next for you career-wise? What are your ambitions?
I've got the final race of the Britcar endurance championship that I've been racing in all season, next month. It's been a really good season. We share the car because it's endurance racing and we've had really good results–lots of podiums, lots of trophies this year. We're third in the championship. We need a bit of luck, but we could statistically still win the championship at Donington Park next month.
Beyond that, my ambition is still absolutely to make LGBTQ history as the first-ever trans driver of 24 hours of Le Mans. [Being trans in the industry] really matters to me. And I really want to do something that makes a difference and to try and help other people and ultimately just be somebody who is out there that's visible, so that all the people that come after me don't have to go through what I had to go through.