Trans Gaelic footballer Giulia Valentino: ‘I’d like to leave a legacy of inclusion’

It was the game that triggered a backlash and compelled Ireland’s Gaelic sports authorities to review whether transgender women can compete in female teams.

Ireland’s first openly LGBTQ+ club, Na Gaeil Aeracha, was playing Na Fianna’s ladies E team in a minor championship at the end of July.

The referee paused play and told the captains there was “a problem” with Na Gaeil Aeracha’s number 21. “The player is a man.”

Play resumed but the incident made headlines and shined a spotlight on the trans player, Giulia Valentino. Commentators on social media posted a photograph from an earlier game showing Valentino, arms outstretched, closing in on a younger, more slightly built opponent.

Denunciations flooded Twitter and other platforms calling Valentino a safety hazard, among other things. Others said Na Gaeil Aeracha had an unfair advantage and credited Valentino with crucial scores in the LGBTQ+ club’s tournament victory.

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) responded by promising to develop a policy on trans players. With online commentators from the UK and US swelling the issue into a culture war skirmish, Na Gaeil Aeracha and Valentino hunkered down and froze their social media accounts.

Five weeks later, speaking to the Guardian in a first media interview since the controversy, Valentino sought to set the record straight about the tournament final and make the case for including trans people in sports.

“There was a lot of misinformation. They said I had scored two goals and nine points. I didn’t score anything. My position is half-back and I’m not such a good player.”

Commentators had suggested the game they played in, called the Dublin Junior J Shield football final, was for teenagers whereas it was for adults, with junior signifying a lower skill level, said Valentino. “A lot of the misinformation was clearly intentional; they wanted to give the public a specific angle. This is the well-known toxic narrative against trans people we know so well.”

An Italian tech worker who moved to Ireland two years ago, Valentino is a newcomer to Gaelic sports and by her own account not especially skilled, yet she may leave a lasting mark if the GAA and LGFA allow trans players to compete – she has been consulted by the policy review. “I will never be remembered for my sporting results but I’d like to be remembered for leaving a legacy of inclusion for other trans players.”

For opponents of such inclusion, the photograph of Valentino closing in on an opponent appeared to tell its own story: a bigger, stronger athlete with an unfair physical advantage from having undergone male puberty.

The Guardian agreed not to publish this or any photograph that identified Valentino, who has been harassed. “Safety is a privilege that doesn’t belong to trans people,” she said.

Valentino, who is in her 30s and of medium height and slim build, said five years of hormone therapy had eroded any physical advantage and made testosterone levels compliant with Olympic committee regulations.

“I’m not capable of doing things that I could before. There is no way to consider me an outstanding performer or unfair competitor or a safety risk. If anything, my injuries show it’s the other way round.” Valentino quit rugby after dislocating a shoulder.

She urged sporting organisations to commission medical research and devise objective criteria. “Test me against a cis-gendered counterpart similar to me in shape, size and fitness level to see if I have any advantage. In groups of cis-gendered athletes there are many differences – small, big, fast, slow, tall – I want to identify and quantify those gaps. See if what I bring to the field is already included in that range. If it is then I belong there.”

Research, including a study by Joanna Harper, a trans woman at Loughborough University, has found that trans women may retain strength during the first three years of hormone therapy.

Valentino said that since starting to play Gaelic football in February she had heard no objections from other players in the ladies’ league. “Cisgender women players are our main supporters. I never had an issue on the pitch.”

Unlike rugby league, swimming and other global sports, where a ban on trans players by one organisation can influence counterparts in other countries to follow suit, Gaelic sports authorities have full autonomy, said Valentino. “The GAA has a huge opportunity to make history because they don’t have to report to anyone.”

Once a conservative bastion rooted in Catholic, rural Ireland, the GAA – following Irish society’s secular liberalisation – has embraced ethnic and religious diversity and welcomed LGBTQ+ players.

“Other teams have been very supportive, inviting us for matches, giving us locations to train, marching with us at Pride events,” said Martin Murray, who earlier this year founded Aeracha Uladh, the first LGBTQ+ inclusive club in Northern Ireland, and is now helping to set up other clubs around the island.

However, there is no consensus – not even within LGBTQ+ circles – about including trans players, said Murray. “It will be more difficult.”

Murray, who is gender fluid, favours inclusion and the establishment of rules based on fairness and scientific data. “I think we’re going the right way at the moment. It could be a decade before they have the right measures in place. I have sympathy for the national sporting bodies. It’s not easy to put these measures in place.”

In a brief statement the GAA said: “We are working with our sister organisations to review this whole area and, until such a time that this process is complete, we won’t be putting any spokesperson forward.”

Transgender issues have continued making headlines in Ireland. This week Enoch Burke, an evangelical Christian school teacher who refused to call a pupil by their preferred pronoun “they”, was jailed for contempt of court after ignoring an order to not attend the school.