Trans racing driver Charlie Martin wants to make LGBT+ history at Le Mans

Monday, 20 April 2020 16:41 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Heated debates about trans women in competitive sports only make Martin more determined to compete in the famed 24-hour race in 2021

LONDON, April 17 (Openly) - 

Competing in the Le Mans sportscar race is a dream for many drivers.

But for Charlie Martin, aiming to become the first transgender racing driver to compete in the famous 24-hour endurance race, is a chance to make history.

The race, named after the French city that has hosted the event since 1923, was postponed from June until September due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Drivers must raise up to £1 million ($1.25 million) to compete at Le Mans, which last year was won by a car shared by Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso and watched by a crowd of more than 250,000.

Still, 38-year-old Martin is hoping financial backers from luxury watch brands to electronic sports companies will back her to qualify for the gruelling sportscar event.

"I'd love to do it next year," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from her home in the English Midlands county of Leicestershire where she is under lockdown with her cat, Lucky.

Supporting herself at present through graphic design and online sports promotional work as she waits for the motorsports world to restart, Martin has her eyes firmly on Le Mans 2021.

"It's absolutely the goal that I'm aiming towards," she said.

For now, she is competing – but virtually.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted motorsports events around the world and Martin is competing in Formula E's 'Race at Home Challenge' launched last week by the all-electric series. 

The competition involves regular race drivers and gamers going head-to-head on simulators to raise funds for UNICEF.

Former RAF pilot Roberta Cowell became Britain's first trans racing driver when she took to the track in the 1950s, a decade after making history as the country's first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

Decades later, Martin is one of only a handful of trans drivers in what remains a very male, heterosexual sport.

"I do stand out," she said, laughing as the neighbours' dogs barked in the background.

Martin came close to attaining her goal of competing in Le Mans last year.

She was due to compete in the race made famous by drivers such as British racing legend Sir Stirling Moss, who died this month, but had to withdraw at the last minute when her financial backers pulled out.

A mixture of Brexit and political uncertainty took their toll, Martin added.

"I was crushed," she said, the emotion audible in her voice. "I really felt that I failed and let a lot of people down. I had my accommodation, my travel – everything booked.

"To be that close to achieving my goal and making LGBT history, to have that taken away at the last moment – when you could almost reach out and touch it – felt like the most cruel thing you could imagine."

Martin grew up in a small town and initially wanted to be a fighter pilot. "Top Gun was my favourite film," she laughs.

But – perhaps fortunately for motor racing – her maths and physics grades meant she was unlikely to make the cut.

Her childhood friend Hamish ignited a new passion when he took her motor racing at the age of nine.

"I went from thinking this was something other people did – but there was my friend doing it! – and thought, 'Why can't I?'"

But alongside her burgeoning interest in motorsports, from an early age Martin was also grappling with whom she was as a person.

Growing up as a boy, she realised at the age of six that she was a girl – helped by reading about transgender Playboy model and James Bond actress Caroline Cossey. 

"It just blew my mind," Martin said. "Prior to that point I wondered whether I was the only person in the world who feels like this.

"It was such a profound moment."

Aged 11, she confided in her mother, who was supportive, but it would be years until Martin felt confident enough to act on her feelings.

She started transitioning from male to female at the relatively late age of 30. "My entire life up to that point had been lived with all my feelings (boxed up) inside me," Martin said.

This is why she feels so passionately about ensuring younger people feeling confused about their gender identity are able to access help and support.

Now a patron of Mermaids, a British charity that aids young trans people, and a sports champion of LGBT+ rights group Stonewall, Martin says she cannot help but see the difference proper support would have made to her own life.

"There was so much wasted potential when I was younger that got channelled in some quite self-destructive ways of dealing with how I felt – drinking and partying – things I did to try and cope with the whole torment happening inside me," Martin said.

Heated debates from Australia to the United States about trans people – and trans women in particular – taking part in competitive sports only make Martin more determined to compete in Le Mans.

"We need to make sport as fair as possible," Martin said.

"But people sometimes say: 'Why are you gay and a racing driver? Why trans? Why does it have to be a thing?

"But if kids can't see themselves represented then that's really limiting in terms of what they could achieve in their lifetimes."

Related stories: 

World Rugby to review transgender policy

Western U.S. state poised to restrict trans athletes in competition

Idaho becomes first U.S. state to ban trans athletes 

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(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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