“You can’t beat days like this,” Sophie Cook sighs, looking up and down a sun-kissed beach and to the Rampion wind farm on the horizon. It is a particularly life-affirming day – the kind that reminds you why anyone would want to live in Brighton & Hove. We’ve just been talking about her show, Not Today – How I Chose Life. An autobiographical account of an incredible journey, it charts Cook’s childhood, her time in the RAF, becoming the first trans woman in Premiership football and how she very nearly became Britain’s first transgender Member of Parliament.
Selected as the Labour candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham during this year’s election, there were people both inside and outside her party who thought it a foolhardy exercise. Not only was she battling an MP who’d held the seat since its creation in 1997, the area also has a reputation for robust attitudes towards diversity. “I’ve heard first-hand stories from people who had to move out of that area because of abuse. I’ve had a lot of abuse over the years, and even death threats on Twitter. I thought moving into politics it would step up a gear.” The reality was overwhelming love and support from the people she met while canvassing. Placing herself firmly in the public domain has brought a new perspective to her life, while offering a lesson about assumptions. “It’s very difficult to see areas that don’t necessarily look diverse on the outside, but it’s a form of bigotry to think that they are going to be bigoted.”
Although she eventually failed to win the seat, the result saw one of biggest swings in the country. In a more marginal constituency she would have won with ease. A lot of this success was due to increased voter turnout, as well as taking votes from each of the other parties. She maintains her gender identity didn’t come into the decision to stand, but was something which once prevented it. “I’d always wanted to go into politics, ever since I was a teenager in the Air Force and started traveling and seeing political injustice in the world.” After coming out it was obvious, she could either hide or stand up and make the world better. All the speaking work, the campaigning around mental health and hate crime, and increasing the LGBT+ presence in sports seems to have been leading up to Cook’s entry into politics.
Fearlessness is centre stage in her show, which heads to Shoreham’s Ropetackle Centre on Tues 5 Sept. She offers that change is inevitable, everyone must accept it and move forwards. “The concept I came up with is about how being able to be open and honest about your vulnerability actually makes you invincible.” There’s a lot of experience to fall back on. Coming out whilst working as club photographer for AFC Bournemouth thrust her into entirely uncharted territory. And it’s been the same with politics. “It shouldn’t matter, in the way that a person’s sexuality shouldn’t matter. When you come out to someone, it’s just a new piece of information. It doesn’t directly affect their life, why should they have an opinion on it?” Cook is adamant gender identity and sexuality are of no relevance to anyone except close family or friends. Yet many people feel justified in expressing bigotry towards others because of their race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, or disabilities. People express judgement all the time, it’s not acceptable.
As a 12-year-old mod in 1979, she first came to Brighton to chase some rockers. Her group immediately attracted attention from the police. “One of the guys said: ’Let’s nip up a side street and they’ll follow everyone else.’ But no, they followed us, pulled us over and took our shoe laces. Of course, the people I was with had spare shoelaces. I had to use the ones from my parka!” The Who’s seminal Quadrophenia album was always something the youngster would return to. Any moment of pain, stress of change in her life, this epic rock opera, which centres around rebellion, identity, and riotous Bank Holidays on the south coast, would offer solace during the dark times. The emotional connection with the city eventually saw her decide to call it home.
There’s a suggestion this odd little community, with its pebbles, mismatched buildings, and liberal outlook on life, represents a certain frame of mind rather than just a collection of postcodes. “I wouldn’t be the person I am if I lived anywhere else in the country. Brighton gave me the strength to be proud of who I am. All the time I was trying to make a life in other places I really struggled. It was only when I came here that I was set free.” The focus very much on politics, and doing whatever she can to help serve the people of East Worthing and Shoreham. Over 21,000 people put their faith in her to stand up for them. “Just because I didn’t get enough votes to actually be elected, doesn’t mean I don’t owe those people a debt of support. Too often people just walk away. But I am going to keep fighting, until people tell me they don’t want me anymore.”
Sophie Cook’s Not Today – How I Chose Life. Comes to Shoreham’s Ropetackle Centre on Tues 5 Sept.