'It's tiring, living in denial': Racing driver Charlie Martin tells her coming out story

LGBTQ+ athletes on the rewarding aspects of being out (1:36)

Out athletes from a variety of sports share their stories on the most unexpected benefits of coming out. (1:36)

Endurance racing driver Charlie Martin [she/her], 40, came out to the public as transgender in 2018, and says she started her transition in 2012. Martin competed in the Michelin Le Mans Cup in 2019, and was the first out trans person to race in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring event, in 2020. Martin is a Stonewall, Racing Pride, and Athlete Ally ambassador.

What was the 'coming out to myself' process like for you?

I had been having therapy for quite a while, which had really helped me get to a point of self-acceptance. Once I'd reached that point, and I knew there was no other way forward other than transition, I gradually came out to my closest friends and family and that was a really scary thing to do. But every time I came out to someone it got easier. The first few people, certainly, it was really quite traumatic for me. I remember turning it into quite a big thing -- I was like, 'I want to tell you about this thing and it's been really hard my whole life, and I've really struggled and it's really difficult,' and so on and so on. After the fifth or sixth person it got so much easier. I guess that's the result of years and years of internalising my own feelings, to the point that I was so convinced that being trans was this really negative thing that people wouldn't accept, and actually the reality was quite different, thankfully, and people were very accepting.

Did you have a specific reason for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping your private life private?

There were a couple of reasons. One part of it was [that] I didn't like the idea of having a secret that at some point someone could find out and suddenly it would be in a [news]paper. At that point I didn't really have any kind of profile so it's not like it would have been front page news, [but] I didn't like the fact it could get out there without me having any control over how the story was told. But a much more fundamental reason was that I felt it could do a lot of good. I felt that motorsport, especially such a male-dominated sport that doesn't really have much visible diversity, is really lacking stories that could help inspire and educate other people. So I almost felt like an obligation to try and do some good by coming out and I still thoroughly believe in that today, that's the reason. Some people say, 'Doesn't it annoy you when you see you are 'trans racing driver Charlie Martin'?' It doesn't really, because the power of visibility at this point in time is more important than me going, 'Yeah it would be nice not be pre-fixed as trans'.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

How has your sport changed with regard to the LGBTQ+ community during your career?

The experience I've had in motorsport has been a lot like life in general, in that most people have been kind and accepting. There has been some negativity, some stupid comments, you're always going to have that, but in general people are pretty accepting. I think what's changing is the amount of visibility, because gradually more and more people are coming out and being visible if they feel they are happy to. With things like Racing Pride and Motorsport UK setting up an EDI [Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion] committee, the overall landscape is changing gradually from the inside out, which is important because it's one thing having rainbow stickers and hashtags but if there's nothing behind that [then] it doesn't achieve a huge amount. It's about doing the work internally to make sure that as an organisation everything is as good as it can be, and then looking outwardly as well. But you can't change things overnight and it's early days.

What is the most rewarding, and perhaps unexpected, part of being out?

Just to feel free. To be yourself everyday, and not feel like you're carrying something really heavy on your own and not being able to talk about it. When you're no longer living in denial it's an amazing feeling, it's incredibly liberating. It's tiring, living in denial your whole life. You don't realise when you've been doing it for so long that it feels as natural as breathing, but you are ultimately using physical energy to suppress a major part of your personality, who you are as a human being. One of the surprising things I found was just the clarity of thought and the ability to apply myself and focus in ways that I'd never really truly been able to do, because there had always been stuff going on in the background which was no longer there. I found that a massive surprise, and I was able to take big strides forward in all kinds of areas: work, career, how I drive a car.

What would your advice be to folks who are struggling with their identity?

If there's not someone in your life you feel able to share your thoughts with, then therapy is a good thing to look at -- having someone impartial that can help you find answers to the questions you ask yourself. Not everybody transitions -- it's sometimes about choosing to live as the identity they feel comfortable as. Whatever you do along that journey, it can feel daunting, and it can feel like you have to make some major changes in your life. Taking some small steps initially, whatever they might be in terms of changing your name, pronouns, the way you dress, the way you style your hair... doing those little things is the best way to get started, and it's a good way to see what feels comfortable for you without putting yourself under pressure.

When debating coming out in your mind, what were your worst - and best - case scenarios? And did either come to pass?

Best scenario was everybody in my life being accepting and not really changing any of the relationships that I had. Which is kind of what happened, if I'm honest. I only really lost a couple of people as a result of my transition, unfortunately that's not the case for everybody. I know trans people who have been thrown out of their family home by their parents and all kinds of terrible things, so I feel very lucky that I've had so much support from my friends and family.

Worst scenario... My friends not really wanting to hang out with me anymore and being on my own, being lonely and not being able to meet anybody romantically for whatever reason. Loneliness was probably my greatest fear. I did end up spending quite a lot of time on my own in my working life with my job. I am a sociable person and I like being around people, but I'm also comfortable in my own company. I guess that comes down to being comfortable in your own skin.

Did you ever feel any pressure, either internally or from speculating fans, to be a role model or an ambassador for the queer community? And is that something you embrace now?

I didn't feel pressure specifically from other people, just more pressure that I put on myself in that I never set out to be a role model within the trans community. It's something that happened organically and I do feel comfortable with that. But ultimately that does come with a bit of internalised pressure, and perhaps external pressure as well, because when I go to race weekends, there's me wanting to do well as Charlie Martin but then there's also the fact I feel like I'm representing my community to an extent and that can add another level of pressure to anything that I do. So I try and not to think about it too much. Sometimes it can be tricky if you're trying to talk on behalf of the whole trans community, because everyone has different lived experiences and I never want to try and sound like I'm putting words in anyone else's mouth.