Charlie Martin On Opening The Racing World To The Trans Experience

Illustration for article titled Charlie Martin On Opening The Racing World To The Trans Experience
Photo: Frozenspeed

Behind the wheel of a Praga R1 in the Britcar Championship, racer and transgender activist Charlie Martin is lining up for what she feels will be her best shot at proving herself ready for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When we got a chance to sit down to chat with her in February, Martin sounded more than ready to get behind the wheel after a long stint away due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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We’ve written about Martin before on Jalopnik, but her insights continue to be great when it comes to understanding the way different folks relate to cars and the racing experience. And, with Transgender Visibility Day taking place this past week, it feels extra important to bring Martin’s viewpoint to the fore, where we can explore all the different ways a person can be a racer.

Elizabeth Blackstock: How has esports been? That’s been all many people can do now in their racing.

Charlie Martin: I feel very lucky that I managed to get a pretty good season going last year with esports and in the real world. We did like seven or eight races, including the Nurburgring 24 Hours, which was pretty epic.

I grew up playing computer games on consoles. Last year was my first time really getting esports since that. It was fun. It was quite intense at times. Like when I did the Formula E Race at Home Challenge, I did over 200 hours of practice and gameplay for those six races because the people I was racing against… we call them aliens in esports, right? That means someone who’s just so quick you can’t get your head around it. Racing against people at that level was a bit of an eye opener. I knew people were going to be really fast, but I didn’t quite expect that level of competition. It was good fun, but it was pretty intense because your first esports experience is on television. You feel a lot of pressure. They’re all pro sim racers, and you’re the real world racer.

EB: There’s extra pressure on you.

CM: Yeah! You feel like you need to get up and deliver. You’ve got to learn everything about Discord and how it works. I got more nervous than I do in a real race. It was like sweaty palms and that kind of thing. But it was good fun, and I think since then I’ve done more GT racing on Asseto Corse Competitzione, and that’s more in line with the kind of racing I do in the real world. It’s a bit more relatable. I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ve managed to build a really awesome sim. I’ve been working with some manufacturers there, which has been fun. I feel I’ve settled a bit into my rhythm now which is a good thing.

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EB: That is good. I’m assuming that’s probably most of what you’ve doing during the pandemic while you’ve been at home.

CM: Yeah, yeah, that and trying to do a lot of exercise and be out in nature. A lot of running, cycling. I just put a punching bag in my garage because I’m going to take up kickboxing this year. Just for the training—I don’t really want to get in a ring and fight. Just good for fitness, especially since racing with Praga this year, it’s going to be a bit more physical than what I was driving last year. It’s a good opportunity to knuckle down this time of year. Physical training is so important for mental wellbeing as well, it’s just like a win-win.

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That, and I have esports racing. I race with a community of people called Turn One, and it’s really nice, but they’re racing almost every night, and they’re like, “Do you want to do this eight-hour race?” “Do you want to do this six-hour race?” “Do you want to be in this 24-hour race?” Like, man, that’s a lot of esports! So I’ve dipped in and dipped out to do the things I want to do.

EB: Tell me a little bit about your Britcar season coming up. How do you feel about that, how do you think it’s going to go?

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CM: At the moment, we’re all set to go testing at Anglesey in March. We have a media and test day. I’m really looking forward to going back to Anglesey. It’s a beautiful place, a fantastic little circuit, and I know it quite well. I’ve raced it twice, and I drove a Praga there last year in something like October. I can’t wait to get in the car and get testing. It’s been a long time since we announced it last year. It’s a long time to want to get in the car to get training and testing. I think at the moment—all over Europe, it’s pretty much that most countries are in lockdown. Apart from one of my teammates from last year. He’s Italian and he sent me a photo of a meal of a restaurant yesterday.

EB: Ugh, I’m jealous!

CM: Just rub salt into the wound! I think everybody’s hoping we’ll know about the middle of the month what’s going to happen in terms of next steps. I guess I’m really just hoping we can get racing as planned and be out at Silverstone for the first race at the end of March.

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EB: I hope it all works out. It’s gotta be weird to be on that precipice, not knowing if you’re actually going to be physically racing.

CM: I’m a massive optimist, so in the moment, I’m just focused on doing what I can do. I’m just going to go at it like everything is going to happen to plan, and if it doesn’t, I’ll be ready at the beginning of the season, and I’ll just be training and waiting for it to start. I think that’s the way I’m tackling it. I’m working out like five days, six days a week, which is really helping. I think that was one of the challenges last year, that during the off-season you take your foot off the throttle a little bit and think, right, okay, in three months’ time, I need to be here, and you build up to that. And last year, we just didn’t know how long that period was going to be. When you’ve never faced that kind of experience in your life, it’s very difficult to maintain that level of focus and physical preparation for an indefinite period of time. Whereas now, we’ve got all of 12 months behind us in terms of knowing what it can be like, and it’s a bit like, if we start in March, that’s great. If we start in April, okay. It’s going to be one of those two.

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EB: You do a lot of activism—I’ve been wondering how that’s been going since we can’t leave the house. How do you manage that aspect of your career?

CM: It’s not been straightforward because a lot of the activism I do is going into companies and doing talks. Whilst I’ve done a certain amount of virtual events, it’s been a drop in the ocean compared to the things we’d been doing for Pride Month. Of course, this month it’s LGBTQ+ history month, and I’ve had quite a bit of interest from companies to do talks and workshops, which is nice, to see that kind of work coming back. Just being able to connect to people in the community and feel you’re doing something that’s important for me, both in my working life and in what I feel driven to do: to use my platform to try to create positive change in society. It’s been frustrating having your hands tied all the time. You know, like Pride Month last year was just so weird. Normally, I’m always backwards and forwards to London going to events, meeting with my friends. It’s just a great time connecting with other people in the community. It’s not been easy, but I just remind myself that everybody’s doing the same thing whenever I feel shitty about what’s happening. Everybody around the world is doing the same thing. It’s a collective problem we’ve all got to navigate our way through.

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EB: It is unfortunately everyone.

CM: Apart from my friend having a meal in Italy.

EB: Aside from him—he’s the only one! So, I’ve been working with A Girls Guide to Cars recently. We highlight a lot of women’s stories, those of unconventional characters—people who don’t normally pop into your head when you think “cars.” Now that it’s LGTBQ+ history month, I’ve been trying to highlight that aspect of identity, how that ties into people’s lives and their racing careers and their industry careers. How do you feel that your identity and racing play into each other?

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CM: I feel lucky that, since coming out three years ago, that I’ve managed to integrate my personal life, my identity, who I am as a transgender woman, into my career in a very natural way. I don’t feel like I’ve ever really had to do anything that’s felt contrived or unnatural in talking about who I am or my life experience. I think that, to some extent, that’s been a natural evolution, gradually talking about your story more and more. The more we do that, the more comfortable we feel doing that in an automotive or motorsport space. Three years ago, my initial feeling was that people don’t want to hear this in motorsport. They’ll be like, “Why are you telling me this? Why is it relevant to me? We’re here to race. We’re here to talk about cars.”

Now, a lot has changed in terms of the overall landscape. With Formula One launching We Race As One and Lewis Hamilton being so vocal and such a big supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, motorsport, whether it wanted to or not, has been forced into a situation where it looked pretty exposed in the context of corporate social responsibility and having not really done anything to embrace that wider conversation of inclusion and equality that’s so prevalent in large organizations and day-to-day life. I feel now it’s great because things I’ve been talking about for three years that required an element of bravery and self-belief to speak up about publicly now just feel like things that are just becoming part of the fabric of motorsport. Albeit it’s still very end-days.

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I think that’s a good thing. Certainly in terms of this season, Praga have been very supportive of my journey and what I’m Trying to achieve, and it’s fantastic to be working with a manufacturer who values that. As much as you can get in the car and drive it fast, you’re doing something that’s very relevant and important to the sport. It’s great to feel that you’re in a team where everybody’s pulling in the same direction.

EB: You’ve mentioned that there’s been a push to include that activism, that more social aspect, in the racing world. Even with something like Formula E or Extreme E bringing in climate change to bring up difficult conversations. How does that play into what you do? How has it evolved since you’ve started sharing your story? Back then, it was something people hadn’t heard before, but now we’re primed to have some of these more in-depth conversations.

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CM: Definitely. I think a good example of how things have developed is to think of, say, June 2019, Racing Pride was launched, which is an organization focused on increasing diversity and inclusion, specifically LGBTQ+ inclusion in motorsport. The year before was when I went out at Silverstone and got everyone to put Pride stickers on their cars. I think in some ways, I think that helped pave the way for those conversations and those ideas and inspirations that led to Racing Pride being formed. A big part of it is visibility. I think it’s just down to having people who work in motorsport—whether they’re drivers, engineers, media people, whatever the role—to see members of the LGBTQ+ community working in those roles. Not to say they weren’t visible before, but since you have things like Racing Pride, you have a platform where people can come together and work together. You can go on the Racing Pride webpage and see the people who belong to Racing Pride. You’ve got people like Matt Bishop, who’s now head of comms at Aston Martin F1 and so on. I suppose it’s just having more visibility. It’s Easier to find people. That awareness is a lot further forward than where we were three years ago. That, in turn, then paves the way for other people to follow in their footsteps. I think that’s the thing that was always hard in motorsports, not having those role models for people to say, “If I come out, what impact can it have on me as a driver, an engineer, a designer?” Now you can see people who are in those roles who are successful and supported in their careers. That’s helping impact the global landscape. There’s a long way to go, this is just the beginning.

And as you said, Formula E and Extreme E help by having a wider sense of topics to look at like climate change. Using motorsport as a vehicle to have those conversations.

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EB: I’ve been working with a US-based LGBTQ+ motorsport organization, and we’ve talked about the way they related to cars, which was inherently different than a cis white guy. There was a different way of relating to the car community. How do you relate yourself and your experiences to when you go out racing? What elements of you do you bring to the table?

CM: I bring all of me to the table. I don’t try to leave anything behind. I guess that, for me, is what it means to be authentic and to live as your true self. The opposite of that was what I was doing when I was censoring who I am and having to compartmentalize certain aspects of my behavior. Whereas now, I’d say that, like anyone, there’s a lot of sides of me. When I’m driving or when I’m working with an engineer, I’m very serious and focused on what I’m doing. When I’m joking around with mechanics and having a laugh with epeople, these are different ways of being. People have said to me before, “When you put your helmet on, does it matter?” Well, no, of course it doesn’t matter what gender you are; I’m purely focused on driving the car. But it comes down to not only being able to be yourself and to let your guard down a bit, it’s knowing that people around you aren’t judging you or joking about you.

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I think, for me, I used to worry as I came into transition that I had to conform to a certain level of femininity to be somebody that was coming from a position of being gendered male to wanting to be accepted as a woman. I thought there had to be enough of a gap to create that distinction. One thing I’ve found is that, over time, I went to one extreme, whereas now I feel somewhere in the middle. Like, boxing in my garage. I don’t necessarily think, “that’s a feminine or masculine thing to do.” I just think, “it’s really good fitness training.” Whereas when I was in the early days of transition, I probably wouldn’t do boxing, or I wouldn’t put it on social media because everyone will think I’m too manly. Now I just think, I’m Charlie, I’m a trans woman, and I do what I do. Take it or leave. That, to me, is what it’s all about—not comforting to a gender stereotype, just being you.

EB: Do you think that makes you a better racer? Because I can imagine once you clear the excess from your mind, you can put every ounce of you into your racing.

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CM: I think so, yeah. I think it definitely does. The more clarity of thought you have, the more focused you can be, the less distracted you are. God knows, we have enough distractions around us. It’s like, I’m putting a talk together about mental wellbeing, and it’s one of the things—there was this bit of research done by some people at Harvard, and they said 47 percent of time, people they surveyed said they weren’t fully aware of what they were doing. I do a lot of meditation and all kinds of things to improve my ability to focus in a car. Especially when you’re driving in endurance racing, doing stints for nearly two hours at a time or longer, any little moment when your mind wanders is when you make a mistake and you crash. The more you feel naturally like you are yourself and you aren’t worrying about other pressures and things that fight for our attention in our subconscious, then the better you can be as an athlete.

EB: While you were transitioning, what was your support network like? Did you have people you could rely on to be a constant?

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CM: Very much so. I feel lucky that I had a wonderful support network. I worked at the time with my brothers in the family business. It was great to have that kind of stability from them, and seeing each other that regularly made it easier to get through the initial peculiarities of transition. It got rid of the weirdness, having that day-to-day, of growing up as brothers. We just had to get on with the job we were doing. And I had a really good group of friends around where I live. We’d go to the pub a lot.

It took me a long time, bizarrely, to meet anyone from the trans community, in part because I live in a very rural part of the UK and in part because I had such a good support network of friends that I didn’t feel I necessarily had to go out and find people from my own community. But I know when I did, it was a massive moment for me. It was like, I can’t believe I haven’t made an effort. There is that extra element where, like, if you’ve not been through transition, you can read up about it and empathize as much as you want, but when you’ve got people together who’ve all lived that shared experience, you just have little jokes and things. It’s nice.

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EB: Is that community feeling something you try to bring in with Stonewall and Racing Pride?

CM: In a motorsport perspective, it can be difficult because I am so much in the minority that, when I go racing, I don’t know any other out people from the community. Unless I’m at Silverstone doing an event with Racing Pride or that kind of thing. I suppose that whenever I’m putting things on Instagram for a race or whatever I’m doing, I try to be myself and not filter what I’m saying. If it’s the middle of Pride Month, and I’m walking through the paddock with my phone saying, “Oh my God, it’s Pride Month, this is the most amazing thing for the LGBTQ+ community,” not giving a damn about who’s next to me, it’s showing that, if I can be here, so can you. I don’t have a big rainbow on my car or anything, but my helmet has the rainbow colors, things like that. I suppose I just try to be open about the way I communicate in that space. So many of my followers are in the community that people can see, physically, this is an inclusive space. Even if you don’t see many other signals and signs that say, “motorsport is inclusive,” I can be there and say that it is. That was my finding, was that people were more accepting than I thought they would be. I feared in my mind that, if I couldn’t see it, that support wasn’t there. But it is there. You just have to create the connections.

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EB: I imagine you’ve seen the way motorsport has evolved since you’ve been in it. Where do you think the trajectory of motorsport is going, especially with this more recent push toward diversity and equality?

CM: I think it’s going in a good direction. I think motorsport does have to evolve. It does have to become more inclusive and more of a diverse space because, ultimately, if it doesn’t, it’s not going to be relevant to future generations. That’s the danger. When you look at kids growing up now, they’re so much more open about their gender identity and their sexuality. If you say, look into motorsport when all other sports are trying to do what they can to be inclusive and motorsport says no, we’re not moving forward, that’s not good. Motorsport has its own problems in terms of pressures from climate change and other things, even though the reality is that motorsport is a drop in the ocean in terms of the emissions that go into the atmosphere, but nonetheless, it’s the image that people perceive. I think that’s the thing, it’s perception. That’s what motorsport is now starting to do. It’s an exciting time. It’s something I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight, but the things I’m involved in, the people I’m talking to, some work I’m doing with motorsport’s governing body in the UK, things are happening, and they’re happening at the right level with the right people. People who can make changes from the top down. IT’s one thing when you’ve got one person. I can only make so much impact. Look at Lewis Hamilton and the impact he’s created. I’d argue that, off the back of what he’s doing, we have We Race as One in Formula One. Which at the moment, we still need to wait and see what it’s going to be beyond a hashtag and some rainbows on cars, but it’s a start. It’s about the more people that join that, the more we’ll see the momentum grow.

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EB: It’s promising. Even with Extreme E, women have to be part of the team. It’s like, I can’t believe people didn’t think of that before.

CM: Exactly! And we’ve got W Series on the F1 calendar as well. W Series in itself, I was quick to judge it when it came out, but you can’t deny the impact it’s created. Especially in a lot of young girls, they can think being a racing driver is totally legit. That’s a really awesome thing to see. That’s it—not just looking at LGBTQ+ issues, but at all issues of diversity and equality. Motorsport, by its nature, isn’t a very equal sport because of the funds and the amount of money required to start out in it, but ultimately, it’s about doing what you can within that framework. A lot of that is starting to happen.

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EB: You have a goal to race at Le Mans for the 24 Hours. What other big goals do you have—and how close do you think you are to going to Le Mans?

CM: I don’t know! Especially at the moment, it’s so hard to say. I want to go on holiday, but I don’t even know if that’s going to be possible. I’m still very focused on achieving that goal. I think this year is a good step in that direction. To be back in a car like the Praga, that’s got so much performance and fundamentally so much in common with a modern prototype, with a pace that’s on par with GT3, I’m really excited about driving it. I’d say it’s moving my career a step closer after doing my first 24-hour race last year and finishing one step away from the podium. This year, it’s about going out there and showing what I can do in the car. I’ve got a really good teammate—who just texted me just now—so I think between the two of us, we’ve got our sights on trying to win the championship. IF we can do that, it’s going to be a good step toward Le Mans. PRaga have hinted as a manufacturer that they want to go back to Le Mans. Who knows what’s going to happen there, but it’s fantastic to be working with them. I feel like, at the moment, I’m doing absolutely everything I can to be progressing my career to that ambition. Whether it’ll be next year, I don’t know. It’s a bit early in the year to start saying. But certainly ask me in six months, and hopefully I’ll have a more positive answer.

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EB: Since it is LGBTQ+ history month, how do you want to be remembered as contributing to motorsport history?

CM: I suppose I want to be remembered as somebody who made LGBTQ+ history at Le Mans, first and foremost. But also somebody who did something that was quite brave and took the opportunity they had to make things easier for people following in their footsteps. Because that’s ultimately a big part of what drives me to do what I do. When I was growing up, there was never anyone like me—not in motorsport, not in any careers, not in anything. I posted a video recently from Dana International that she sent me a couple years ago. She was the first person, actually, back in 1998 when she won Eurovision Song Contest, that was trans in mainstream culture. She was so confident, stunning, and absolutely out there being amazing in front of everybody and just blowing everyone away and saying, actually, being trans is awesome! Look at her, she’s incredible! That was such a big moment for me in my life. I remember cutting her photo out of articles in the newspaper and things. The impact she had on me—I was spellbound. It was really something. But that was probably the only time I had one of those moments when I was young. Growing up in that kind of environment, it’s incredibly limiting being unable to see anyone like you in anything you aspire to do. It sent out a very strong message. That’s why I want to change that in motorsport. I want to be that person to the kid, that they can look to, so that they can know what they want to be when they’re ten years old. Not like me, where I waited until I was 30 to start transitioning.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

Trans experience? I mean good on Charlie for the accomplishment and all. And good interview. But the headline makes this sound like a ride at universal studios.