Dr Sophie Cook on supporting Trans+ Students and Staff at the University of Reading


Dr Sophie Cook is a writer, speaker, actor, broadcaster, photographer and author, as well as being an LGBT+ and mental health campaigner. Sophie transitioned in 2015, and became the Premier League’s first transgender woman to work as a photographer for a football club (AFC Bournemouth). Since transitioning, Sophie has been working to educate people regarding LGBTQIA+ concerns, mental health and diversity, often delivering specialist talks on LGBTQ+ Awareness for Healthcare, Transgender Awareness Training, and Hate Crime Awareness Training. For this inspiring work and support for LGBTQIA+ persons, Sophie was awarded the LGBT Awards’ Outstanding Contribution to LGBT+ Life Award in 2020, and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bournemouth. Sophie also published a book on her life, and her overcoming her fears and doubts, titled ‘Not Today: How I Chose Life’, aimed at helping others struggling with their mental health and identity.

Sophie delivered a talk at the University of Reading’s annual flagship LGBTQIA+ event, the Wolfenden Lecture on Tuesday 27th February 2024. For the Wolfenden Lecture, Sophie shared her life story and experiences of navigating the world and her work in Premier League football as an openly transgender woman, including experiences with mental health and discrimination. Sophie’s talk articulately presented the concerns and experiences of Trans+ and LGBTQIA+ persons in speaking on her journey to self-acceptance and resilience. Sophie’s frank yet warm and positive nature in exploring her experiences offered the audience space to contemplate and relate to her life story. This talk was greatly moving and emotional, with the audience both laughing and crying at various points.

Sophie was invited to deliver our annual Wolfenden Lecture this year, as we admire Sophie’s dedication to assisting organisations to create a psychologically safe and open cultures where everyone is welcome and encouraged to thrive. At the University of Reading, we are continuing our important work on becoming a more inclusive and supportive space for all LGBTQIA+ persons and allies. The Diversity and Inclusion Team, Events Team, LGBTQIA+ Staff Network and Reading Students’ Union are working on several initiatives to meet the same goal. These initiatives include Allyship Training, Active Bystander Training, Trans Awareness Training and Bi-inclusion Training.

We are going to continue our work with Sophie as a consulting critical friend to the University of Reading. We have invited Sophie to provide answers to the questions below, to improve our approach to supporting Trans+ students and staff:

Questions posed to Sophie

  1. Could you speak a little on your experiences (for those who did not attend the Wolfenden Lecture 2024)?

I’ve had the privilege to have experienced many diverse paths in my life. Some of them were joyous, some traumatic, but all of them contributed to the person that I am today. Whether it was growing up in a time when we had no knowledge of Trans identities, struggling with Post Traumatic Stress, self-harm and addiction following traumatic events while in the Armed Forces, or coming out as Trans in Premier League football.

For me, the exciting aspect of this is the way in which these experiences can lead to self-awareness, empathy and an openness towards others. Our pain and trauma has the ability to destroy us, or it can make us.

I have a number of tattoos, all mean something to me, but there is one in particular that encapsulates my beliefs on this matter. It’s a quote from Roman poet and philosopher, Ovid, and in Latin it reads: “Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim.”.

Which sounds very highbrow, but I saw it painted on the wall in an episode of Walking Dead. The way in which the filmmakers paused on it told me that this was important, and it was! In the English translation, it reads: “Be strong and patient, someday this pain will be useful to you.”


  1. What are the motivations for delivering your talks and sharing your experiences?

For me, the sharing of personal stories helps to increase understanding, by tapping into the shared experiences of the human existence we can engender empathy and trust. Through this we connect with each other on a level that helps us all to grow together.

When I first started speaking publicly about my mental health journey, I had a great friend who had recently lost someone to suicide, and they said that, perhaps, if their friend had heard me speak it would have made a difference. She supported me in the early days of this work, and shared a story with me that I carry to this day:

“There’s a woman walking along the beach and it’s covered in starfish. She begins throwing the starfish back into the sea, when an old lady approaches her, and says ‘There are miles and miles of beach, and millions and millions of starfish. You can’t hope to make a difference!’ The woman thinks, bends down to pick up a starfish, and throws it back in the sea. Turning to the old lady she replies, ‘I made a difference to that one.’”

Very few of us have the chance to change the world with a single act, but each one of us can make a difference every single day with incremental acts of kindness and support for others. The acts send out ripples, and we will never know where they will reach.

I spent 50 years of my life struggling with suicidal ideation, but every single day when I can help one starfish is a day when it’s worth me still being alive.


  1. What advice would you give to Trans+ students and staff?

We are living in challenging times. Many of the advances that we had made in building an inclusive society that was open to the amazing diversity of the human race are being destroyed for short-term political gain. Playing on the fears of others in order to deflect from other issues. My greatest advice to any Trans+ person is to hold on to the belief that these days will pass.

Remember that you are unique and wonderful. Celebrate that. Work on your resilience and strength, engage with and empower your community.

The Stoics said that there are some things in life that we have complete control over, some that we have some control over, and some things over which we have no control. The wisdom is in realising which is which. We can educate people about diversity, we can raise awareness, and in that way we have some influence on those that may otherwise be swayed by the hate. But it is important that we realise that there are times when the wise course of action is not to engage with hate. That we have no control over it and that, for our own wellbeing, we turn away from it. This isn’t to say that we ignore hate and allow it to go unchecked, but it is about understanding that we are the only people who can decide how much power it has to harm us.

Ultimately, hate is a form of trauma directed towards others. Happy people seldom hate, and people who propagate hate are seldom happy.


  1. What are the best ways to demonstrate visible allyship with Trans+ people that is not performative, works for their benefit, and enhances their safety?
  2. How can people with Trans+ family members best support them through their transition?


I’ll answer those 2 questions together…

We talk a lot about allyship and how best to support people, and I could easily write a list of the 10 top tips to be a Trans Ally, but ultimately it’s important to remember that every single Trans+ person that you meet is totally unique. With unique experiences, a unique identity, and with unique needs.

The greatest expert on any of our identities is ourselves. Appreciate that the person in front of you knows infinitely more about who they are than you ever will. If you need to know how to support them, ask them. When I came out while working as a photographer at AFC Bournemouth the greatest support I received was when our manager, Eddie Howe, asked me “What can I do to make this easier for you?” It’s a simple question but it does so much. It creates a safe environment in which you can be authentic, and it lets you know that it’s OK to ask for help.

Ultimately, the key to support and allyship is respect. Go into every single interaction with complete respect for the person that you’re talking to. It is only by starting from respect that we can ensure that we give the interaction the greatest possible chance for a positive outcome.


  1. How best do you think that institutions such as the University of Reading can reach their potential to become a safe and supportive environment for Trans+ students and staff?

The key to safety in any environment is belonging. To know that you belong in a place you need to feel respected, you need to feel part of something bigger than yourself. By building respectful communities that celebrate their diversity we build safe spaces.

Where there are differences, work to raise awareness of different identities, but it’s not enough to be pro-diversity, we must also be anti-discrimination. Work together with our people to build the values of the community, give people ownership of those values, and when you have them, allow these values to guide your path.

Ultimately, in a world where division seems to be the aim of so many, the way in which we join together can be a force for positive change. One starfish at a time. One incremental step towards a future in which everyone belongs.



If you wish to get in touch with Sophie, please visit her website: Contact Sophie – SOPHIE COOK TALKS

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