Anorexia. Depression. Loneliness. If motor racing requires a high level of endurance, then Charlie Martin is well versed in navigating life’s twists and turns – on and off the track.
It was in 2012 that Martin transitioned. Two years later, she won her first event in France at Saint-Gouéno at the wheel of a Westfield SEiW, breaking the class record by two seconds. Now, she’s intent on becoming the first transgender driver to compete in the Le Mans 24 Hour race.
Alongside her commitment to supporting LGBT communities – which she signifies with a distinctive blue butterfly logo – Martin is the only elite transgender driver in motorsport and one of the few athletes defending the right for trans girls to take part in women’s sports.
In light of the recent increase in anti-transgender legislation and policies across the US, her activism feels increasingly significant.
Changing sport through activism
Martin says that sharing her story has allowed her to change the course of her career for the better, a trajectory she hopes to mirror through her work as a Stonewall Sport Champion.
“When you have an opportunity like this, it feels too important, especially at a time like now where there is so much discrimination happening against the trans community,” she says. “It’s really alarming to see.”
She’s not wrong. Activists have already called 2021 a record-breaking year for anti-transgender legislation in the US, with 31 states introducing bills that ban transgender girls from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identities. The bills are also seeking to limit access to gender affirming health care.
Likewise, according to a survey from LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop, 81% of 227 respondents in the UK reported experiencing a form of transphobic hate crime in the 12 months leading up to October 2019.
“This is about kids striving to better themselves, their self-esteem, their vision of what they can achieve … sport is a big part of that,” Martin adds. “Denying that … it blows my mind.”
‘I felt very alone’
By the age of seven, she was thinking about her gender when she spotted a magazine article about Caroline Cossey, an 80s model and Bond girl who challenged the British government in the European Court of Human Rights in an effort to change discriminatory laws.
“I felt very alone,” Martin tells CNN Sport’s Christina Macfarlane. “When I saw Caroline Cossey, I was like, at least I’m not the only person in the world that feels this way.”
She says that, as a child, she was grappling with feelings of loneliness and anxiety, while she also suffered anorexia and depression.
“I was always struggling with the way I felt because when you’re not living authentically as your true self … you’re effectively using physical energy to suppress who you are.”
Martin was introduced to motor racing through her friend’s father, who would take them driving on the weekends. The sport helped give her life a new direction.
“Having things that you’re passionate about … is hugely important for anyone,” she says. “To have things that you identify with as an individual that inspire you and give you a lot of your drive in life.”
A leap of faith
By the age of 30, Martin was an established endurance racing driver, and that was the year she transitioned.
It wasn’t an easy decision and she temporarily stepped away from the track.
“I just thought I would be facing massive rejection, which is a horrible thing for anybody to contemplate,” she says. “I had to choose transition over everything else, just to carry on living.”
In 2012, Martin started to document her journey on YouTube. She posted candid updates and Q&As on everything from surgery-related updates, hormonal and facial feminization treatment and the emotional challenges that can come with transitioning.
She has amassed over 50,000 followers across social media and garnered messages of support from people who she says subsequently found the courage to transition themselves.
Martin has since been praised for her unwavering honesty and sincerity.
“Keep pushing to be the person that you want to be because there’s no better thing in life than to live as your true, authentic self,” she says.
Returning to the race track
In 2013, Martin decided she wanted to race again.
“It was, to this day, probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do,” she says. “I remember sitting in my car, shaking, thinking I don’t want to do this, but I have to because it’s the only way forward.”
Her father died from cancer when she was a child and her mother passed away when she was 23. Without parental support, she says the support of friends was key to helping her resume racing.
“I wouldn’t have gone back to racing if they hadn’t been there that day,” she says. “They came over all smiles, gave me a big hug and just engaged with me.”
But Martin took her time in making her return.
In 2014, she was hill climbing in France, using the cloak of anonymity to develop her own racing skills without the pressure of having to explain her identity.
As she told Influx Magazine, she was able to apply the mental preparation required for hill climbing to circuit racing, finishing third place at her first ever endurance event at Le Mans on the Bugatti circuit in 2017. That same year, she was recruited by a French team, moving to the Ginetta GT5 Challenge in the UK in 2018.
From a caterpillar to a butterfly
After transitioning, Martin says she was able to unlock her full potential, coming out as transgender within motorsport on International Transgender Day of Visibility to improve trans visibility and acceptance.
“You start believing in yourself,” she says. “On top of that, you’re able to focus and concentrate because you’re not living in denial.”
She’s already written herself into history by becoming the first transgender racing driver to race at the Nürburgring 24 Hours race in Germany, bringing her one step closer to Le Mans.
It seems that her boundless sense of optimism has led her to where she is today, a motif encompassed by her blue butterfly logo.
“If a caterpillar can turn into a butterfly, then to me, it symbolizes possibility … incredible things can happen in life if you believe in them.”