RAMAT GAN – An Israeli soccer referee has come out as transgender and is living — and enforcing the rules of the game — as the only woman in the country's top-shelf league.
Sapir Berman announced Tuesday she has received the support of her family, the local referees' union and Israeli and international soccer officials. She said players and fans have begun to address her as a woman, even when they gripe about her calls on the field. On Sunday, Berman will be the head referee for a playoff match between heavyweight teams Hapoel Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem.
It will be a marquee event on Berman's life-long road to living, as she said Tuesday, as herself.
“I always saw myself as a woman, from a young age,” Berman, whose birth name was “Sagi,” told reporters at Ramat Gan Stadium, headquarters of the Israel Football Association.
“I realized society will not accept me, will not be on my side, so I continued like this for nearly 26 years," she said.
Berman said that being involved in such a male-dominated profession made her hesitate to go public. But about six months ago, "I decided to come out and to show who I am, first of all to myself, for my soul,” she said with a smile.
Fans and players quickly took notice, she said, addressing her with the feminine form of Hebrew words — a change Berman chooses to see as a sign of respect for her decision to transition.
Israeli soccer officials stood behind Berman at Tuesday's news conference in a room above the stadium's playing field.
“We have a new referee, Sapir Berman,” the Israel Football Association tweeted. “We are so proud.”
Berman's decision to come out, and stay on at the Israeli Premiere League, comes at a time when gay and transgender people are achieving higher profiles and acceptance in some parts of the world.
Last week, Caitlyn Jenner — an Olympic hero, reality TV personality and transgender rights activist — joined a growing list of candidates seeking to oust California Gov. Gavin Newsom from office.
And a British soccer referee came out as transgender in 2018. Lucy Clark, formerly known as Nick, has said she hopes to become a “game-changer.”
“Look, it hasn't been all roses and tinsel,” the 49-year-old Clark said in a telephone interview from her home in London. Once in awhile, she'll get hecklers who might have had something to drink. And recently, Clark corrected someone who had wrongly identified her gender during a game, which didn't go over smoothly.
But “overwhelmingly, it's been a positive experience," because most people accept the change and focus on the soccer, she said.
“You tell Sapir for me, they will” accept her transformation, Clark said. “When she sees her name on the program, and when Sapir goes out on to the pitch and the announcer announces that today’s men's referee is Sapir, she'll do brilliantly.”
There's also troubling, or at least inconclusive, news around the world for transgender people, particularly on the legal front.
In the U.S., five states have passed laws or put in force other policies limiting the ability of transgender youths to play sports or receive certain medical treatment. There’s been a vehement outcry from supporters of transgender rights — but little in the way of tangible repercussions for those states.
Israel is generally progressive on LGBTQ rights, but some soccer matches are played in conservative communities. The match on Sunday that Bergman will lead is scheduled at Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, one of the most tolerant areas of the country.
So far, Berman said, there have been no problems from fans. That's notable, said one expert, because transgender people are generally socially accepted by Israelis. But the lack of heckling also can be credited to the early and unequivocal support of the IFA and other Israeli soccer institutions.
“It's a good thing; it was a pre-emptive move on their part to send the signal of acceptance,” said Eran Globus, policy adviser and former chairperson of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. He said no men's soccer players have come out as gay. “I think Sapir will be a beacon on that frontier.”
Israel is one of the world's most progressive countries on LGBTQ rights, despite its image as a society struggling with religious coercion. Gay and transgender people can serve openly in Israel’s military and the Knesset, for example.
But Israel still has a way to go, Globus said. No transgender person has been elected to public office. And in several respects, the law trails behind the social inclusion of transgender Israelis. On several issues where gay rights are recognized, there have been no decisions on whether those rights apply to transgender people.
For Berman, the soccer world has been largely supportive. There are already players who address her as a woman, and at a recent youth match an angry parent used Hebrew's feminine version of “Wake up, ref!” when complaining about a call.
“It shows me there's change in society,” she said.
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