Charlie Martin: ‘Being visible as a trans woman at Le Mans – a lot of good can come from that’
Stonewall spokeswoman aims to become the first transgender driver to contest the French classic, seven years after facial and reconstruction surgery
Charlie Martin is a driver with grand ambition, her aspirations undaunted by anything the world of motor racing can throw at her. Martin has faced the very heart of darkness in preparing to take her own life before choosing to embrace a new one through the arduous process of gender transition. Now she stands as a role model, one of the latest “champions” chosen by Stonewall to promote its LGBT Rainbow Laces campaign.
Martin lives and drives with the passion and exuberance of someone who has already decisively conquered their greatest fears and for whom every moment is simply a joy to be seized. Unsurprisingly she has embraced her new position as a spokesperson for Stonewall’s campaign, which begins on Friday, aimed at encouraging the LGBT community into sport.
“I am trying to help create a positive change on society,” she says. “To inspire other people to live without fear and live with their true selves, to take those steps on their own journey. Working with Stonewall really helps, I hope we can together reach more people. I am very proud to be their first sport champion from motor sport. It is a huge opportunity to do good.”
The 38-year-old started this season racing in the Michelin Le Mans Cup but as with so many others, a lack of funding forced her out. Yet she remains as determined as ever. Her plan is to be the first transgender driver to compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours. She is vigorously pursuing a drive in an endurance racing series next season, which would be a major step towards her aim. Right now, however, putting herself forward for Stonewall is a positive undertaking she believes she must take. Such a commitment was unthinkable when Martin was so desperately unhappy with her birth gender she could see no way out. “I was suicidal,” she says. “I had decided I was going to take my own life and even knew how I was going to do it. That was the bleakest moment in my life, the way I rationalised it.”
At that point in 2012 Martin was sure of two things. She loved motor racing and had known for some time of her gender issue. Racing was simple. Martin, from Leicestershire, was eight when she went to a meeting and was hooked. “I loved it, being in the paddock, around the cars,” she says. “Everything, even the smell, vintage cars, leathers, greasy spoon cafes. I found it a really visceral experience.”
At the same age there was an even more significant realisation. She read an article on Caroline Cossey, the English Bond girl, Playboy model of the 1980s and transgender pioneer. “It blew my mind,” says Martin. “I realised it was possible for someone to be born one gender and identify as another and change that. I realised: this is me.”
But it did not make her life easier and not knowing how to deal with it, she chose instead to simply “put it away”. Racing, however, remained, attending meetings across the country and Le Mans for the first time in 2001. In 2003 she decided to have a crack at hill climbing in a former rallying Peugeot 205 she bought for £1,500 and restored herself to start racing in 2004.
She, as with all female drivers, sees herself as racer first, with her gender irrelevant on track, but is also aware of the bigger picture, distributing rainbow stickers for cars to mark LGBT pride month at Silverstone last year. “I fundamentally see myself as a driver. I am there to do the best I can to win,” she says. “But me being there visible as a trans woman, a lot of good can come of that. I feel it is almost a responsibility. Anything else would feel like a dereliction of duty.”
It is, from those desperate times to now, an inspirational tale. “Thank God I didn’t commit suicide,” she says. “I completed the biggest challenge of my life and it was an incredible feeling. So I thought: ‘What is next that seems insurmountable that I can have a go at?’” Grand ambitions then, with Martin impressively determined to make a difference as she pursues them.