30th June 2021
At just 24 years of age, Zooey Perry has already got an impressive handball resumé. She's captained a title-winning women's handball team at Middlesex University; won the Premier Handball League title with Olympia HC and now plays handball in Norway for the third division side Lambertseter IF.
A left-handed goalkeeper from Middlesbrough, Zooey is also a trailblazer for the world's LGBTQI+ community and is believed to be the first openly transsexual handball player in British Handball history. She's also an ambassador for the charity Athlete Ally and helps the organisation to champion LGBTQI+ equality in sport.
"Handball has been a part of my life since I was at school and that's really where I fell in love with the sport," says Zooey.
"In England, football is king of the sports, and I actually played that from a really young age, and I still play a bit now. Hockey and futsal were enjoyable too. But my school was involved in an exchange programme with another school from Norway and that's when I first got introduced to handball.
"I couldn't believe how popular it was in Norway - everyone in the town was playing and I took part in a training session with the person I was partnered with on the exchange. That’s where it all started for me and as soon as I got back to England, I looked everywhere to try and carry on playing the sport."
It was during her school years when, at the age of 13, Zooey came out as transexual. She began her transition a few years later in 2013 and throughout her school years and beyond her passion for sport remained as strong as ever.
"Throughout my life, I've been very fortunate in that I've never really had any reactions from other players or fans, but I do remember one incident in a futsal game two years ago.
"It was an away game and although I didn't hear anything, my teammates told me there were some guys saying some things about me in the stands. It's never nice to hear that kind of thing, but I brushed it aside."
Zooey recalls around 2013 - just after the London 2012 Olympics – a Middlesbrough-based futsal coach ran some taster sessions for handball, but nothing happened on the back of it. She ended up going back to play football until she moved to university in 2016.
"I'd always enjoyed football, but handball just felt like something I could really get into if I could find the chance to play regularly.
"Soon after, I actually went to university in Middlesex to study Fine Art but the mention of handball on the university prospectus is what really made the decision for me!
"With that, I moved to London and initially joined the university football team, but then by chance I got to meet with the captain of the women's handball team, who was actually from Norway.
"I was a striker in football and at university I started playing right wing because I'm left-handed/ But in one of the games there was an injury to our goalkeeper, and I stepped in. I'm pretty tall at six foot one so it worked out well and I've never looked back!
"It all sort of just fell into place. There's a big Norwegian community in Middlesex and most of our team came from Norway, along with a couple of girls from around Europe. "I became very close with Norwegian community during this time, and I still speak to them and see them all the time. They're like family to me."
In 2017 Zooey became the captain of the women's team at Middlesex University. She steered the team to go through the London University league unbeaten - and the side finished joint third in the national competition. As her time at university started to end, she knew that handball had to remain in her life.
"In 2018 I joined Olympia HC. I'd played at university level but wanted to progress. In the 2018-19 season we won the league, and it was just incredible to be part of that side. I was involved in the Liverpool International Tournament to which we won, beating Bergen from Norway who had won the previous year.
"In late 2019 I transferred to London GD because of Uni schedules but before long we were in lockdown, and everything changed. It was a mixture of COVID and Brexit that made me decide I wanted to leave the UK."
Zooey had always wanted to be back in Norway and moved to Oslo in August 2020. She signed for Lambertseter IF and started training with the side before a national lockdown put the brakes on handball once again. In mid-June, the restrictions were relaxed and Zooey has recently been able to train with her team again.
"The team here are absolutely great and I really enjoy playing here. The Premier League in England is amazing - some of the best players I've ever played with are there – but in Norway the standards are incredible.
“By being here I’m hoping that I can keep learning and developing my game as I’ve got big ambitions to play at the highest level I can. I really want to represent the national team too and I think playing in Norway can only help me improve - being 24 I hope to have my best years ahead of me still.
"The other important thing for me is the way of life. Things are much more laid back in Norway and the culture is more understanding. I've been celebrating Oslo Pride with my housemates and there is so much diversity from all walks of life. It's been a breath of fresh air compared to how the UK can be.
Finding her way in the world of sport has not been easy for Zooey, but rather than letting the lack of guidance or policies hold her back, she's pushed ahead and trodden a path she hopes others can follow.
"I do think it's really hard for trans athletes to get involved in sport because there aren't any role models, but also a lot of the diversity and inclusion policies in sport either aren't in place or aren't clear enough.
"The Football Association (FA) has some great information and policies in place - although they are complex to work through – but the fact that there is support there and somewhere to turn was really helpful for me and I think other sports need to follow suit. A lot of the groundwork is already there.
"I've just always pushed through and played sport because I want to, but I know for other trans athletes, there is a lot of fear around whether they can or can't get involved with certain things.
"I'm also still a big believer in Pride month for helping to raise important topics like this because unfortunately, people are still being persecuted around the world for being themselves. I think it will always be needed and it's important to remember the generations that came before you.
"I've done a lot of reading into things like the Stonewall riots and other things like the AIDS epidemic. For my age group, many of the people who should have been able to ‘take us by the hand and guide us through and help us understand our sexuality aren't here.
"Those of us who are still here have to keep fighting and to be ourselves, and I think that's more important than ever."
Following this interview, England Handball has made a commitment to review its equality and inclusion policy as a priority and to engage closely with other stakeholders in the world of sport to provide better information, advice and guidance. We are proud of the diverse mix of people we know make up handball community in England and will do everything we can to support them.