Growing up, Jacqueline Harper-Grubb loved sports. She saw her future on the playing field, but not necessarily as a player.
“I was a small kid. I tried out for baseball in high school three years yet never made the team, but I had hustle and a had rules knowledge,” she told Outsports in a phone interview. “Ever since I was 10 or 11 years old, I had a rulebook in my hand. I would study it and I would learn it because I figured if I couldn’t play I wanted to do one of two things. I either wanted to officiate or be in the broadcast booth.”
Through college up to today at age 35, Harper-Grubb has been an official in 5 sports, but found a true home as a soccer referee. She’s been a certified United States Soccer Federation official for 2 years and is working up the ladder of their official development program. She upholds the laws of the game in matches from under-7 level to the under-19 level.
She is also the only transgender USSF-certified official in her home state of Missouri and feels her journey to find herself was aided by being a referee. “When I step out on the field, I get this calm sense over myself,” Harper-Grubb noted. “Everything else in the world isn’t there. It’s just me and this game and I gained a lot more confidence in myself.”
Self-confidence and identity were issues she grappled with growing up in Dexter, Mo. The town is nestled in southeastern Missouri farmland set halfway between St. Louis and Memphis. Throughout her high school years, Harper-Grubb could sense there was something different about herself. “‘I know something was different about me, but I wasn’t sure what,” she said. “I had these feelings but I wasn’t sure what to do with them. It troubled me and it might have given cause to some anger issues I had.”
As a student at College of the Ozarks, she found her calling while studying for a degree in mass communications. Harper-Grubb started training to become a high school official and gained her certification as a referee for boys and girls basketball and an umpire for baseball and softball.
Her internal struggle also followed her, and clashed with the atmosphere of a small conservative Christian college. “The feelings were all there with these ideologies pushing on me,” Harper-Grubb said. “I just pushed it down. I dated a girl and we ended up getting married my junior year. Sports was my outlet to try to feel normal.”
She graduated from college in 2006 and continued officiating high school boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball while adding volleyball and soccer to her skillset. Through a growing family with two children and a job with an auto parts store, a person seen in their world as male saw and thought something different and felt alone in facing it.
“I kept pushing it down, ” Harper-Grubb recalled, her voice quivering at the memory. “I was told I was male so I had to be that. But I was thinking something’s got to change. I would see women and would be jealous, because I was one of them. I just wanted to be me, I just wanted to be what I knew I was.”
In 2016, she came out to her spouse. The news ended their marriage and started a new phase of personal discovery. But on this new phase, she wouldn’t travel alone.
“She was still presenting as male, but I just knew,” Jacqueline’s now-spouse Ladonna Marie told Outsports. “I started asking questions about how she felt, and we ended up doing a lot of research together on how she felt and what level of the spectrum was she on. She was probably holding back, worried about what I thought about it, and I was like ‘hey, it’s okay. I love you, and I want you to be happy’.”
“She saw the femininity in me before I did,” Jacqueline recalled, fighting back happy tears.
They were married in 2017, and over the next year, the referee made a set of critical calls in making their life work for them. “I told my wife that I was ready to transition,” she remembered. “Now is the time.”
The couple packed up and moved to Springfield, Mo., a larger city with a more diverse community. Jacqueline found a job as a sales coordinator for a national auto parts chain and their policies allowed her to be her true self on the job. She also came out to family and friends back in Dexter. The reactions, from their mother to longtime best friends, was largely positive. By 2019, she had pushed forward into her gender transition, and she confidently supported her oldest child, who identifies as non-binary.
Her focused as an official was locked on soccer, fearing limited options in the sports that were her passions growing up. “It was the hardest decision I had to make,” she remembered. “I felt that the state of Missouri wasn’t ready for a transgender umpire in high school baseball or softball. There was only a handful of cisgender women who were umpiring softball.”
She had a possibility model to emulate, picking up on the story of Lucy Clark, the English FA’s first ever transgender referee. Clark officiated her first match as Harper-Grubb received her USSF certification in 2018.
“When I read that story, I thought soccer is a sport that could handle this,” Harper-Grubb stated. “If it could happen in England, it could happen here.”
She has solid support on the pitch. A colleague stood up for her when she was a target of an unruly fan’s anti-trans slur. She was within earshot when one player corrected another player saying, “she made the right call.” “It was the first time I was referred to as ‘she’ on the pitch,” she noted.
There was also the reaction when she came out to her area’s assigner, a USL-level professional game official, before the start of the 2020 spring season. “I told the assigner that my gender marker change was coming and I hoped it wouldn’t affect my standing. He said ‘I assigned regardless of who someone is, and I assign and develop referees regardless of who someone is’.” she stated. “When I heard that, I nearly broke down in tears with happiness.”
The COVID-19 pandemic postponed her official debut until August 29. It was a rainy late-summer evening that was the payoff for years of struggle and doubt ending with success. The smile from her twitter page told a story that even a game-shortening thunderstorm couldn’t dampen.
She said her main goal in officiating in the short term to reach the highest level possible in youth soccer. Perhaps even an Under-17 or Under-20 FIFA World Cup assignment someday. Long term, she wants to speak out on transgender rights and believe she at the right place to make her voice heard on the pitch and off of it.
“I’m more relaxed than ever and confident in myself knowing that I do not have to hide anything anymore,” she said. “I’m out here as me.”
Hear more of Jacqueline Harper-Grubb’s conversation with Karleigh Webb and her co-host Dawn Ennis on the Outsports podcast, The Trans Sporter Room by clicking here.