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Israeli Premier League referee to transition

April 27, 2021

Sagi Berman, a referee in Israel’s Premier League, will change her name to Sapir, with the local FA's support. She intends to continue refereeing in the country's top tier after announcing her transitioning.

Sapir Berman
Berman will officiate her first Israeli Premier League game as a woman on SaturdayImage: Sebastian Scheiner/AP Photo/picture alliance

A top-level referee has started the process of gender transitioning.

Sagi Berman, 26, will change her name to Sapir and start being addressed with female pronouns.

"I lived with a very masculine identity and I was successful at it, be it as a referee, in my studies or with women. But at the end of the day, I felt like a woman," Berman explained at a press conference on Tuesday.

Speaking about the reason for coming out, Berman says she felt “strangled” for a while, before telling her loved ones about her decision last October, after she “couldn’t take it anymore.”

'It worried me'

Yariv Teper, the CEO of the Israeli Referees' Association, said it was clear Sapir — then Sagi — was going through something.

"When I saw her in the time before coming out, I was worried as I suspected she might be suffering from depression or even had suicidal thoughts,” he recalled. “Once she told me what it was about, I felt relieved and told her we’ll support her all the way.”

According to Israeli outlet Sport 5, Berman has already been receiving a separate dressing room from the rest of the match-day officials, who already address her with female pronouns. While not knowing how long the process would take, Berman said she’s determined to go through with it to "feel at peace with my outside self."

Football, too, played a role in her decision to come out.

“Football being such a masculine sport delayed my decision a bit. I didn’t know how it would be received,” recalls Berman. "In the end, however, the reactions were mostly positive."

"I receive lots of love on social media, be it from people wishing me all the best or people who see me as an ambassador. They give me lots of strength."

Israel, Ramat Gan |  Sapir Berman, Transgender Schiedsrichterin
'It would be a dream come true' to officiate internationally, Berman says Image: Sebastian Scheiner/AP Photo/picture alliance

Not fazed by sexist remarks

Despite the positive reactions, the 26-year-old knows there might be instances where her gender would make her a target, but Berman believes she’s strong enough to live with it.

"As part of my job, I hear lots of sexist insults, and other discriminatory insults, being shouted at stadiums. I learned how to filter them completely."

She intends to continue in her refereeing career in the Israeli Premier League, in which she's been officiating games since the beginning of last season. Her dream, she says, is officiating games internationally.

“That would be a dream come true,” she said.

At the start of the 2018/19 season, semiprofessional referee Lucy Clark, of England, became the highest-profile referee to come out as transgender.

The effect of Berman’s coming out

Speaking about her experiences after her first season as a woman, she told the English FA's website that she wished she had told the football world years ago. She officiated games in the lower divisions of England's football pyramid, as well as in some of England's amateur men's leagues.

One of the byproducts of Sapir Berman’s decision to come out is that for the first time, the Israeli top-flight has a female referee, a milestone for Referees' Association chairwoman Ronit Tirosh.

"One of my goals entering this role was to make sure there’s a female referee in the Premier League, I thank Sapir for helping me in achieving this goal way quicker than expected.”

Berman will officiate her first Israeli Premier League game as a woman on Saturday as Hapoel Haifa host Beitar Jerusalem.