Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“I wasn’t being judged on how well I could play”: Jaiyah Saelua on being the first transgender international footballer

Posted on 24 November 2017 by Nick Friend

Archie Thompson is a name synonymous with the most obscure of sporting trivia. On 11 April 2001, the centre-forward scored thirteen times as Australia set a seemingly unbreakable world record, beating American Samoa 31-0 in an infamous FIFA World Cup qualifier.

It is a record that those who inhabit the tiny group of Pacific islands would prefer not to recall. Yet, sixteen years on from that mammoth mismatch – American Samoa is home to just 55,000 people – and the islanders have a football team to be proud of and a record-breaker of their own.

In 2011, Jaiyah Saelua, a centre-back for the national side, became the first transgender player to compete in a men’s World Cup qualifier.

Born male, Saelua is fa’afafine – a third gender commonplace in Samoan culture. To roughly translate the term, the word comes to indicate a life ‘in the manner of a woman.’ Now studying in Hawaii, Saelua is known as Johnny in official football spheres. Yet back home, what seems like an unusual backstory could scarcely be further from one.

“Being fa’afafine didn’t have any effect on my childhood and early years in sport,” she explains. “Why? Because it isn’t taboo to be fa’afafine; it is natural. The fa’afafine identity is recognised, respected and celebrated by the Samoan culture, and so we are treated just as normal as anyone else.

“We are integral members of society, and have equal opportunities to excel in whatever it is that we decide to do in life.”

The normality of Saelua’s childhood speaks volumes for American Samoa and its cultural purity. Despite operating as a territory of the United States, the islands – whose comparatively miniscule population make them the smallest of FIFA’s 211 members – remain unincorporated from its American control and have stuck to their beliefs and traditions.

“Families own their lands, so many families live off the land by farming crops and animals. The government system is a traditional ‘matai’ system.”

Although the US President is officially the territory’s Head of State and executive power is left in the hands of a governor, the concept of local chiefdom still exists, with ‘matai’ – elected leaders from the local villages and families – still playing a pivotal role in everyday life.

“The foundation of the Samoan culture is respect and so everyone respects everyone. The general nature of the Samoan people is very mellow. Having the power of the US dollar & the protection of the most powerful country in the world also helps make life easy in American Samoa.”

Yet, having never once been the victim of abuse or mockery in her home nation, her experiences away from the islands are as eye-opening as they are damning. They speak volumes for the lack of understanding and tolerance that continue to afflict sport in the western world.

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“Most definitely,” Saelua admits as I ask if her on-field treatment in Hawaii differed from what she had found playing as an American Samoa international on home soil.

“While attending the University of Hawaii at Hilo, I decided to try-out for the University’s men’s soccer team. Ten minutes into the warm-ups, I was pulled to the side by the assistant coach. He tells me that he doesn’t want to put the team in an uncomfortable position by having someone ‘like me’ on the team.

“I wasn’t being judged on how well I could play, but how I physically appeared to try-outs.

“That was my first experience of discrimination in the sport. From that point on, I refused to play on the same team as non-Samoans. When my teammate and national team captain, Ramin Ott, got stationed in Hawaii, he started a soccer club and recruited Samoans in the military to play for his club. When he asked me to join, without any hesitation, I jumped at the opportunity to play once again.

“The nature of Pacific people towards their respective transgender people is very similar in that they respect them. So playing against teams in the Pacific region was just the same as playing at home in American Samoa. I could play comfortably as myself anywhere in the Pacific.”

That Saelua experienced such transphobia within Hawaiian football highlights the negative impact that the United States has had on Hawaii’s culture. The ‘mahu’ people are, much like the fa’afafine people of Samoa, considered a third gender. Yet, the manifestation of western colonisation has seen a loss of respect for what was previously viewed as a key part of Hawaiian society.

For Saelua, having a positive effect on the ignorance that she witnessed first-hand has become a key long-term objective.

“Being recognised as the first transgender to play in a FIFA-sanctioned tournament put me at the frontline of the fight against transphobia. The responsibility wasn’t something that I wanted at first; all I wanted to do was play soccer. After realising the need for a voice for transgender people in sport, I took it upon myself to be a strong voice.

“I started doing my research in order to arm myself with the knowledge that was needed to be that strong voice. From being given the opportunity to work with FIFA in choosing a winner for last year’s and this year’s winners of the FIFA Diversity Reward, to being featured on the cover of FIFA 1904 Magazine, to helping the English Football Association create a policy that is more accommodating of transgender athletes, the work I’ve done has been somewhat fruitful for the transgender community.

“My visibility in itself has become a beacon of inspiration for so many aspiring transgender athletes around the world.”

As inspirational as Saelua’s story is, it came to light as part of a wider and similarly uplifting narrative. Next Goal Wins, a 2014 documentary, captured the fortunes of the American Samoa national team as they sought to recover from the global embarrassment of the Australia defeat.

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Under the management of Thomas Rongen, a journeyman Dutch coach, the side dubbed by many as the worst on the planet created history, beating Tonga in 2014 World Cup qualifying – the nation’s first ever competitive victory nearly a decade on from Thompson’s 13 goals. For Saelua, it was a win that finally allowed the nation to cast away the humiliation of the unwanted world record.

“This record [of the 31-0 defeat] defined our reputation and it was very difficult for us to even imagine moving forward, knowing that we will most likely be holding this record forever.

“The win against Tonga showed American Samoa that the association was serious about its developmental efforts. In a matter of 90 minutes, we went from the laughing stock of sports associations in American Samoa, to the association with the most youth interest and participation, even beating out the favoured American football. The team became local celebrities and heroes.

“Society no longer saw soccer as just a fun, active sport, but it became a driving force for international opportunity.”

With the sudden success of one of sport’s rankest underdogs, the barometer changed dramatically. Saelua confesses that, having opened the floodgates to what is possible through the Tonga triumph, she cannot help but dream of a World Cup – even if it is several generations down the line.

“For years,” she says, “the goal was to simply score a goal.

“That win [against Tonga] was the beginning of a new goal for American Samoa — to make it to the second round [of qualifying] to play against the elite teams of the Pacific region. When we reach that goal, we can then start setting higher goals for our team.

“After winning against Tonga, we drew a tie with the Cook Islands after an American Samoa reserve defender scored an own-goal for the Cook Islands, and then we went on to lose 1-0 against our main rivals, Samoa, missing our chance at reaching our new goal [of the second round].

“Ultimately, I think the goal for American Samoa is the same as any other country in the world — to make it to the World Cup. It may take years, maybe even generations, but we’re optimistic about our progress and are taking it one step at a time.”

In the meantime, Saelua wants to see an evolution in the awareness and acceptance of the LGBTQI+ community. Her own upbringing in American Samoa’s sphere of tolerance has meant that even she has had to research the issues affecting transgender people away from the Pacific community.

“Until I started researching transgender issues, I was completely oblivious to how transgender, third-gender, intersex and gender non-binary individuals have been – and still are – treated in Western societies.

“Although some social and political progress has been made, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“The lack of respect for humanity is the root of so many world problems, and I strongly feel that if Western societies took a page from the book that defines the nature of the Pacific people, to respect and recognise the humanity in everyone, the world would be a much better place to live in.”

With the prominence of the documentary and the FIFA record providing Saelua with greater leverage from which to raise awareness, it is a role that she intends to take on wholeheartedly. But equally, she is acutely aware of the sheer number of people that her words represent.

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When discussing her unprecedented FIFA status, it is this weight of responsibility that she is most wary of.

“It both made me proud to be the first in the world at something, but it also made me realise that in the 117 years of FIFA’s existence and of the more than 200 countries currently FIFA members, not one transgender athlete has ever been able to represent their country.

“The responsibility alone put immense pressure on me in that I had to watch what I say in interviews such as these because I represent the voice of thousands of transgender soccer athletes around the world. So much more needs to be done, and it takes voices like mine to get the ball rolling on progressing the issues that transgender athletes face in sports communities worldwide.”

As the football world prepares for consecutive World Cups in Russia and Qatar, the issues facing transgender sportspeople and other minorities have never been so prevalently talked about. For Saelua, who articulates herself so impressively throughout, it is imperative that governing bodies do more.

“Despite having international policies that protect the rights of transgender athletes to an extent, there are still so many social issues that prevent transgender athletes from progressing in sport.

“Issues such as a lack of support from teammates and managing staff, a lack of protection against discrimination from fans in sporting events, a lack of efforts to shape a likeable image to communities, a lack of educating fans on transgender issues.

“Governing bodies in sport have set standards to allow transgender athletes to excel, but what good will those standards do if they struggle to find confidence to play sports in their own communities?

“FIFA has been very accommodating in the sense that stricter policies against discrimination of any sort have been put in place, but how comfortable would LGBTQI+ athletes be in countries like Russia and Qatar?

“Will they influence government policy so that their oppressive laws do not extend to international athletes and fans who are travelling to the games? Will there be any repercussions for instances where FIFA policies against discrimination have been violated by Russian or Qatari citizens? How far are they willing to maintain that football is for everyone?

“These are the kinds of questions that should be asked because the possibilities of governing bodies having to deal with situations such as these are very high in countries that aren’t very friendly to diverse minority groups.”


Featured photograph: Jaiyah Saelua