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Transgender Soccer Player Leads American Samoa Team To First-Ever Win

by Keph Senett on December 1, 2011

in Keph Senett,News,Sports

Post image for Transgender Soccer Player Leads American Samoa Team To First-Ever Win

“The team accept me and we have that mutual respect.”
– American Samoa’s trans player Jonny Saelua neatly expresses all there really is to say on the issue.

On November 26, ESPN ran a small story in their Off the Ball section, which “never rests in its mission to scratch around the underbelly of professional football to find the most bizarre, humorous and inexplicable stories.” That description could use some work, but the story that followed under the title “Transgender defender leads Samoa to first win” is the best thing I’ve heard since pro soccer player David Testo came out as gay.

Here’s the deal: The American Samoa national football team fielded a transgender player in an FIFA-sanctioned game. This is all sorts of awesome even if you know nothing about the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, but it’s football (soccer) Christmas come early when you consider the governing body’s dismal record when it comes to how it handles discrimination.

Johnny “Jayieh” Saelua (image: top row, second from left) was born biologically male but is fa’afafine, a Samoan word that means “to be a woman,” which is used to describe bio males who have a strong feminine gender orientation. Sometimes referred to as a “third sex,” fa’afafine are identified early in the culture and widely accepted. But in FIFA’s world, biological sex is all that matters; gender is irrelevent. And because of this blindered approach to the spectrum of human possibility, Saelua, a transgender person, played in an officially-sanctioned game last weekend — an important first.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Saelua was named “Man of the Match” (an award given to an outstanding player on a per-match basis) for brilliant defending that lead to — get this — the team’s first victory. Ever. And it was a World Cup qualifying match.

In the grand scheme of international soccer, this story is going to mean a lot to anti-discrimination advocates, and maybe not so much to most everybody else. But before it falls off the radar and come to rest in the archives with football’s other “bizarre, humorous and inexplicable” stories, I want to give it the mulling over I think it deserves.

Respect. The quote at the top of this article is only 10 words long, but it sure says a lot. I’ve played with people I loved and I’ve played with people I loathed, but one of the greatest lessons of sport is learning to respect your team mates and counting on their respect in return. In this case, the respect appears to stem from a culture that acknowledges and accepts human diversity. And look at the result.

Masculinities and femininities. Saelua is on the “correct” side of the sex binary to play for the national team (by FIFA standards), and on the “incorrect” side of the gender binary. What does this say about our assumptions? About “effiminate” men? About masculinities and sport? About sex, gender and biology?

Fear. With an open heart and mountains of respect for every gay pro athlete that has yet to come out, I must ask the question: What are you afraid of?

The future of football. Diversity advocates have been tireless in seeking to build a more inclusive game, a mission that goes to the very heart of how homophobia and sexism intersect. I can’t help but to think that the casual introduction of a transgender player to an officially-sanctioned game was a quiet revolution. Something huge has happened, and the sports world barely noticed.

A case could be made that American Samoa’s national team is just not important enough to elicit a reaction, that Saelua is just not a big enough name. But remember: The same was said when, earlier this year, Swedish player Anton Hysén came out of the closet. The sports world shrugged, and pointed out that his was a fourth division team. And then again earlier this month when David Testo came out of the closet. His team was Canadian, for god’s sake. And now we have a transgender player, playing for a team that is joint-ranked worst in the world. I have to wonder, does any of this subtract from the beautiful fact that they are out and pro in the world of football?

(Image: Facebook)

Keph Senett is a Canadian writer whose unflagging interest in soccer/football and travel have led her to play the beautiful game on four continents. Her other specialities include human rights, LGBT and gender issues, and her own folly. To find out more, follow her on Twitter, and visit her website. Keph’s currently living and working in Mexico, and trying to figure out how to qualify for a soccer squad in Asia, Australia or Antarctica.

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willowfairypdx December 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Be extremely wary of equating an indigenous, non-Western socio-cultural phenomenon with Western terminology. "Fa'afa'fine" is not the same as "transgender", and calling a traditional social role played by a non-Western person in the context of his own culture with a Western, white-invented political terminology such as "transgender" is exploitative, hegemonic and demeaning to the Samoan people. Often I see Western activists pointing out to cultures such as this with a over-romanticized illusion, thinking that non-Western countries are somehow less sexist, less homophobic, and more accepting. The reality speaks otherwise. It is important to remember that in the cultures and nations that recognize the positions of "third sex" (such as Thailand, India, and Samoa) members of the "third sex" are "accepted" only so long as they live their lives as society dictates — much like the old Western sexism in which "men's place in society" and "women's place in society" were well-defined and seldom violated. Often the "third sex" are both feared and at the same time considered necessary for religious significance. On the contrary, the reality and history demonstrate that cultures that strongly frown upon "third sex" or any deviation from the male-female duality (such as the USA and Western Europe) tend to also have the most aggressive and progressive laws ensuring equal rights for so-called "transgender" persons. Which is better than the other is not a relevant question. What is important, however, is that Western political activists should not exploit the tradition and experiences of non-Western cultures as a tool for their advocacy.

kephsenett December 4, 2011 at 6:14 am

Thanks for your response @willowfairypdx. You make a good point about language — you're right that "fa'afa'fine" is not the same as "transgender" and the two should not be equated. I did my best to make the article and the issue understandable to TNCRM's largely American audience, so in the same way that I use the word soccer over football on this site, I used the recognizable concept of "transgender" in the title and text. But I also made an effort to give a bit of context to what fa'afa'fine is, within the confines of a short essay about a sports story.

I'd also like to address your criticism about romanticization. I did not suggest that Samoan culture is less homophobic, sexist etc than Western culture. This is a piece on soccer, and in soccer, there are very few out LGBT athletes or athletes that challenge the heteronormative gender standard. A great deal of this has to do with the lack of support from the governing body, FIFA, which is an international organization. The comment I made about culture is an observation — in America, we have no out gay pro male players. In Canada, we now have one. In Sweden, we now have one. And in England, there was one — Justin Fashanu — who hung himself in 1998. So, yes, I do think that it is significant that an American Samoan player who does not fit into the sport's rigid demands of heteromasculinity (and again, with the understanding that fa'afa'fine is not necessarily gay or trans) not only played in this game, but did so with teammate and coach support. (FYI, I'm getting this — that Saelua is accepted and supported on the team — from a New York Times piece called “A First in Cup Qualifying for a Player and a Team“.)

I may have oversimplified the issue in my enthusiasm and in my effort to make the story relateable to this audience, but I think that accusing me of exploiting the tradition and experiences of non-Western cultures is a little misguided.

Thanks again for adding your perspective on this and for taking the time to add to the discussion. Happy to see another voice here.

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