Breaking the Mould
Last year Johnny Saelua became the first transgender person to play in World Cup qualifying
After try-outs in 2010, the coach of the men's football team from the University of Hawaii at Hilo tapped Johnny Saelua on the shoulder. Perhaps it would be better if Saelua didn't come back. Talent had nothing to do with it; others in the locker room would be uncomfortable.
Johnny Saelua prefers to be called Jaiyah. She also prefers to go by feminine pronouns. Saelua is a fa'afafine, a 'third gender' specific to and highly valued in Samoan culture — born male but embodying both gender traits. A year after rejection in Hawaii, she was sleeping on the concrete floor of a locker room with a cluster of sweaty, snoring men, preparing to represent American Samoa in World Cup qualifiers, as perhaps the first trans person in international football.
The Polynesian island, a US territory, has a population of less than 70,000. According to the CIA website, they lead the world in obesity levels, at 74.6%. Although American Samoa has produced a significant number of NFL players, including Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu, their football team has been awful. Rugby, wrestling and martial arts are more popular.
Since joining Fifa in 1994, they hadn't won a competitive game, tallying 30 straight defeats. American Samoa ranked last in the Fifa rankings, tied for 204th by the time Saelua and the team began preparations for 2014 World Cup qualifying.
Two things changed before 22 November 2011 when they played a qualifier against Tonga. First, the former MLS and US Under-20 head coach Thomas Rongen joined through a deal with US Soccer, and he set about transforming the team's psyche with yoga and meditation, aside from implementing a sterner tactical shape. Second, the day before the game, Rongen promoted Saelua to a starting spot.
"It was very clear to me early on that Johnny — she prefers to be called Jaiyah — was one of our better and tougher defenders," Rongen said. "She was very good in one-v-one duels, our strongest and fittest player. To me it was a no-brainer that when you're trying to get your best XI on the field that she was one of those players. I didn't know till afterward when she gave an interview that she'd never been a starter."
Rongen was also starting Nicky Salapu, the goalkeeper who had conceded 31 goals to Australia in April 2001, the biggest loss in international football history. Salapu still bore the psychological scars, as well as a self-confessed alcohol problem. Rongen, who calls himself a "soccer witch doctor," performed an exorcism of sorts at the final whistle of a 2-1 win over Tonga in the first match of qualifying. He held his goalkeeper as both of them cried.
Salapu was the elder statesman at 31. Shalom Luani, a 17-year-old high schooler, scored the winning goal, which was set up by Saelua. Saelua was named man of the match for her performance, which also included a late goal-line clearance to preserve the win. "I knew that the keeper moved up and I felt like someone needed to cover the goal post, and that's what I did," she said. "I felt like I needed to be there and I was at the right spot at the right time." It wasn't the only time Saelua was there for her teammates.
"When you travel, there a lot of things that males don't like to do, like pick up after themselves," Rongen said. "You know how we are, we leave some tracks on the floor. Every morning I woke up after I'd rested, it was not always the cleanest." But when he'd come back, the dressing-room of the stadium — where the team slept ("We had to bring our own blankets and pillows and stuff," Saelua said) — was spotless. Inevitably, Rongen's questions would uncover that Saelua had tidied up. "She was just used to doing female and male chores, and had no quarrels with doing that," Rongen said. "She became the glue in a lot of areas, especially off the field, and that was pretty awesome to see."
The team hung together in a 1-1 draw with the Cook Islands in the second match but a last-minute goal conceded to Samoa ended their Oceania qualifying campaign.
That was a year ago. American Samoa are up to 182nd in the Fifa rankings. Rongen took a job overseeing the academy system for Toronto FC and does some analysing and commentating work on TV. Saelua is a Performance Arts major at the University of Hawaii and never went back to the football team after that first day of try-outs. She doesn't foresee a future in the sport. "Right now it's just dance for me," she said.
Saelua's role in giving some dignity back to one of the worst teams in the world made waves across the globe. "Korean TV came to my house to do an interview. It was kind of weird," Saelua said. "I would have people from New York call in and say they wanted to come to my house and do a photo shoot and interviews and stuff. All the attention was very overwhelming."
There was less of a ripple in the trans community. Plenty don't care about the "macho" elements of sport, according to Juliet Jacques, a writer who frequently tackles trans and football topics. "Those who do like football realised that the anomaly of a 'transgender' woman playing for a men's team owed much to American Samoa's lowly international position, the small resources and pool of talent available to them etc," Jacques said, "and that Saelua's debut was a good thing to see but unlikely to change the deeply ingrained sexism, split between male and female and lack of space for anyone between male and female in western professional football."
Jacques bristled at lumping Saelua in with the trans experience in the Americas or Europe. "Saelua is part of the fa'afafine community in American Samoa, with a very different history and culture to 'transgender' people in the West," Jacques explained, "so there's some anxiety about calling Saelua 'transgender' because that means imposing a Western concept onto her."
Saelua, now 24, says she experiences prejudice and a lack of acceptance in Hawaii. Transphobia might go some way in preventing others from pursuing sport. Tricky logistics don't help. Jacques pointed out someone would have to transition early, likely as a teenager, to have any shot at a professional career. International Olympic Committee rules dating back to 2004 demand transsexual people be on hormones for two years and have cost-prohibitive sex reassignment surgery (SRS) before they can compete as their chosen gender.
There are a smattering of examples of trans individuals in sport, most of whom transition after competing. Football's most famous was Martine Delaney, a 47-year-old who played in the Tasmanian Women's League. Neither Rongen nor Jacques expect many more to follow Saelua. "I think American Samoa is probably more the exception than the rule," Rongen said. "You won't see this in Italy or Spain in the next few months."
But global impact wasn't the goal. Football was always the end, not the means. "The only reason why I play is because I love the sport, not because I want to get famous or popular being a transgender," she said. "It's just sad to me that people have to stick within their comfortable zones. I don't understand it too much."