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Nov 28, 2011

“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.

Who would have thought that a soccer story rivalling the Peruvian women’s football team for uncomplicated goodness would come along so soon? Not me, but one has.

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 is a bit of a bummer, but the story that followed under the title “Transgender defender leads Samoa to first win” is the best thing I’ve heard since… well, since Peruvian women playing football.

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 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. Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the on-going efforts of anti-discrimination advocates looking 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 can 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?

Note: Read more on Saelua and the match against Tongo in The New York Times’ “A First in Cup Qualifying for a Player and a Team“.
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