By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)

Jaiyah Saelua (B. 07/19/1988) is a soccer player from American Samoa who identifies as “fa’afafine” which is roughly translated as “way of the women” which in Polynesian society is considered a third gender. Saelua is the first ever transgender/ non-binary athlete to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier event.

Saelua began playing soccer at age 11 with the infamous Nicky Salapu. Saelua quickly set herself apart as a strong player and made her debut on the American Samoa national team in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup in Germany and played again in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. American Samoa is considered as FIFA’s smallest confederation and the national team is considered to be one of FIFA’s weakest teams after a losing 31-0 against Australia at the 2002 World Cup (of which Nicky Salapu was the goalkeeper) and had a one of the longest losing streaks in FIFA history.

In high school, Saelua started to live her life as “fa’afafine” and met other classmates who also identified as “fa’afafine” where they all quickly became friends. In an interview with Vice News, she explained the commonality of “fa’afafine”/ transgender people in American Samoa.

“There’s an understanding; we call it fa’afafine. It literally translates into way of a woman or womanly, and applies strictly to male-to-female transgender people. There are responsibilities within the community and the family, such as being able to organize events, funerals, weddings. And making sure you know how to do female and male jobs in the household. There’s an association — the Society of Fa’afafine in American Samoa, or SOFIAS. Every year they do a fundraiser, and proceeds are split between a home for the elderly run by the Catholic Church and a children’s ward at the hospital.

After graduating high school, Saelua left the national team to pursue college in Hawaii where she experienced her first instances of discrimination as a transgender person. While Hawaiian culture in the past has acknowledged the “Mahu” people which are similar to the Fa’afafine, the western colonization of the island chain has had a negative influence on Hawaiian perceptions of non-binary people.

“When I went to school, I tried out for the University of Hawaii men’s soccer team. They had tryouts at five in the morning, and by 5:15 I was walking back home. During the warm-ups the head coach pulls me aside, says he doesn’t want to put his players in an awkward position. I didn’t even get to the tryout process to show them how good I was. I got home, cried my eyes out, and went on with my day. I knew I was better than them anyway.”

She continued her education at the University of Hawaii but took a break from playing soccer during that time. In the summer of 2011, she was on a visit back home while she was preparing for the next stage in her transition process. However, she had a chance encounter with a player from the national time who invited her back to training where she was immediately reaccepted onto the team. So she took a semester off to play.

“After 2011 I was ready to go full throttle with my transition, but we became so successful I had to rethink because I wasn’t ready to give up soccer for good. So I’m delaying my transition for another four years.“

At that time, the national team was under the leadership of a new coach, Thomas Rongen; whom the players, based on previous experiences, had low expectations. He immediately approached Saelua and simply asked “Is it Johnny or Jaiyah?” which changed Saelua’s perspectives and expectation of their new coach. He considered Saelua as a strong player who was underutilized in the past, he put her to work.

“When he first got there, we thought he’d be like, “I could care less.” Another white man coming to do his job and leave. But nobody showed any interest in helping us grow as players more than Coach Thomas. He genuinely wanted to help us become better. He didn’t only work on our physical skills, he trained us to think as winners. We were so used to losing, our train of thought became, Let’s go represent our country on a free trip. If we don’t make it, oh well. Coach Thomas changed our perspective. Because of that, we were able to become better players physically too.“

Saelua shared that she was more comfortable being trans because Coach Thomas was accepting and supportive of her, which in turned helped her to improve as an athlete.

Saelua’s big breakthrough as a soccer player came in November 2011 as a member of the National Team when American Samoa went against Tongo. American Samoa was in the lead 2-1 but Tongo was moving in for a tie when the American Samoa goalkeeper rushed forward. However, Saelua dropped back and was able to clear the ball from the goal just before it rolled in; ensuring American Samoa’s victory. This victory was a major victory for the whole team and is still celebrated, especially following the 31-0 defeat which was quickly forgotten about. She also received a letter of congratulations from FIFA president, Joseph Blatter, acknowledging her role as the first transgender FIFA athlete.

On the field, I didn’t think of myself as man or woman or trans—just a soccer player,” Saelua says. “I was so proud to be the first transgender to play in a World Cup qualifier. It’s such an opportunity to promote equality in soccer.” 

However, Saelua was dropped from the University of Hawaii after she forgot to drop her classes before taking the semester off; she tried to appeal but was not reaccepted into the program. Taking up a job as a security guard in Honolulu, the president’s letter gave her a new inspiration to advocate for LGBT athletes. So, she took a position as “ambassador” for with the American Samoa national league committee.

Saelua and her victory achieving assist was part of the documentary “Next Goal Wins” which chronicled the American Samoa national team in their journey to overcome their history as the weakest FIFA team and qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The film premiered in April 2014 at the Tribeca Film Festival to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Including from actor Tim Cahill who tweeted his support for the film and how proud he was to come from a culture “that emphasises overcoming obstacles, how strong they are in overcoming obstacles, and how accepting they are of fa’afafine.”

After the film debuted, Saelua continues to advocate for transgender athletes all over the world, she went on tour to promote the film and be a visible athlete. She has used her platform to share her passion for the game and her pride for being transgender. As American Samoa is traditionally more accepting of transgender, intersex and non-binary people, Saelua had to research the issues affecting transgender, intersex, and non-binary people outside of the Pacific Island communities.

“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.” 

The most recent World Cup, held in 2018 and the next Men’s World Cup due to be held in Qatar, both countries which are known to be hostile toward LGBTQI people. Saelua is advocating that national sport governing bodies take more action on issues affecting LGBTQI athletes. In an interview with Sports Gazette, she explained…

“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.”

Following the victory against Tongo, the team tied against the Cook Islands and lost their match against their main rivals, Samoa. However, the win gave Saelua and the American Samoan team a new goal to reach for and belief in themselves to achieve. Saelua and her teammates are considered celebrities/ national heroes for their persistence, resilience and achievements on and off the pitch.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons