Interview: Jaiyah Saelua – the world’s first professional transgender footballer

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PinkNews speaks to transgender footballer Jaiyah Saelua who stars in Next Goal Wins – a documentary about the American Samoa national team’s epic battle to restore belief in itself.

In 2011, American Samoa’s Jaiyah Saelua became the first transgender person to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifier – her presence on the pitch made football history in a profound way – and it has now been documented in the film Next Goal Wins, unveiled last week at Wembley Stadium in an event hosted by former England defender Graeme Le Saux.

When your national team is doing badly, spare a thought for American Samoa, the tiny island of 55,000 in the South Pacific Ocean. For years it remained bottom of FIFA’s world ranking, having never won a match in an international competition, the team had scored twice in 17 years of play.

Humiliation became total in 2001 when American Samoa lost 31-0 to Australia, officially the worst ever defeat in the history of international football.

Next Goal Wins shows how this semi-professional team was rescued from the depths of continuous defeat by Dutch coach Thomas Rongen in 2011. The players discovered it was possible for them to actually win a match.

Their success in the first round of the 2011 World Cup qualifier was modest by most standards, but for American Samoa it was the equivalent of England finding itself in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

American Samoa defeated Tonga 2-1, followed by a 1-1 draw against Cook Islands, but failed to progress in their qualifying group, after losing to Samoa 1-0 in the agonising 89th minute.

Such real-life football drama creates a great film, but it’s the role of Jaiyah Saelua which makes Next Goal Wins also a valuable critique of how we in the west view gender.

When her team’s two victories commanded sport headlines around the globe, Jaiyah found herself surprised by the reaction of being dubbed “the world’s first professional transgender footballer”.

Her society refers to her as fa’afafine, meaning “way of a woman” or “womanly”.

Jaiyah speaks of how fa’afafine have been around since before missionaries came to the island and they have long been a celebrated and respected part of American Samoa’s deeply religious culture.

Her identity is an integral part of Samoan culture – and it had never been an issue.

She suspended her transition from male to female in order to play for her team.

Speaking to after the screening of Next Goes Wins last week at Wembley Stadium, Jaiyah said: “Before I was dubbed that title of the ‘world’s first professional transgender footballer’, I didn’t realise how big of an issue it was in the world, because in Polynesia there is no issue. The cultures are very similar to the Samoan culture.

“Everyone is very accepting”.

Jaiyah left the island when she went to university in Hawaii. She found it particularly shocking to learn how the trans community throughout the world faces huge discrimination and stigma even in progressive western nations when it comes to sport.

“I actually had to educate myself on that issue in the world, because in American Samoa, there are two transgender players who play for the men’s national volleyball team and one for the men’s national basketball team. There is also a transgender tennis player that represents American Samoa at the South Pacific Games and the Olympic qualifiers. So it’s different to see the world in a perspective where transgender athletes aren’t acknowledged.”

She fears the intolerance in arguably ‘advanced’ nations could undermine trans acceptance in her own region. Jaiyah said: “I feel like the western influence is pushing its way into the Pacific, with Hawaii being one of the leading states of prostitution and transgender drug abuse.”

Jaiyah made history in 2011 not just because of her presence in the American Samoa team, but because of her performance on the pitch as a defender.

She assisted with the first goal against Tonga and later in the match quite literally saved her side from drawing by clearing the ball from the line as it made its way ominously towards the goal with the keeper nowhere to be seen.

Coach Thomas Rongen, who in the film resembles a cross between Alex Ferguson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, praised Jaiyah as the most consistent and reliable of his players.

Speaking of her involvement in the first match, Jaiyah said: “I didn’t even know I was going to start until the day before the match, so it sort of surprised me as I had one day to mentally prepare for the game.

“But I was confident and the first goal was my goal assist, I had tackles throughout the game and then the last minute goal line clearance which would have tied the game, earned me the title, ‘Woman of the Match’” Jaiyah adds with a laugh.

This season will be Jaiyah’s last as a player for her country.

“We’re semi-pro, so we don’t play all year round; right now it’s off season. But as soon as the camp opens up again, I’ll be there training with them, but this will be my last year because I want to focus more on my transition.”

Once retiring from playing football professionally, Jaiyah intends to campaign fully on trans advocacy in sport.

“I feel like being the first transgender professional footballer in the world means I have a strong voice and a chance that can open up possibilities for other transgender athletes.”

When it comes to American Samoa, she concludes: “The world can learn a lot from the culture. We might not be developed as a country, or in the sports realm, but as a culture, I think we’re ahead.”