How Legendary Trans Soccer Player Jaiyah Saelua Made FIFA History

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Legendary American Samoan soccer star Jaiyah Saelua is ready for her victory lap.

Speaking ahead of the Los Angeles premiere of Next Goal Wins, the Taika Waititi-directed retelling of Saelua and her team’s historic 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign, she tells Them, “I would consider this the peak of the mountain that has been my journey over the past more than 10 years.”

A child prodigy, Saelua trained with the senior national team at 14 and played her first international match just two years later. In 2014, as a young and chippy center back, Saelua made history as the first out trans woman to compete in a men’s FIFA World Cup qualifier. Saelua’s story, alongside that of her team and their Dutch coach, Thomas Rongen, became the subject of the 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins, which would inspire Waititi’s film of the same name. A year later, however, Saelua’s career took an unexpected twist.

The turn began, in part, with Saelua beginning hormone replacement therapy. Saelua identifies as both a trans woman and faʻafafine, an indigenous third gender of Samoa and its diaspora. For faʻafafine, she explains, there is “no pressure to look a certain way.” It was only when the athlete started spending more time in the United States that she decided to begin transitioning. “I was pressured into the idea that I [had] to look as passable as possible to live a comfortable life in America,” she shares.

Saelua points to her medical transition as one of the factors that led to a dip in her performance on the pitch — and ultimately her being cut from the national team, in 2015. Nonetheless, ahead of the next World Cup, Saelua opted to pause her transition to attempt a comeback. She succeeded. The footballer went on to captain the American Samoan side’s 2019 World Cup campaign.

Beyond the pitch, Saelua has blossomed into an advocate for queer and trans soccer players around the globe. She has served as a FIFA ambassador for equality and LGBTQ+ athletes and as a jurist for FIFA’s Diversity Award. Ahead of the release of Waitit’s Next Goal Wins, we caught up with the footballer about her time on the national team, being portrayed by faʻafafine actress Kaimana, and what the world can learn from faʻafafine and their vaunted place within Samoan society.

This is the second time you've shared your story in a film. How's it feeling this time around?

More surreal now, because, of course, Hollywood is a completely different playing field when it comes to film. The documentary was special. I was able to do the tour for it, going to film festivals, making appearances and doing interviews like this. But Hollywood is next level. I quit the national team to be a part of this experience, only because soccer will continue to provide opportunities for me post-Next Goal Wins. And this is once-in-a-lifetime, so I wasn't going to miss out. Tomorrow night, when it premieres here in Los Angeles, I would consider this the peak of the mountain that has been my journey over the past more than 10 years.

Wow! That’s so exciting. I’m eager to discuss the film, but first I want to get to know you a little better. Something you’ve discussed is how being faʻafafine is more than an identity, but rather a way of life. Can you tell me a little more about what that looks like?

Growing up faʻafafine often doesn’t include a coming-out experience that a lot of LGBTQ+ people have; it’s more of a coming-of-age experience. At a certain point, your family starts to realize you being in touch with mannerisms that are more commonly associated with the female gender. Your family doesn’t force it on you to live that way, but they make sure that you’re nurtured in a way where you're comfortable and safe. That stems from a culture and traditions that predate colonization.

Can you tell me a little more about the roles faʻafafine folks play in Samoan culture?

Traditionally, because we aren't expected to settle down or to procreate, we're expected to be the caregivers of our elderly, to take care of our parents when our siblings move on to create their own families and further the lineage of the family. What else? Our talents vary. A lot of the faʻafafine in Samoa are athletes — me as a football player, we also have four on our men’s national volleyball team, who are currently headed to the Pacific Games in Solomon Islands. Because we’re safe in our communities, we get to excel in whatever we choose to do with our lives. I’m a product of that.

Thanks for that explanation. You made history in 2011, when you became the first out trans woman to play in a FIFA section tournament. What was your experience like of embodying that milestone?

It was just shocking to me. FIFA has been around way before I was born, there are more than 200 countries who are members, and not a single person who identifies as trans has had the opportunity to play for their country? It just made me realize how special a lot of stories from the Pacific are and how they're able to stand out in the world.

It certainly says something specific and beautiful about your culture.

One of the smallest countries and we were able to secure a piece of history. We'll always be remembered as the country that produced the first out transgender women’s player in a FIFA-sanctioned match.

Then four years later, in 2015, your career reached a really intense crossroads.

Yeah, I was cut from the national team that year. At the time, I was really focused on my transition and on a heavy hormone replacement treatment. I still wanted to play football, but I couldn’t perform as well because of the treatment. After being cut, I had to make a choice about whether I wanted to continue on HRT, or choose football.

And you chose?

I chose football, of course. It's my first love, it's my passion. Transition came second; for faʻafafine, there is no pressure to look a certain way or act a certain way. Transitioning only came when I was pressured into the idea that I have to look as passable as possible to live a comfortable life in America. So I chose not to take hormones anymore after 2015, and by 2019 I made my comeback. I was stronger than I ever was as an athlete and one of the most senior players. I was named captain of the national team that year.

Turning to the film, I wanted to ask about the difference between seeing yourself in the documentary versus seeing an actor’s portrayal of you and your life.

It's crazy. I mean, these things don't happen. Who does this happen to? Whitney got a movie, Mariah got a movie, Tina Turner got a movie. And all of a sudden Jaiyah gets a movie? I still find myself shocked trying to fathom what is going on. Sometimes, I wake up in these hotel rooms and I feel like it's just a dream, but it's real life. Even more so now with the film coming out and with someone portraying me, I think Taika and the writers were able to do such a beautiful job in making sure [to show] the sensitivities of the faʻafafine identity, the cultural significance of it, but also the realities [that] trans women experience.

Can you tell me a little about your relationship with Kaimana, the actress who plays you?

I met her at the launch party for the movie. Our initial conversation wasn't really about her trying to study me or anything regarding the movie. It was more so building a friendship, understanding that we are going to be connected in this way forever. From our initial meet up until yesterday when we had brunch, our relationship has really grown in the sense that I'm my own person. She's her own person. Her creativity really stood out in the movie. She’s also also portraying the faʻafafine community and the realities of trans women being called their dead names, being asked what’s between their legs — all of those uncomfortable, traumatizing things. They’re real, they’re real, and I am happy that they were included because audiences need to see and sympathize and empathize with our experiences. If they make you feel uncomfortable, hopefully when you see someone being treated this way, you can stand up for them.

I’m glad you brought that up about the realities of life as trans women. There were definitely some difficult moments to watch in the film.

Yeah, they're cringe. They're cringe, because they're traumatizing. They bring back horrible memories. But we can't be selfish in those experiences that we all face. This movie can reach audiences around the world, people who don’t know that we go through these things. Maybe now audiences will know to speak up, to step up.

Kaimana as Jaiyah
Kaimana as Jaiyah
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

Was it difficult to rewatch those scenes of disrespect captured by the film?

Well, those aren't experiences accurate to my relationship with Thomas. For example, when he first moved to American Samoa to coach our team, of course he used the name that was on the roster. And at the time I hadn't changed my name legally. Now I have. Once I asked to be called Jaiyah, that respect was there immediately.

Would you say that there are aspects of truth that the fictional film draws out that weren't yet present in the documentary?

Yeah. A lot of the events of Taika's movie are accurate to our lives, just not in the timeline that it was set. Little things like Thomas and Gail's separation, that didn't come until after 2011, but you do see it in the movie. Things like me scoring goals that never happened, but hopefully in the future I can. Then again, if you want to know the real story, just watch the documentary. It's readily available to help with people's curiosities about the real people. I do appreciate that Taika took this project as a coming home for him and as a way to put brown people on the screen and amplify the identity of the faʻafafine specific to the Pacific.

What was the reception like to the film in American Samoa?

Everyone loved it. The faʻafafine community loved how Kaimana portrayed [us], loved how there was a good balance of her bad and good experiences, because we all go through those experiences. What stood out for me and for a lot of the faʻafafine community all around the world, especially the diaspora faʻafafine here in the United States, was when Dave Fane said, “Faʻafafine are the flowers of the world.” That's basically who we are in our communities; we brighten those lives in our society.

As an athlete, what would you say are the major misconceptions that you hear surrounding debates about trans inclusion in sports?

This is that question that I always have a hard time answering because my experience is that I'm a trans woman who plays on a men's team. And because of that, I personally feel that I don't have the right to speak on behalf of trans women who venture into women's or pursue women's sports because it's not accurate to my experience. I have a privilege in that I could be myself and play for a men's team comfortably. And that privilege comes from where I'm from. It's a testament to my people and my culture. But I do also recognize that I have a platform and an opportunity to shed some light on the importance of representation in sports.

From Sasha Colby to *Next Goal Wins*, we’re finally starting to see more MVPFAFF\+ representation.

I hear that. And I get the sense that you’re coming to this topic from a place that could open into a conversation I want to be having, but I don’t think a lot of folks are ready for that conversation yet.

Oh, no. I have to hold my tongue, because sometimes the things I say could be controversial to the LGBTQ+ narrative, but it’s also testimonial to the faʻafafine narrative and my culture’s narrative. Sometimes I feel like I’m caught between worlds. The only thing I can do is speak to my own truth and my own experiences, and hopefully people will be inspired.

What message would you have for young trans athletes reading this?

I think the more important targets are those that ostracize or criminalize or discriminate against [these children]. And so, my approach would be to continue to support our youth, but also strive to help the communities they’re from to be more educated on the identities that are indigenous to a lot of countries around the world. Look at two-spirit people, at hijra, at faʻafafine. If you just let people live and respect them for who they are, we might have a more thriving community, a thriving people.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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Originally Appeared on them.