Jaiyah Saelua is a footballer first.
The first openly transgender woman and fa’afafine to compete in a Fifa World Cup qualifying match for men, she has become a global champion for the rights of transgender and fa’afafine athletes, and now – almost disbelievingly – finds her life portrayed in an upcoming Hollywood film, directed by Oscar winner Taika Waititi, to be released later this year.
But the game remains her primary and abiding love.“I was always very fast,” 32-year-old Saelua says matter-of-factly, “and not afraid of being around the boys. Soccer gave me the space to be me.”
Salua first found that space on the wings of a quiet field in Fatumafuti, American Sāmoa, two decades ago. In the years since, she has carved an extraordinary space in the world game.
Fa’afafine, Saelua’s identification since adolescence, is an umbrella term in Sāmoa for people who identify as a gay man, a trans woman, or as nonbinary but with female characteristics: “more than an identity,” Saelua explains, “it’s a way of life”.Her journey in the game began, aged 11, when her school in Fatumafuti, on the easternmost point of Tutuila Island, formed its first soccer team.
They won the championship in their first year: Saelua was the competition’s most valuable player. “I was very competitive: I hated losing,” she says.
Three years later – aged just 14 – Saelua was drafted to train with the senior national team. Two years after that, aged only 16 and still at school, she played her first international match. Saelua was in the starting eleven by 2011.
But the travails of the American Sāmoa national football team have not been easy. In 2001 – when Saelua was just a child – the team became infamous for the worst loss in the history of international football, defeated by Australia 31-0.
Haunted for more than a decade, and determined to qualify at the 2014 Fifa World Cup, the team was reformed under the coaching of Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-born, American-based former professional, hired by the Football Federation of American Sāmoa to expunge the demons of that loss.
That team – which by now included Saelua – won their first World Cup qualifying match, a 2-1 victory over Tonga in the Oceania confederation, in their most successful attempt to reach the finals yet.
They did not progress to the next round, but their endeavours were the subject of a documentary which brought Saelua to global attention.(In an extraordinary coincidence, Saelua’s first coach at school in 2000 was the national team’s goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu, who, a year later, had to retrieve the ball 31 times from his own net in that infamous and demoralising loss. “After winning,” Saelua says of the qualifying victory she played alongside Salapu, “I was mostly happy for Nicky who got to make amends with the past, something that had haunted him for a long time.”)
‘I didn’t realise how easy we had it’
For Saelua, football star and fa’afafine have been easy worlds to inhabit simultaneously. She’s known no other way.
“It’s very common, actually, for fa’afafine to play sports … Sāmoan society has no limits on what fa’afafine can pursue in life. In anything we choose to do, society in the islands will always view us as assets.
“Every time we stepped on the field, we were judged by our performance as athletes, and not by the way we swung our hips, or how we ran, or how we celebrated.”Saelua says there was no single defining moment when she realised she was fa’afafine, rather it was a slow process of gradual understanding.