Soccer’s Fa’afafine Superstar
Photography by Olivier Konig
By 2011, Jayiah Saelua had already been playing soccer for more than a decade on the unruly fields of her native American Samoa, the tiny Polynesian island that flecks the ocean between Australia and South America. But that year, when trying out for the University of Hawaii’s men’s soccer team, Saelua was yanked off the field within 15 minutes. “Thank you for coming out today,” the head coach told her. “But I don’t want to put my team in an uncomfortable position.” Saelua nodded in immediate and embarrassed recognition, murmured a quick “Thank you,” and rushed home.
“I knew what he was referring to,” Saelua says, sitting at a Honolulu café and running her fingers through her meticulously flat-ironed hair. “I had the shortest shorts on the field, my legs were shaved, and I was wearing a padded bra.” Drafted onto American Samoa’s national team at age 14 thanks to her fearsome tackling skills, Saelua thought her deft footwork and years of training would eclipse any issues about the way she looked on the field. Saelua remembers crying after the 5 a.m. tryout as the first smudges of daylight appeared on the windward side of the island. “I thought maybe I should have put on a masculine show, made the team, and shown up in a dress later,” she says. “But then I was like, You know what? Fuck it. I have to get ready for my dance class.” Saelua figured she’d be more welcome at her new school in pointe shoes than in cleats.
During her summer break back home in American Samoa, Saelua gave soccer one more shot and rejoined the national team. For the first time, she made first string, becoming the first transgender player to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifying game. The president of FIFA, Joseph Blatter, sent her a personal letter of congratulations.
In almost every country in the world, growing up to be a soccer (a.k.a. football) player is the fever dream of the adolescent boy. To make the national team, let alone with such a markedly feminine running style (Saelua’s other on-field trademark), is akin to winning an Oscar. What’s more, when she slipped back into short soccer shorts, American Samoa was at the dirt bottom of the FIFA rankings, having not won a single competitive match in more than 17 years. The national team is not sponsored; the players don’t get paid, and coaches and trainers volunteer their time. “Before, when we played, we thought of a match as a free trip and a hotel stay,” Saelua says. “People loved playing and didn’t want to lose, but I don’t think we thought we would actually win.”
Enter Thomas Rongen, a silver-haired, shit-talking, hard-ass Dutchman with a heart of gold who worked with the team relentlessly for a month before the qualifiers. Rongen quickly identified Saelua as a star athlete who was woefully underused.
Rongen also did something no coach had ever done before. “He was the first coach to call me Jayiah on the field, and not Johnny,” Saelua says. Rongen also installed Saelua as the team’s center back. “Can you imagine that in England or Spain?” Rongen asked reporters before the first match. “I’ve really got a female starting at center back.” Though the team did not qualify for the World Cup, they won their first competitive match, beating Tonga 2-1 and breaking a 30-game losing streak.
Saelua is wearing a tight black T-shirt with a chunky font that reads “No Perfect People Allowed.” While adjusting it, she says she’s happy to see the term “trans” ease its way into mainstream consciousness, but if it were up to her, she wouldn’t be recognized as the first trans player in soccer, but as the first fa’afafine player.
Fa’afafine, which translates to “in the manner of a woman,” is American Samoa’s recognized and embraced third gender. Fa’afafine are Polynesians who are born biologically male but dress and live essentially like women. They take male lovers, wear makeup, and wrap their bodies in dresses, but they do not consider themselves women.
“In my culture, we believe there are two spirits inside every person,” Saelua says, “one masculine and one feminine. A fa’afafine is more in touch with the feminine spirit, but we still have a male spirit inside us.” According to Saelua, the fa’afafine of American Samoa aren’t trans, cross-dressers, or drag queens—they’re not even queer. “There’s no such thing as gay on the island,” Saelua says. “If a man wants to be with another man, he will be with a fa’afafine, and he’s not considered gay because he’s attracted to the feminine side of a person. But two straight men getting together?” Saelua says, cocking a sculpted brow. “Never.”
There’s a notion in sociology that island countries like England or Japan create highly intricate social structures—full of rules, customs, and hierarchies—as a buffer against living with so many people in such a cramped space, because life would be intolerable otherwise. American Samoa, with its 55,000 residents on fewer than 1,000 square miles of land, does indeed have an all-encompassing system of behaviors and responsibilities within the family, community, and government. And being a fa’afafine is an accepted part of that system.
Saelua grew up in a family of five, which is considered on the smaller side in American Samoa. She attended private religious school and didn’t hear the word fa’afafine until she was about 8 years old. “I have three aunties who are fa’afafine,” she says, “and I started spending a lot of time with them. They taught me the ways.” By the time Saelua started junior high, she’d begun shaving her legs, giving male classmates flirty kisses, and learning how to apply makeup (though she would not start wearing full makeup and women’s clothes until college). When she enrolled in a community college performing arts program, she began going to school dressed as a woman, then changing back into men’s clothes at home. “It became that sort of situation,” Saelua says, flaring her nostrils and rolling her eyes. She continued to play soccer and basketball and danced in musical theater shows like Guys and Dolls before transferring to the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Saelua’s father is a chief and her mother works for the department of education in American Samoa. While both are accepting of Saelua and her fa’afafine status, it’s not something the family has ever openly discussed. Part of the mum factor for Saelua’s family could be that it is considered taboo for straight men to marry or have a lifelong relationship with a fa’afafine because they cannot have children, which can put an abrupt end to a political bloodline. “That’s why I actually feel more free here in the States,” Saelua says. Here, she can seriously date and eventually marry a man. What’s more, there’s an option in the States that doesn’t exist in American Samoa, an option that causes the burgeoning sports star a great deal of turmoil: hormone therapy.
At 25 years old, Saelua still has another shot at the World Cup, which she plans to take with the American Samoa national team (training camp begins this fall). But in order to stay at peak physical condition for men’s soccer, Saelua can’t transition; estrogen would reduce her muscle mass and accelerate weight gain. Saelua could, in theory, transition and play in the women’s league like other transgender pioneers—Renée Richards in tennis and Fallon Fox in mixed martial arts. “It’s a personal decision I’ve made to delay my transition until after the next qualifying rounds for the World Cup. If I transition now, I won’t be able to play at a competitive level for the men’s team and I don’t want that to be the end: ‘She can’t play soccer because she got her surgery.’ ” (Saelua also doesn’t want to play for the women’s national team because she thinks she would be “stealing” another player’s slot.)
“When I’m on estrogen, I love the way I look and feel,” Saelua says. “My arms get softer, I can feel the buds in my breasts start to grow—but I can’t play soccer well.” While many of Saelua’s trans friends in Hawaii are getting full-dose estrogen shots and breast implants, Saelua is sitting on her hands. “Sometimes I get really sad that I’m not where my friends are in their transitions, and they tell me, ‘Fuck soccer; live your life.’ But they don’t understand what it means to be on a national team from a country like mine.”
After her triumph in American Samoa as a national hero, Saelua returned to the University of Hawaii to discover she had been kicked out of school for not dropping her classes while she was playing soccer. “Going to the qualifiers was not something I planned, but I didn’t want to leave my team and miss the opportunity to represent my country.” She petitioned the dean of her school to allow her back in to the university but was denied. “They said playing for the national team wasn’t a good enough reason,” she says. Saelua spent the next several months unemployed, ambling around the college beach town.
She eventually took a job as a security guard dispatcher in Honolulu to earn spending money. She moved in with her sister, played video games at night, and kept to herself. Then the FIFA president’s letter came, praising Saelua’s efforts. “It just made me realize that beyond playing soccer, I have an opportunity to advocate for LGBT soccer athletes because they are afraid of fans in other countries,” Saelua says. She quit her job as a dispatcher, reduced her estrogen to the lowest possible dose, and began to focus exclusively on training and promoting the documentary Next Goal Wins (available on DVD July 22, watch the trailer here), about American Samoa’s journey to the qualifying round. Saelua was recently offered a position as an ambassador with the national league committee in American Samoa, which she plans to take after the next qualifier.
For now, she’s focused on exercise, a good diet, early nights, and shaving in the mornings. In response to the compliment that her face looks as soft and clear as that of pre-teen girl, Saelua gives a “tsk” and says, “Girl, it’s just a perfect shade.”