Jaiyah, the voice of transsexual athletes

IMG_7610Jaiyah Saelua is a fa’afafine, the name for transsexuals in American Samoa. Jaiyah plays football in the national American Samoa team. Today, Jaiyah is the first transsexual footballer to qualify for the World Cup. The career of this endearing character is told in Equipe de rêve, a documentary about the ‘worst team in the World Cup.’ In 2001, this team from Oceania made itself known by undergoing the biggest ever defeat in the history of the World Cup qualifications, 31-0, against Australia. Jaiyah wasn’t there but she took part in the first of her team’s victories during the World Cup 2014 qualifications. Jaiyah is at FIFO to defend this film amongst the ten others in competition.


In French Polynesia, fa’afafine are called raerae or mahu. Did you know that before coming?


Yes. But I didn’t know much, so I found out about it and the situation before coming. It’s different in Samoa. Transsexuals are known and respected. It changes according to the country in the Pacific, as the relationship with transsexuals depends on the way in which they have been colonised. In Tahiti, transsexuals are limited in terms of employment. They are confined to reception, service jobs etc. In Samoa, it’s not at all like that. Our culture results in human beings being respected whatever their tastes or sexual preferences. I wanted to be a football player and I became one.


Has football always been a passion of yours?


No. Before I was 11, I was more girly. When the Samoan Federation decided to develop sport, it started with schools, so I became familiar with football and I found it fun. Then, my team won the Island Cup, as I was recognised as the best football player in the team. That motivated me and I carried on.


When you joined the national team, did the players accept you quickly or was it difficult?

I didn’t have any problems with them. They were uncompromising on a physical level, I had to prove myself as a player, but that’s quite normal. I am in this team because I am a good player and not because I am a fa’afafine. Otherwise, they have always regarded me as their sister. What was most difficult for me in the end was not being able to have my operation. As long as I play football in the national team with men, I won’t have it. And, I don’t want to play with girls as boys are more competitive, so I’ll wait!


In the documentary, a Dutch coach joins the team to revive it. What was his reaction when he met you?


It was very easy with him. He respected and accepted me straight away. He treated me in exactly the same way as the others. He actually said that the Dutch were the most open in Europe. Indeed, most of the previous coaches didn’t react in the same way, some tended to leave me on the sidelines. Ultimately, he was the only one who believed in me.


Beyond your sporting skills, you appear to have an important role in the team. You seem to be the link between the players…


In our community, fa’afafine take on the role of social cohesion and unity. We are there to help one another. When we recruited players from the continent and the islands, there was tension. My role was indeed to bring some social cohesion to the group. So, yes, that’s my role in a way.


Are you proud of what you have accomplished, proud of this title of first transsexual player?


I was lucky to be able to do what I wanted. I have therefore always tried to do it as best as possible. I did not attempt to accomplish something, but simply to do what I love. I was not looking to be the first transsexual in the world to reach the World Cup qualifications. I never sought it. Sepp Blatter, the ex-president of FIFA, gave me this title. From that moment, I had to assume this responsibility.


Do you see yourself as an example for transsexuals today?


Yes, I think so. In some way I became the voice of transgender in sport. Today, my presence is requested at conferences and festivals in the United States, Japan, Australia, London and France… I try thus to increase understanding of the position of transsexual athletes in the world of sport.