The Indian state of Manipur is considered one of the sports hubs of the world’s second largest nation, but transgender athletes often sit on the sidelines. Social disapproval and systemic discrimination keep potential competitors off the playing field.
But a group of trans men in Manipur state decided to team-up on the soccer pitch. Fourteen players, backed by a local LGBTQ organization, formed what the media in India report is that nation’s first all-transgender side.
“Tournaments are held either for men or women. But transgender players can’t play with men or women,” Team co-captain and striker Chaki Huidrom told the Deccan Herald. “Even if they take part without disclosing their gender, controversy often takes place in case of a complaint. It is always in our minds on why can’t we have a tournament for the third gender,”
On March 8, the team staged a 7-on-7 exhibition match as part of the Northeast Queer Games. The LGBTQ sporting festival is sponsored by the team’s biggest backer.
“Our society finds it difficult to accept this identity. They face so much of stigma and discrimination that they can’t display their sporting talents,” Ya All founder/CEO Sadam Hanjabam noted in the Deccan Herald. “Our purpose is to help them enjoy their identity and provide a platform to prove them that they can do things together. This will help change our society’s mindsets.”
Hanjaban knows a piece of what these soccer players have pushed through. As a student pursuing a PhD, the stigma of being gay and isolated in an unaccepting environment led to leaving school to deal with depression. Six months later, he founded Ya All, a support and advocacy organization for LGBTQ people, based in the Manipur capital of Imphal.
The name of the organization comes from the Manipuri word “Yawol”, meaning “revolution”. Hanjaban saw soccer as a path to a revolution for trans rights in India. Since much of Indian sport has no inclusive structures for transgender athletes or regulatory templates to create them, he created one on his own.
For the last two years, Hanjaban staged six-on-six matches for transgender players in Imphal. Many of the players on this select squad honed their skills in those matches.
“Given the popularity of football [soccer] in Manipur, we have had transgender and non-transgender people playing in mixed groups. We tried to form a team of trans women, but failed due to social factors. The team for trans men worked,” Hanjabam told The Hindu newspaper about the founding of this team. “It is difficult to get experts to improve the skills of our players. But we hope people will soon get over their prejudices.”
This request and this team come at a time where Indian society grapples with its LGBTQ communities seeking progressive change. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in the nation until 2018. Last December, a new transgender rights bill was enacted, but trans activists across India have criticized the law, especially portions that base legal recognition on legal and medical gatekeeping, as retrogressive.
Now this fledgling team is thinking of how they can push this revolution forward, and inspire others like themselves, seeking a chance to play. “We wish to be a part of state, national and international level football tournaments under the transgender category,” Huidrom said, according to The Hindu. “We hope other players come out so that we can compete, improve ourselves and create strong transgender teams throughout India.”