An all-trans men football team in Manipur challenges male-female binary in sport, hopes for greater queer inclusion
Manipur's all-trans men football team is a counter to the male-female dichotomy in sport that doesn't provide enough space for queer participation.
When she would turn nine, Oinam Bembem Devi would go on to change her name. She called herself 'Boko' or 'Amko', so that she could play football with the boys.
The rules were simple: if she wanted to be one of them, she must be one of them.
Since then, so much has changed, yet so much hasn't. In January 2020, Bembem became the first Indian woman footballer to be honoured with the Padma Shri. A former captain of the Indian women's football team, her promising career was expected to inspire young sportspersons in both her home state of Manipur, and outside. And that it did.
Chaki Huidrom read Bembem's name for the first time in Class 6, in his General Knowledge textbook. "It was because of her that I developed an interest in sports. At the time, I wanted to be like her and represent my country in football," Chaki recalls. Encouraged by Bembem's sporting career, he began training two years later.
In Class 12, Chaki, who had lived as a woman thus far, came out as transgender. However, the transition failed to reflect in all aspects of his life, especially sports, as he continued to compete in women's teams, often finding himself sharing rooms with them and listening to them talk while feeling like a misfit. Now, as the vice-captain of Manipur's newly formed football team comprising of only trans men, Chaki seems to have found a safe space.
Interestingly, Chaki and Bembem have more in common than one would think: both football fanatics from the same neighbourhood in Imphal, who have reduced gender to what it essentially is: an act.
The team was formed by Sadam Hanjabam, a PhD scholar who established Ya All, a youth network working towards LGBTQIA+ inclusion in Manipur and the North East. It was during the five-day festival of Yaoshang in 2018, celebrated to mark the onset of spring in Manipur, that Hanjabam realised how intrinsic segregation has become to sport. As quickly as they gathered to partake in the festivities, including certain games that are played in all neighbourhoods, the locals divided themselves into male and female teams. Therefore, the football team launched recently by Ya All, is a counter to the male-female dichotomy in sport that doesn't provide enough space for queer participation. "We knew that we needed a proper football team of at least 11 players, and we had been trying to put one together for a long time. However, players were not stepping forward due to social stigma and lack of support. That's why it took this long to form an all-trans team," says Hanjabam.
The football team comprises 14 players: Nick, (captain), Chaki (vice captain), Puja (goalkeeper), Silleibi (goalkeeper), Nellie (mid-fielder), Max, Thoi L, Sanathoi, Lem (striker), KK, Lala (defender), Christina, Thoi S, and Miller. Most of the team members are students of Physical Education, who have previously participated in some queer sporting events.
Growing up, 31-year-old Nick would spend time playing cricket and football with his brothers and male friends. "I always thought like a boy," he recounts. In Class 6, Nick started receiving formal training in football, and was even selected to play at the national level. However, when he eventually came out as trans, he was forced to walk away from the sport. "I wanted to participate in matches but I was not able to since I fit in neither of the two categories — male or female." A striker on the field, Nick now captains the team, his long shots being his USP.
As global sporting authorities walk the tightrope between the inclusion of trans athletes in competitive sport and fairness for their cisgender peers, players like Chaki and Nick struggle to get recognised at the most basic institutional levels in India. Hanjabam reveals that most of the players in the team continue to compete in women's categories in other sports because there aren't enough transgender sportspersons to compete with. Similarly, there are no clear guidelines in place with regard to transgender participation in football. Notably, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) too has been criticised in the past for not having clear regulations to accommodate transgender players, often resorting to sex verification whenever an 'investigation' is opened.
Additionally, there is a telling lack of awareness among the players about medications which could be administered as part of hormone replacement therapy. Moreover, surgical transitions remain a distant dream, as most queer people in the North East struggle to get adequate basic healthcare, their sources being limited to secondhand information from acquaintances, often shared casually over WhatsApp. "The Supreme Court has recognised a third category in gender through the 2014 NALSA judgement, but there are no facilities in place. There are no hostels or washrooms for transgender individuals at workplaces or educational institutions," says Hanjabam. Furthermore, the reassurance provided by the NALSA judgement to the queer community has tragically come undone since the passage of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, which has been critiqued for its stance on certification and 'self-perceived' identities.
While the players' everyday accounts of discrimination are symptomatic of glaring fundamental inadequacies, they find that the only way to thrive in such circumstances is to challenge the system while still being part of it. Even with the strict binary divisions, Ya All's all-trans football team wants to undo the stereotypes the community has been saddled with. "Sportspersons are known to be of high mental and physical strength, whereas queer people are a sexual minority, often considered 'weak'. They are considered better suited for careers in 'softer' industries, not sports. However, we want to further the idea that queer people can compete just as well as anyone else, if given equal opportunity," asserts Hanjabam.
As for Nick, Chaki and the rest of the team, 'comfort' and 'freedom' have new-found meanings. The players hope for their training facility to be formalised so that those trans sportspersons, who have had to compromise their identities, can compete in a separate category, till there are no specific regulatory guidelines in place.
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