India's first transgender team finds no opponents
A transgender team in Manipur has helped some footballers rise above discrimination and find confidence in their identities, but their biggest problem remains - who do they play against?
Imphal: In a historical judgement passed in 2014 by the Supreme Court, India recognised transgender people as the 'third gender' alongside males and females. On January 10, 2020, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 was passed by both Houses of Parliament.
In the domain of sports, however, these rulings are yet to be seen in practice. Except in Manipur.
Sadam Hanjabam, who founded the country's first trans-men football team in Imphal two years ago, is happy with the progress he has made so far in making football inclusive in this "cornered state of northeast India". But he is puzzled why none of the major states, despite the infrastructure at their disposal, have not taken any initiative to produce an ideal environment for sportspersons of non-binary gender.
"There are so many transgender individuals in the country working in sports, but the discrimination faced by them till date should be a concern for Sports Authority of India. I hope some day there can be leagues arranged for transgenders, as is done for both men and women," said Hanjabam, whose club 'Ya All' has given some local footballers a new chance at sports.
One of the players who plays as a defender for the team, Thoi Khumukcham, said, "I was a shy person when I joined this team. But the atmosphere at this club and playing here have helped me boost my confidence. It has helped me get past all of my fears."
Who do they play against?
Being a one-of-a-kind club has its share of disadvantages. The biggest one of which is - who do they play against?
"Football has always been completely binary - only for men and women. We do not have any other transgender team within reach who we can play regularly, so it's hardly possible for us to field our entire team," said Laishram Arvind Singh, who coaches the team.
"So what we do instead is that we play mixed-gender matches on weekends. On weekdays, we arrange friendly matches between the players of the club, sometimes 5-a-side, sometimes 9-a-side," he added.
But the question of who they play against is a tricky question, one that the entire world is grappling with.
World swimming body FINA recently banned transgender swimmers from participating in the women's category. There are reports FIFA, the world football body, is set to follow FINA's way. Germany's football body recently allowed trans footballers to play in whichever category - men's or women's - they chose. One of UK's best grassroots league recently faced a boycott from clubs after their inclusion of non-binary footballers in the women's league.
Closer home, the Kerala High Court's 2021 verdict allowed a transgender judo player, Anmika, to participate in the women's category of a district-level meet after being barred by the organisers. "A transgender person has equal right to participate in competitions...If the organisers have not made arrangements for participating transgender, then the petitioner will have to be permitted to participate in her chosen category," the verdict said.
From USA football star Megan Rapinoe to India's star athlete Dutee Chand, many current players have spoken in favour of inclusion of trans athletes because it is the humane thing to do. "Everyone, irrespective of his or her gender, has the right to play and compete. It's the basic human principle," Dutee had said earlier.
Hanjabam, who is pursuing a PhD from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, has been working in Manipur to empower adolescents, youths, and the whole queer community through life skills and capacity-building in health, education, livelihoods and overall well-being. Since 2018, 'Ya All' has also been organising an annual Queer Games in the state.
He said he wants to go one step beyond from Dutee and Rapinoe's advocacy of inclusion of trans athletes in gender-binary leagues. "Just acknowledging a gender is not enough, they should also be provided equal opportunities and rights that are being provided to everyone," he said.
He said the 'Ya All' team has come up after many hardships, but that their future is still a question because no one else has followed his lead in coming up with other teams of only trans-men or trans-women footballers.
"It was meant to be a model team, it was meant to boost the morale of any transgender person so that they can create a team like ours. We need to create a movement so that Indian sports recognises the third gender. We need support from the public, from sports bodies, for the players to come out and support," he said.