Personal Stories

“Jersey Number 49! Left Winger!”: A Trans Man In A Women’s Football Team

At the time, I had come out to some of my friends in college but not to anyone within my squad. It was hard as I had to present myself as a woman and tolerate being addressed with the wrong pronouns. I made a compromise because I was finally getting to play the sport I adore at such a high level.

Women’s football in India is really paving a path for itself and making itself known to the world. It is becoming popular. India also hosted the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2022. Within India, states have started organising women’s football tournaments such as the Karnataka Women’s League, the Delhi Women’s Premier League and the most anticipated Indian Women’s football competition, the Indian Women’s League. Many of these leagues are also broadcasted live. This is a huge step forward for Indian Women’s football.

However, as many institutions and public spaces are gender segregated only based on the two accepted genders, man and woman, football, like any other sport, also fails to recognise genders and identities beyond the binary. Being an avid football enthusiast and being a trans man, this aspect of sport is something I absolutely loathe.

Competitively, there is very low scope for identities beyond the gender binary to be recognised publicly. At the end of a game or tournament, one might identify differently, but will still either be considered as part of the men’s category or women’s. Of course sport claims to be divided in this way so that both male and female athletes have a fair chance at competing based on what their biological bodies can do. And since we live in a male dominated world, there is no doubt that female athletes have suffered and opportunities and resources for them have been limited. But why cancel out the possibility of trans and gender nonconforming athletes competing professionally? This is a battle trans people, especially trans women, have been fighting for ages.

Recreationally, there is a lot of scope for sporting communities or groups to organise and encourage mixed gender sport and tournaments. But most communities just end up considering mixed gender as consisting of equal number of women and men in the same team, again excluding non-binary identities.

Despite football, or any other sport, being heavily gender-segregated, there are many successful trans and other gender nonconforming athletes making a name for themselves. There are not many South Asian or Indian athletes who may publicly identify that way, but many do choose to represent themselves confidently and choose to be themselves without, perhaps talking about it. Even within the Indian Women’s Football Team, there are many players who sport short haircuts and coloured hair and dress in ways which will be considered more typically masculine.

Three years back, I got the opportunity to play as a left winger for one of the teams participating in the Karnataka Women’s League (KWL), 2021 -22. The KWL is the most anticipated women’s football competition in the state, with players coming from different parts of the country, different socio-economic backgrounds, speaking different languages etc. to give trials for the teams participating in the tournament. Once selected, training goes on for about two months before the one month period of the tournament commences.

At the time, I had come out to some of my friends in college but not to anyone within my squad. It was hard as I had to present myself as a woman and tolerate being addressed with the wrong pronouns. I made a compromise because I was finally getting to play the sport I adore at such a high level. While competitively and in the larger atmosphere of the tournament, I was still considered as a woman or female athlete, there was strangely a sort of comfort and feeling of safety regarding my gender identity amongst the company of my teammates and coaches, unlike any other I had felt before.

This comfort and reassurance came from the fact that my team, and other teams as well, had players similar to me. Many of them had short hair, some of them sporting fancy shaves and coloured hair. I mostly saw my teammates on the field where we were always in our training gears. But if there were outings, I came to realise that some of their sense of style and clothing were similar to mine—more masculine and “boyish” one would say. I felt a sense of belonging with these players. I didn’t know what they identified as or what their preferred pronouns were. I often wondered whether they were also closeted and had admitted the fact that they would, for obvious reasons, be addressed as women. Many of them also came from quite remote areas of the country, which sometimes made me wonder whether or not they had access to the proper resources to understand the depths of their identities. But whether they did or not, they seemed extremely confident about in the way they chose to represent themselves. And that was very encouraging.

These topics were not always discussed or said out loud. However, there was support and

acceptance from the entire squad. It felt good when they used to compliment my sweatshirts or my caps that I used to wear to training or classroom sessions. Few words were then exchanged regarding where these clothes were bought from. I get a haircut quite often because my hair grows out very fast; and because I cut it so often, nobody really notices. But in training, it used to become the talk and discussion of the day. There were so many compliments and questions regarding it, not just from my teammates but from the coaches and staff as well.

There were times when my coach and some of the players, who I am assuming identified as cis women, would refer to us playfully as boys or men. While it was said in a comical manner, I could see the joy and contentment in my fellow teammates’ eyes of being addressed as boys. And it was enjoyable because these comments were never passed to put us down. There was never any judgement about our dressing sense or comments about how we should dress up more like “women”. Our identities were validated within the squad without actually knowing what they are.

Many of my teammates were also openly in queer and same-sex relationships, within the squad or beyond it. In between the season, I was staying with the team in the accommodation provided by the club and I remember overhearing two of my teammates talking about their identities and relationships. “I know I can dress like this and be with girls while I am here but once I go back home… I mean at the end of the day, all of us have to marry men only, there is no other way around it,” one of them expressed. The second teammate just sighed and agreed. It was quite heart-breaking to hear that, although they were extremely comfortable with their identities and orientations, they were unable to imagine a future for themselves in which they could live the same way.

They did, however, imagine a future in football, pursuing a career in it and perhaps in many ways seeing it as an escape from the confines of spaces which would not allow them to live the way they would ideally like to. While there was an awareness that one was playing in a women’s tournament and that at the end of the day one would be considered a woman and nothing else, it wasn’t the most important aspect or something that was extremely bothersome. At the time, football was all I had got, a faraway space from all the confusion and vagueness which comes with coming out.

I stopped playing competitively recently. While football as a sport is something which will always be dear to me and a passion I will continue to indulge in for the rest of my life, I cannot participate competitively anymore because eventually being addressed as a woman in the larger sense was getting too much to handle. I also made that sacrifice because transitioning medically had become equally, if not more, important. When I tell people this, they try to encourage me by saying, “That’s okay! You’re so good and you can definitely play for a men’s team.” When I deny what they say and express that competitively I don’t have a shot at it anymore, they are always quick to assume that I am not confident about my skills in the sport. That is not entirely true. Many trans men do compete professionally in sports from the men’s side after transitioning medically. And while that may seem like a possibility for me, it is something which terrifies me as well; because I am aware of the toxic masculine culture in which we live and the kind of comfort and safety I felt within a women’s team is not something I can expect from a men’s team. And that was very important to me, the euphoria and solace that came with playing the sport and being part of a team.

Sport is supposed to be competitive and hard. Coaches are expected to be terrifying and athletes are expected to do well under immense pressure. But football was never that for me and I wouldn’t like it to become that.

For my fellow queer teammates, who are still in the game, working hard day in and day out to pursue a career in football, it continues to remain a safe space, to be themselves without feeling insecure and judged. It seems that is also the only way they can express their identities fully and safely. At the time that I was playing, it felt the same way for me. Some days definitely felt more dysphoric than the rest, but the opportunity to play the sport I love, and play it so often, without having to degrade or hide my identity, is something I will always remain immensely grateful for.

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Imaan (he/him) is an illustrator and writer based in Delhi, currently pursuing a Masters in Literary Art. As a trans man, he aspires to craft characters and narratives that young queer and trans children can look upto—something he lacked growing up. Through his stories, Imaan aims to combat trans erasure and celebrate the existence of trans men.
Imaan H

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