The Yaoshang Festival is one of Manipur’s most captivating and vibrant festivals. It marks the onset of spring and is often referred to as the ‘Holi of Manipur’, celebrated across five days. The festival, with a rich heritage, is synonymous with sports and games where people across communities, age and gender come together to take part.
But when Sadam Hanjabam, a PhD student and founder of Ya-All, an NGO that works to empower youth and the queer community, was present at the Yaoshang sports festival in 2018, he noticed how locals divided themselves into male and female, leaving no place for the inclusion of the third gender.
It was during that time he conducted a separate sports event for the queer community, the first of its kind in Imphal. With football being the most popular sport in the state, Hanjabam saw the beautiful game as a tool to break stereotypes in the community.
He managed to stage a six-a-side friendly match between transmen and transwomen. It turned out to be a crowd-puller. Surprised by the buzz it created within the community, Hanjabam decided to create a football team of transgenders – something that had never been done before in India.
The six-a-side friendly match between transgenders was held at the following queer games event and noticing the excitement it generated again in 2019, more transmen agreed to join the team. It was on March 8 this year that Ya-All finally managed to put together of 15-member squad made up of transmen, becoming India’s first transgender football team.
“We created the sports event so that they could play in their own identity, in a safe space,” Hanjabam told Scroll.in.
“When we started the queer games in 2018, we weren’t sure if owners of the venues or if football referees would support it. Most players were shy to come out and participate as well. But the idea of transmen and transwomen playing football among themselves was entertaining to the crowd. We had a one-day sports event comprising of football, track and field and other games. By doing this, we wanted to challenge the system and show that transgenders can also play like everyone else. It was a shock for everyone,” he said.
The latest edition of the queer games, which was attended by more than 100 people, witnessed a seven-a-side match being played among the squad. It also generated interest among media outlets not only in Imphal but across India.
A total of 14 members of the squad are aged below 30 and most of them have already represented their school and college teams.
Hanjabam intended to create another separate team consisting of transwomen but didn’t find much support as most of them, who are employed in the beauty and fashion industry, weren’t interested in sports.
However, that wasn’t the case with transmen, who were enthusiastic to be a part of the football team. Many of them played with women, as they didn’t find support while trying to compete alongside men. But there were occasions when they were shunned, no matter how well they played.
Striker Nick Huidrom, the most senior member of the team played under men and women’s categories previously at the Yaoshang festival. At the age of eight, he was even called-up for a national football trial in the women’s category but withdrew as his father wanted him to focus on academics. The 31-year-old looks up to Indian women’s football team captain and striker Bala Devi, who also hails from his hometown, and loves assisting teammates more than scoring goals.
2020 was the first time Huidrom participated in the queer games. Throughout his life, he never faced discrimination despite his identity.
“My father was proud of me when he found out that I was part of India’s first transgender team,” Huidrom, an MBA graduate in Human Resources told Scroll.in.
“There was no need for me to even come out to my family members. My father has been very supportive. He understood me and what I felt like, so there was no need to reveal my identity.”
However, not many like Huidrom have managed to receive the same support from their families.
“My colleagues and friends, who are transmen, want to play but aren’t ready,” he said. “They don’t feel comfortable as the media will be there and their parents won’t be supportive or ready to accept them.”
Hanjabam is aware of the fear of stigma among people of the third gender, although he wishes to host more events for the queer community across Manipur.
“There are many talented players but due to the discrimination they might face in the field or the society without a safety net, it’s a risk. Their family may disown them and they could face a stigma,” said Hanjabam.
“The acceptability of people belonging to the third gender depends on their financial independence. If they are earning well and managing a family, there’s a high chance that people will accept them. They are considered weak for sports and it’s not a field that could earn them financial security, even if they may have passion for it.”
Hanjabam plans on scouting and training more players, with an aim of making a squad of 30. However, plans of doing so have been disrupted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, the biggest task for Hanjabam has been the lack of resources to fund equipment, kits and training.
He believes if the Manipur government and local clubs can lend support to the team, it will encourage more people of the third gender to come forward.
“We want the team to be recognised by the government and local clubs,” he said. “We lack resources and as an NGO with a small platform, it becomes difficult to reach out to as many people. If the government acknowledges us and provides a platform, there will be support for transgenders. Not only in terms of the monetary aspect but motivating them to come out and play.”
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