Seeing herself portrayed in a Hollywood movie was an experience Jaiyah Saelua won’t soon forget, but she’s more struck by the way “Next Goal Wins” portrays the American Samoan fa’afafine (fah-fa-fee-neh) culture.
The Taika Waititi-directed film, out now, follows the semi-true story of the famously underperforming American Samoa national soccer team’s struggle to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Both Kaimana, the first-time non-binary actor playing Jaiyah in the film, and Jaiyah herself are fa’afafine, a recognized third gender in American Samoa.
Jaiyah’s story is an integral part of the movie’s storyline, which focuses on Michael Fassbender’s Coach Thomas Rongen as he is relegated from the States to the South Pacific U.S. territory of American Samoa to turn a ragtag team of amateurs into professional-level players.
Early in the film, Coach Rongen, a cantankerous, moderately functional alcoholic who would rather be anywhere else, takes his angst out on Jaiyah, even using her deadname at one painful moment. Overall, though, “Next Goal Wins” approaches the subject carefully and much more directly than mainstream films have tended to treat gender nonconformity.
As a team member describes different players to Coach Rongen, he says, “And there’s Jaiyah, the ‘Cindy Crawford of soccer’” and describes her as fa’afafine. “It’s part of our culture,” he explains. “They’re just one of us — but different.”
“But you guys are cool with this?” Coach Rongen asks. “How can I put this?” the player replies. “It’s like… imagine a world without flowers. Well, fa’afafine are our flowers. Be a pretty dull world without them — they’re beautiful.”
“I love that line,” Saelua says in a recent Zoom interview with Pride Source. “[Calling] Fa’afafine the flowers of the world really stood out to me, and it’s true.”
Saelua hopes audiences will learn many things about Samoan culture, including the fact that multiple indigenous cultures around the world recognize a third gender. Western societies, she says, fuel animosity and hostility toward trans women that feels quite foreign to her.
“It’s not part of our realities or our experiences growing up,” she explains. “If American society could just look through a lens into our existence in our Samoan communities, they would realize there’s nothing wrong with embracing this identity for who they are. We become more so of an asset to our communities that way.”
Saelua sees some similarities growing up fa’afafine in American Samoa to growing up transgender in the U.S., but notes some striking differences. In particular, she did not experience “coming out” the way LGBTQ+ often do in Western cultures.
“It’s more of a ‘growing into it’ rather than ‘coming out’ of something or a moment of realization,” she says. “We slowly start to embrace our identities as we grow older. Some fa’afafine actually decide to transition and some don’t — fa’afafine is an umbrella term.”
Essentially, the term refers to people who live their lives differently from the male gender assigned at birth, she says. “You don’t necessarily have to be a trans woman to be a fa’afafine because there are gay men who are fa’afafine, non-binary people who are fa’afafine. There are also fa'atama people — those assigned female at birth who live otherwise.”
Saelua has served as a part of the Federation Internationale de Football Association’s (FIFA) “11 for Diversity” jury panel, which selects the annual winner of the FIFA Diversity Award. The award is granted to nonprofit organizations working to increase accessibility to soccer programs and to destigmatize topics like gender nonconformity in the sport. Coming from a place like American Samoa, where the fa’afafine culture is respected, she says she was surprised to discover such a great need for the program.
“When I was recognized as the first out transgender person to play in a FIFA-sanctioned tournament in 2011, I didn’t even realize it was a thing, but in all the years FIFA has existed and with more than 200 countries that are members, there hadn’t been a single person to represent their country at this level — not even from the Pacific region, where we respect our identities,” she says. “I quickly realized there was a need for this role.”
Saelua, though, also realized she wasn’t the person for that role.
“The more I realized the responsibilities that came with the platform, the more I didn’t want any part of it,” she says. “Not only because I didn’t have a passion for it, but because it was just a lot of things that I not only didn’t know a lot about, but I just felt like I wasn’t the right person. At the time, I didn’t identify as trans, and I still really only claimed the fa’afafine identity.”
These days, Saelua lives in Hawaii and has embraced a trans identity. “It grew on me,” she says. “I was introduced to the pressures of having to be as passable as possible to live a comfortable life as a trans person in the United States. I pretty much forced myself into conforming, and then I realized that it was actually who I enjoy being.”
Still, Saelua says she still holds her fa’afafine identity dear, as well — and others, through “Next Goal Wins,” may come to understand why. The film, she says, has given her an opportunity to advocate for trans women in sports and “to help change the world into a better place and to teach the world about the fa’afafine identity, because I wouldn’t be a fa’afafine if it wasn’t for my community and my culture and my people.”