Opinion: For my community, a single soccer goal captures the life-giving joy of gender inclusivity

The kids jumped up and down, running across the field with their arms pumping into the air. I burst into tears. The other coaches were to parents close to me and a cacophony of adults watching from the other side of the field screaming at the top of their lungs.

At the age of eight, my fun-loving athletic kid, whom I’ll refer to as an E, announced to parents and I, “Me!” When they did, their world expanded exponentially. So did their ability to move through everyday life with a solid sense of self.

She was beautiful then and still is today. E has gone from not knowing the best response when children asked “are you a boy or a girl” or proactive anxiety about questioning teachers or other adults for being in a particular bathroom (even without bad faith, there is always a harmful interaction) to increasing clarity of their identity that serves them better. Good.

Of course, they still face difficult and unpleasant situations. But the “e” knows and they’ll call it anyone who needs to hear it: the ancient gender/binary gender system is the source of such problematic situations, not them.

E knows they are, as they are, right.

But there were some ways in which the E world shrank when it appeared to be non-binary. Sports, the space that used to be a source of fun, physical activity, and relationship-based play of developmental significance, has fallen out of their lives very quickly.
We were proactive, reaching out to work with football and basketball coaches at E and providing resources to explain non-binary identity to try to support these volunteers in learning to use their pronouns. We also made it clear to E that we were willing to work directly with the whole team, but — spoiler alert — non-binary kids are as easily embarrassed by parents as gender-compliant kids.
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Although these efforts were difficult. Even if the coach is brave in trying to create an overall experience, you can’t control the parents on the sidelines or the other kids on the team. Misleading is a constant in the binary system. And mixed play does not solve the problem, because the assumption remains that there are two genders and that you can tell, by looking at a person, how they identify (which, by the way, you cannot).

After just one season out, our 9-year-old said “No more. I don’t want to score again.”

***

My family lives in Iowa, one of the many states where lawmakers promote policies that violate the dignity and safety of transgender people. Across the country, laws are being passed that prevent access to essential life-saving medical care. Families are targeted. The attacks on people’s basic physical and mental health are so relentless that it is enough to keep one’s head spinning.

In this caustic environment, feelings of hopelessness and uselessness threaten to become everyday companions.

It’s not just about the policies themselves. It’s also the ways in which these legislative efforts inject hate speech and all kinds of disinformation into every corner of the public conversation. We are all affected because we are surrounded by inhuman language about transgender people. So are our children.

Those of us whose children are publicly mocked know that we must continue in political efforts to challenge these threats and harm to our families and loved ones. We also know that this is a long-term proposition and the gains will be slow – even icy.

In the meantime, something else is just as important as the well-being of our children, families and communities.

We need to experience life in places characterized by nothing less than sheer joy and complete celebration. And we need to create those spaces ourselves.

***

One day, more than two years after leaving the sport, E thought, “I wish there was a team for non-intersex kids. I’d like to play on that team.”

And this is the day the Primers family was born.

Posted on social media, we ask if people know kids who aren’t bisexual/transgender, or heterosexual kids who would be excited about a soccer team where everyone’s consciences are embraced and honoured.

The resounding answer was “Yes!”

Within a month we had a group of children who I just wanted to play. They were trans children who were non-binary (they/they) and trans children who used he/she or she/she. There were heterosexual children – some had transgender siblings or close friends.

We’ve worked with a local league and our team has made a place on the mixed schedule. We offered to lead a forum for other referees and coaches, wanting to do everything we could to isolate our children from interesting looks or unwanted questions when they took to the field on match days.

Staff reached out to Des Moines Menace, our local United Soccer Leagues affiliated team, to provide support; Their team manager came in and coached an exercise, and they donated LGBTQ soccer balls. A member of our community has arranged for each Primer to receive a player card signed by Adrianna Franch, goalkeeper for the United States women’s national team.

The energy of collective love that surrounded this effort was tangible the moment it began. The longer it lasts, the bigger and stronger it becomes.

This is true for more than just players. This is the reality for the siblings who constantly accompany practices, the grandparents and neighbors who come to the games, and the office co-workers who ask to rejoice. And for Owen, the Australian Shepherd who shows up every Sunday wearing his pride flag and parents who bring cheerful cues and ring a cow’s bell every time we do anything remotely in the playground.

Several times a week, these people appear in a place where the beauty, diversity, and naturalness of every 11-year-old – silly and mischievous children, who love each other deeply, fully respect each other’s identities and just want a place to play – are firmly planted at the center of the universe.

Not long ago, I told a friend who had spent a long time creating spaces for transgender people to thrive how I wanted these kids to have more gentle places in the world to land, for things like Primers to go on full lives. They noted that even when such experiences are temporary, they present a significant problem; They leave “the blueprint for feeling in your body, to know it’s possible.”

***

Each week the Primers play teams of kids their age from local entertainment leagues with more years of experience than they have. Very few prime balls have ever seen a welcome or safety in sports before, and many walked into our training ground and never touched a ball. But they kept showing up, learning, laughing and loving their way into match 15, where finallyThey scored their first goal.

We lost the match 12-1 that day. But we definitely won.

We are still winning.

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