Soccer Field of Dreams for LGBT

BUENOS AIRES — In the Constitución neighborhood of Argentina’s capital, Celeste Lirrazabal, a 53-year-old female transsexual, escaped prostitution, drug trafficking and violence thanks to an unlikely weapon: her passion for soccer. Kicking a ball gave her a pathway out of 15 years as a sex worker.

Today, the fit blonde devotes most of her time to playing soccer for Ferro Carril Oeste and Atlético Huracán, two Buenos Aires clubs. She doesn’t get paid to play. Instead, she supports herself thanks to a pension she receives from the state. She also works part-time jobs, such as working at a hospital teaching transsexuals about HIV, and providing care for the elderly. In December, she won a local soccer competition in the seaside village of Villa Gesell. For the first time in two years, she could afford a flight to her hometown of Jujuy in the north of the country to visit relatives.

Lirrazabal’s idol is the Argentinian soccer great, Maradona. She is striving to shake up the soccer world in Catholic Argentina – the pope’s birthplace – in her own way. She says she is dedicated to becoming the nation’s first transsexual to play soccer professionally – in the country’s first division.

That will be a tall order. According to FIFA, the world’s governing soccer body, the oldest athlete who played in the World Cup was the Colombian Faryd Mondragon, who was 43 when he played in the 2014 event. The oldest player to compete in Argentina’s elite level was Juan Sebastián Verón, who was believed to be at least 38 when he last played. For Lirrazabal, her dream to compete at the highest level of soccer is less about athletic accomplishment and more about making a statement on behalf of the transgender community. “I want to break down barriers so that society sees me as one more girl,” she says.

As Lirrazabal strolls around the colonial streets of Constitución, familiar faces still call her “Dani,” her name when she worked the streets. She does not mind. Lirrazabal wants to galvanize her former colleagues into playing soccer to give up prostitution.

Lirrazabal’s openness about her past and her dreams for the future are buoyed by the country she is living in. Argentina has one of the most advanced set of laws across Latin America that governs the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. In a 2015 report by the World Health Organization, “Transgender People and HIV,” Argentina is cited as an exemplary country for providing gender-equality rights.

The country’s gender equity law, passed in 2012, enables individuals to change gender on official documents without any psychiatric diagnosis, as is required in most countries, including the United States. Argentina is the only country that allows people to change their gender identities without facing barriers such as hormone therapy, surgery or psychiatric diagnosis that labels them as having an abnormality.

There are no official statistics on the transgender community in Argentina or elsewhere in the world. However, the Association of Transvestites, Transsexuals and Transgenders of Argentina, the largest transgender organization in the country, estimates the transsexual population in the country is about 12,000.

In September 2015, the Buenos Aires province passed a hiring quota law that requires local government to set aside at least 1 percent of its jobs for the transvestite, transsexual and transgender community. Lirrazabal says she has found respect in the most unlikely places for inclusion. In Buenos Aires’ largest and most infamous slum, Villa 31, female soccer aficionados have invited her to play a game with them on Sundays.

“Most people will always discriminate: ‘is this a man or a woman?’ they would ask,” explains Constanza Rojas, Lirrazabal’s soccer mate and resident of the shantytown. “I was intimidated when I first met Celeste but then, when I got to know her, I understood she was a girl.”

This video was produced for U.S. News and World Report in December 2015 and published on April 4, 2016. Click here to watch it. 

 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *