Given all the nonsense being said and done in the United States regarding trans people and sports, it’s refreshing to see an example of somebody doing the exact opposite—accepting people for who they are, in a cooperative enterprise that leaves everyone better off. Case in point: The Lotus Sports Club, an under-21 women’s football team in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia, which is the subject of Tommaso Colognese and Vanna Hem’s documentary Lotus Sports Club.
Lotus was founded by Pa Vann, a 61-year-old trans person and former taxi driver and teacher who created the club to encourage solidarity among straight, lesbian, and gender-diverse players. Identified female at birth, he now identifies as a man and is in a long-term relationship with a woman. It hasn’t always been easy—when his partner’s parents learned of her relations, they said they never wanted to see her again, “either in this world or the next.” But as far as the partner is concerned, she’s a straight woman, in a relationship with a man, and that’s all there is to it.
There’s nothing fancy about the Lotus Sport Club—their practice field is mostly sand, the goals lack nets, and many of the players practice barefoot—but it offers young women the chance to play a sport and travel around the country to play against other teams. Even more important, it provides the players who are lesbian or gender diverse a chance to find acceptance and a place where they can just be themselves. Some have experienced discrimination due to their lack of conformity with the appearance and behavior expected from young women, and some have become homeless due to conflicts with their parents. For the latter, Pa Vann provides space in his home, along with job training and advice in navigating their way through life. Lotus Sport Club was shot over a period of five years, which is long enough to see the older players grow into adulthood and claim their place in the world.
Lorn Srey Leak, whom we first meet at age 18, was identified as female at birth but knew he wanted to be male from about age six. As he says, “I know who I am clearly. No one else knows me better than I do. So I don’t care what people say about me.” Playing with the club, he says, “eases my sadness and sorrow and gives me a feeling of joy and happiness.” It’s a needed refuge, because while same-sex relationships are not outlawed, there’s little support for trans people and non-conforming women experience high levels of discrimination. The Lotus players are not exempt: we see them heckled at a game (“Break those lesbian legs!”) and learn that they’ve been called “men without penises” and threatened with having to prove that they are female through a physical exam.
At times, Pa Vann sounds like any coach—”In sport, we cannot succeed on our own. We succeed as a team”—but he also knows that some of his players are under extra pressure due to their nonconformity. He warns the queer players that their difference means they have added responsibility: they will be judged because they stand out from the crowd, so they must always act properly “so that people can see and value that you’re a good human being.” There’s some football action in Lotus Sport Club, but practices and matches are only part of the picture. The more important story is that of gender nonconforming young people finding their place in the world, with the compassionate help of someone who’s been there. | Sarah Boslaugh
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