How Manipur’s NGO Ya All is promoting equality and inclusivity through football for queer folks

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Through football, Ya All in Manipur is fighting stigma and discrimination in sports and helping create equal opportunities for the queer community

The extreme adversities in his personal life led this Manipur lad to set up a youth organization that would unite and empower the queer community mainly through sports. Sadam Hanjabam, who himself identifies as queer, started Ya All, a youth-led network of LGBTQ people and allies in May 2017. The organization created the first-of-its-kind all-transgender football team in India and began conducting Queer Games in the Northeast since 2018.

Since its inception, the organization aimed to create a safer environment for the queer community of Manipur, while battling stigmatization and discrimination all over and especially in sports. “We first created a WhatsApp group then it slowly became a youth organization. In Manipur, for visibility you wouldn’t do pride walks or large gatherings, that’s not quite common here like in other cities and states. Culturally we are very different, strong social belief systems and the society is quite small. We cannot just conduct pride walks, we had to find ways to connect to the common people something in the mainstream that they would be comfortable with. Something like sports as a means of creating awareness and providing a platform to LGBTQ individuals in a different manner. That’s why we decided to take up football,”Sadam tells us.

Speaking about their own struggles and how they went about setting up the organization and then the team, Sadam adds, “There’s a lot of stigma associated with the queer community, for me this was like creating my own support system, a safe space for queer people. From my own personal experience, most of the people from the northeast, as we do not have proper education or good jobs, lot of us migrate outside Manipur to find better jobs and be included. I wanted to ensure that the community members living in the remotest areas of northeastern states were heard and seen. I did my MPhil and PhD in TISS, Mumbai. It was a long and difficult journey to earn a place for myself, earn a sense of security in my life. During my PhD days, I underwent depression as I couldn’t cope up with a new city, people, even though I identified as queer. I am an introvert person, the queer scene I saw out there was very loud, vibrant. I somehow felt not too connected with the crowd, I find comfort in staying in my own space. I felt out of place even within the queer circle. I had to take medication, undergo therapy and then finally came back to Manipur. This wasn’t helping, I had no one to talk to properly, even mental health professionals passed judgements. That’s when I decided to start a WhatsApp group to provide a space for people like me in Manipur to voice their concerns, opinions.”

queer community
Sadam Hanjabam, Founder, Ya All NGO | Source: Ya All

Ya All sowed the seeds against queerphobia and gender-discrimination in the sporting community by putting together a strong team of 14 highly capable and passionate members, who are all transgenders. “It has been a misconception that the LGBTQ members whether the queer or transgender persons are equipped in soft skills but are not meant for physically strenuous activities. However, they have not been offered a space to showcase their skills due to their sexual orientation. We began conducting the queer games from 2018 and it has been four years. This year, it was the fourth edition which took place from March 26-27 and as many as 20 transmen were a part of it,” explains Sadam.

Sadam says that they chose football because it is what most resonated with the people in the Northeast. “Everybody loves it here, it is more like an emotion and not just a game. It became a tool for us to get rid of the stigma, people began looking at us differently. They would come out and cheer for us. Because of COVID, we couldn’t do much last year, did on the local level but we would like to conduct the games on a national level someday,” they add.

There are a lot of constraints, discrimination that comes into play when people from the queer community wish to participate in mainstream sports. “In sports, transgender people do not have a separate category. You have to be mentally and physically fit, when you are playing in a team. If you are asked to play in a team where you do not identify with the gender, there is a pressure, you are not satisfied. Sharing the locker room, bathroom, dorm or hotel room, it’s a traumatic experience for them when they have be in a team of a certain gender they don’t identify themselves with. It all affects the game. Sports should be for everyone, it’s time that we question this. The Supreme Court has already recognized transgender as the third gender, then why shouldn’t it be applied properly to sports?” asks Sadam.

As far as their future plans go, Sadam adds that Ya All is advocating more recognition, equal opportunity in sports for queer people. “They should get equal opportunity to take part in sports, we wish that it becomes bigger and more people join in and thus we are able to nurture LGBTQ talents in the future. We would also like to conduct the queer games on the national level where teams from other states join in as well,” they conclude.

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