In December 2020, Mara Gomez made history as the first transgender footballer to play in Argentina's women's championship. Her debut for Villa San Carlos in Berisso, Argentina, against Lanus in the Primera Division was the culmination of years of struggles, having dealt with persecution, discrimination and abuse. She says football has saved her life, and she wants to use her experiences and powerful voice to tell the world the importance of equality, love and opportunity.
Mara is just 24 years old and is a reluctant activist, but she wants her story to inspire those marginalised in society, or anyone who is trying to navigate their way through life looking for the light at the end of a tunnel.
Here she tells ESPN senior writer Tom Hamilton about her life and journey to realising her dream of playing football, but also explains why she is far from finished.
Editor's note: The following was edited and condensed from two 90-minute interviews with Mara conducted over Zoom. She was interviewed in Spanish, which was then translated to English from those transcripts. We have kept her words in her voice as much as possible except where certain idioms did not directly carry over.
Read this story in other languages: Spanish and Portuguese
'Football is the thing that keeps me together'
I am living an undreamt dream, because it was hard for me to visualize myself as a professional player. It was hard for me to think of myself as someone who would fulfill a space inside something so limited, not just because of institutional rules but also because of ideological and cultural ideas; football's "place" in society has always been occupied by men.
I always consider "football" as if it was a sort of anesthetic for my pain, because that's what it was. It wasn't that I was looking for a hobby and said "I'm going to do football because I want to commit to something." Football helped me navigate all the emotional issues and all the suffering I dealt with daily because of all the discrimination and exclusion, and the fears that it caused inside me when I'd think about my future. What would I be able to accomplish in terms of a dignified job, an education, having the life any human being has: those are fundamental rights.
As I said before, and always say, for me, football was and is my therapy, my emotional source of support; it's a lifestyle for me. When I say that "it saved my life," it's because I had suicidal episodes when I was a teenager and football was the one thing that allowed me to take those thoughts off my mind.
Football is still the thing that emotionally keeps me together; it's my lifestyle. And currently, it's also a job.
Where I came from
I live in the city of La Plata, located in the Buenos Aires Province, in the La Granja neighborhood. I live with my family on the same lot; there are three houses on it.
I live at the front, in my own place. My family occupies the house in the middle of the lot: it's in the largest house of the three. My sister, who lives with her partner and her daughter, occupy the house at the bottom of the lot. We're a large family. I live with my mom, her husband, my sisters and my brother-in-law. Even though we have some separation, we're always sharing the same spaces. We have lunch together; we eat dinner together. We're always sharing as a family. We're always united.
Throughout my childhood, every time I played or imitated someone, it was always related to a female role. I always played as a mum, sister, daughter, aunt -- everything related to the female gender. Until I turned 11, I was confused about my feelings. That's when I began to realize that I wanted to be Mara Gomez, that I wanted to be a woman, that I felt like a woman.
Around then, I began to change how I perceived myself, as well as shifting my looks from the typical mama's boy to the typical mama's girl.
My family supported me in this transition process, but I mustered strength from any place I could. I couldn't find a way to keep myself together. I couldn't understand why I went to school and suffered so much discrimination, I couldn't get into the girls' room because teachers wouldn't allow me. I couldn't understand why I'd go to the doctor and have my identity disrespected.
I felt alone when I was a child; I have always been wholly vulnerable when it comes to my emotions, which caused me to think at times that I didn't want to live. I believed that this life was not what I wanted for myself, that it wasn't for me; that I didn't deserve to be here. I have also dealt with being discriminated against, some of the most challenging moments in my life. But I have been overcoming them, and it has all been thanks to football.
When I was 15 years old and started to play, I was excluded because there were no women's leagues here in La Plata. There were neighborhood tournaments, and when they organized an inter-municipal women's tournament between local cities, they didn't let me play since I was still classified as male on my identity card. I was also just starting to play the sport. I wasn't immediately brilliant or boasting the skills I now have. Women's football was brand-new in our neighbourhoods, and it was a novelty to see a transgender girl on the pitch.
On May 8, 2012, Argentina passed the Gender Identity Law, which allows transgender people to change their name and gender on their identity card. As Mara turned 18, women's tournaments were starting to be organised in La Plata. On March 16, 2019, women's football in Argentina went professional.
As soon as I got the ID card, I felt relief. It was liberating; it gave me the license to say, "Well, my identity is stated in this document, I will be able to prove it wherever I go." I won't have to explain that the name in my document does not truly reflect what I feel, how I identify myself, that this isn't it.
On the contrary, I started to feel like a more confident person. I realized I would be able to attend college and sign up for classes as Mara Gomez, I could go to a medical checkup and be referred to as Mara Gomez.
The Gender Identity Law -- and the document I received at the time -- was significant in my life because it opened doors for me. It allowed me to access new spaces and be a part of the football world today, occupying an area that was previously limited for us, a place we weren't allowed.
From the age of 18, the document gave me the security I didn't have when I was a teenager.
I went to a tryout; there were roughly 25 girls, and the tournament was organized for teams with seven players instead of 11. They were trying out players and, well, they picked me. The organizers already knew I was a trans girl and said in front of everyone that I would be treated as just another player. They said that they were going to respect me. If I had the ID, I had to be included.
I started to learn more about this sport, and once I started playing in a league, when I was 18 years old, that's when I began my journey as a football player.
I started at Toronto City in the Liga Lifipa (Independent Platense Youth Football League, founded in La Plata in 1976). Toronto City felt they were pioneers for signing the first trans player in the Liga Lifipa, and I mean "they" because it was club president, Hugo Sueldo, and the coach who picked me. Honestly, that's when I also started to be known as a league player in the eyes of my opponents and supporters. I was still suffering from discrimination, but not on the scale I dealt with at 15 years of age.
There are plenty of rivals that maybe didn't want to play against me at the time because they thought [my presence] was a disadvantage for them. However, some of them would end up being my teammates, and they have now changed their perception of me as well was what they thought a transgender player was.
Whenever you used to say "trans girl," the first thing people associated us with in Argentina was prostitution or crime -- illegal things. However, I started to change the perception people had inside the football world. I made them look at a different reality of being a transgender girl.
Making my way as a pro player raised my profile inside the football world. I started to catch people's attention, and not just as a trans girl. I also became Mara Gomez, the football player. That led me to have the opportunity of joining Villa San Carlos; and they wanted me there. I already knew that some top-flight teams were interested in me at the time, right before Villa San Carlos called, but they were maybe a bit hesitant of taking that first step and signing me because they were fearful of what might happen...
Then Villa San Carlos opened the door for me. The truth is that their manager, Juan Cruz, made me part of his team, obviously, because of the way I play. My playing skills caught his attention. He called me, and he made me part of this squad. That's when the 'inclusion revolution' started inside professional football.
'If I don't comply, I'm out of the team'
To step into sports on a professional level forced me to deal with certain situations: I had to fight for inclusion and for me to play, I had to assess the [legal] grounds on which we could base our case.
I had to follow the guidelines issued by the International Olympic Committee regarding the inclusion of transgender athletes in professional sports. Those guidelines state that in the case of a transgender woman, a 12-month-hormonal treatment must be prescribed so that she can comply with specific hormone parameters, ranging from 1 to 10 nanomoles per liter of testosterone in her blood.
To comply with those standards meant that I could play in a professional competition.
The idea was to meet with the Argentina FA so that they could listen to me and understand my case, that for me, football is not only a right but also a necessity. Also, that sport should be for everyone, regardless of sex or gender.
We had three meetings with the AFA leading up to the decision in March 2020. Every meeting was cordial, and in the end, we had to sign an agreement. I committed to undergo hormonal treatment, something I was already doing, and comply with those hormone standards in order to compete. Before every new season, I must undergo hormone testing, and according to the results, if I'm within the parameters, I can compete.
My relatives were the first ones to learn the news. We didn't want to tell others ahead of time. We wanted to keep it under wraps until a few days before my official debut. The end of March/beginning of April also happened to be when the coronavirus lockdown started, so we had to wait until football resumed to announce the news.
The truth is that my hormonal treatments have a considerable effect on my emotions. During lockdown, it negatively influenced me because I was confined, unable to train with the group, unable to play and unable to do that one thing that keeps me together and is good for me. The isolation of lockdown made me feel moments of sadness, moments of anger, of anxiety, nervousness -- these were times when I couldn't stand anything, in which I wanted to give everything up, in which I didn't want to keep on going through these things we were doing so that we could compete.
And even though I can play, this treatment is still discriminatory and exclusive because if I don't comply with those standards, I'm out of the team until the next time I'm tested. I don't think this is asked of any female footballer or any football player whatsoever; however, those tests are performed on me since I'm a transgender player.
This has emotional and physical consequences for me in the short, medium and long term. I feel different. I experience emotional changes like mood swings. The treatments also weaken me; I feel like they take my performance levels away from me, even muscle mass off me. It takes endurance away from me; I feel like get tired quicker and that I'm at a disadvantage compared to my teammates and opponents.
The treatment can also have long-term consequences -- it can increase the risk of breast cancer. Yet we had to agree to that so we could have one foot in the sport and, from within the system, begin to think about an inclusive professional football. That's what we are doing today: we're fighting and struggling to achieve inclusion.
'I feel I have a lot of support surrounding me'
I finally made my debut for Villa San Carlos on Dec. 7, 2020, against Lanus. I was so happy that I couldn't sleep the night before. When I walked out onto the pitch, I felt emotional, nervous and anxious all rolled up into one after so many months of not being able to play because of the lockdown or the pandemic. The only thing I wanted to do was get on the pitch and enjoy that moment as a footballer, beyond the fact that it was a historic moment for both my country and for football worldwide.
My team, Villa San Carlos has experienced many struggles because of financial issues, because of the facilities where we train. We've also suffered a lot of defeats. Our team is brand-new, reassembled with new players. We're still getting to know each other. Right now, the girls are putting in their best effort, doing as much as they can. I'm a striker; my job is to score goals; that's my role on the field. And it has always been a matter of focusing on this.
It was exciting because despite the 7-1 defeat, Villa San Carlos achieved the first inclusion, at the professional level, of a transgender player. And when Lanus came with that gift of one of their shirts with my name on the back, it was so exciting. I broke into tears since I was already feeling overwhelmed with emotion and with that gesture, they made me feel part of professional sports. They made me feel supported. Beyond the rivalry [both clubs are from Buenos Aires], they understood the moment and that inclusion is the way to go; it's all about respect and making this game [accessible] to everyone, regardless of sex or gender.
The truth is, I didn't just receive that gift from Lanus; I got so many messages from top-flight players here in Argentina, players from the Argentine national women's team, female players in other countries as well. I felt supported, and I enjoyed it a lot. To this day, I feel I have a lot of support surrounding me. I know that tomorrow, if necessary, they will be right there with me.
'I never thought I'd be an activist'
My family is so happy with everything I'm living and doing, all the things we're accomplishing and what all of this means. Not just for me but for society as well. My family supports me; they give me space and understand that I don't spend a lot of time at home since I'm training, and when I am at home, I'm locked up studying, or granting interviews, like I'm doing right now. So, my family understands me, supports me, surrounds me; they're always looking forward to seeing what happens next. They are so happy for everything happening to me, and obviously, since they have also understood that, for me, football is a part of who I am, and no one can take it away from me.
They've gotten used to my routine, and it's normal for them to see me busy being a footballer, a student, a public figure, an activist. I fully thank them for that.
I count on Lorena [Berdula]; she is the first female football manager here in Argentina. She also started the women's team for Estudiantes de La Plata in 1997.
For inspiration, my references are Brazil's Marta, and Megan Rapinoe for the way she mobilizes society and connects it with our fight, this struggle for equality inside the sport. I also meet with the 1971 pioneers [the Argentina team who represented the country in the 1971 Women's World Cup, organised by the Federation of Independent European Female Football] and we'll share spaces, we'll share our stories.
I never thought I'd be an activist, either. It just happened when other people thanked me for putting myself on the line, for raising my voice, for being so strong. Parents have written me thanking for the change of perception I've caused in their lives, because they also have children, sons and daughters. Because they start to understand things from a more affectionate, and empathetic, point of view.
Argentina is a pioneer in the field of inclusion. I hope that this experience gets to be repeated all across the world, because there are many LGBTQ+ communities worldwide. It also has to do with the fact that this results from many years of struggle from the LGBTQ+ community, so we could have a Gender Identity Law and be recognized by the state here in our country. It also represents the start of opening more opportunities for upcoming generations, so they won't have to deal with as many obstacles to become a part of this sport.
I feel a lot of pressure not just because of my role to score goals on the pitch but also because I'm a pioneer. Therefore, everything I do from this point will be our legacy for future generations.
Nowadays, that's my pressure. Not just dealing with going to training or thinking about the weekend, whether I'd play or not. I also must think about all the work and the tools we must use to keep on building the road towards achieving real inclusion inside professional sports. To fight with all our strength so inclusion can be tangible, efficient and without any sort of impediments.
'My role is to educate'
I believe people can change their ways of thinking, and I know so because I have lived it inside the football world. The fact that an opposing player didn't want me to play against her, to now, seeing her become a person who supports me and joins me, for example. That's why I feel obliged to be an activist; so every person who's reading this story might be able to have a different perspective of what this is, of what nonbinary means. We are all human beings and deserve the same respect and dignity in living, and we deserve opportunities of being and belonging inside all aspects of society.
Despite the fact I am a professional footballer, I'm also about to graduate with my nursing degree. I have many good and positive things surrounding me, but at the same time, I still have that emotional weakness, and sometimes I feel defenceless. I work with a psychologist to give me another resource of strength; sometimes, I want to give everything up and leave it all behind, because there are way too many conditions, too many limitations. And sometimes, the hormonal treatment makes me think that I'll never be able to be entirely free.
Today, my role is to educate, to ... encourage people and make them see they can make their dreams come true. To make them see, through my story, that discrimination hurts and is ostracizing, and that all people have a right to live this life with dignity. That we can aspire to be a part of all those things that are good for us.
We have a specific time on Earth, and I believe and think that during that time, we have to do positive things for us, to occupy spaces we want to be a part of, as long as we don't hurt other people. And I believe that life is to be lived, that our mere existence, it's such a precious gift, and we must take advantage of it to the fullest. We must give ourselves the place and the opportunity to do everything we wish to do, all things we like doing. And well, that people learn to listen to each other, to respect each other. To learn how to love.
I don't know whether this is full happiness, because I'm still dealing with obstacles and adversities. I'm still navigating them, but I'm happy that I am fulfilling and accomplishing everything I was afraid of when I was a teenager.