Mara Gomez first remembers feeling different when she was just 11 years old.

She was assigned male at birth in a family of four girls, and she says she would constantly play the role of mom, sister or girlfriend in made-up games with friends. Those make-believe parts made her feel more like her true self, she says.

The following years of adolescence were full of confusion and sadness, she says, as she embarked on a journey to embrace whom she knew she was inside, despite the discrimination that she faced.

Gomez was scared for what her future would hold, but an invitation to play soccer with neighborhood women and girls set her on a path of making soccer records in amateur and semiprofessional leagues to breaking barriers in Argentine soccer.

Now, the 23-year-old striker for the Villa San Carlos team is the first transgender woman to play professional soccer in Argentina.

“I never thought about being a professional,” she says. “I just did it because I found joy in [soccer]. It’s a dream.”

Gomez’s accomplishment accentuates Argentina’s progressive movement for LGBTQ rights and creates visibility that could have a lasting influence in global professional sports. It also highlights the murkiness of rules for transgender athletes, experts say.

The United States has lagged behind Argentina in its treatment of transgender citizens — the Supreme Court just ruled over the summer that transgender people can’t be discriminated against in the workplace.

Argentina has been a leader in advancing LGBTQ protection and rights laws, says Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College whose research includes democratization, sexuality and Latin America. He says that’s thanks to a strong grass-roots political movement and investment from the government in advancing a more inclusive message,

In 2010, it was the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage. The country made history again in 2012 when it passed legislation that allowed citizens 18 and older to change their legal gender identity without needing an evaluation or gender affirmation surgery. (Gomez was able to affirm her identity legally when she was 18.)

And in 2019, the president established a 1 percent quota for transgender citizens in public sector jobs as unemployment remains an issue for trans Argentines.

The country’s political agenda coupled with an obsession with soccer — a very cisgender male-centered sport — makes Gomez’s historic position even more remarkable, Corrales says.

Juxtaposed with the recent death of Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, the achievement is even more noteworthy.

“Argentina is mourning the death of someone who represents what soccer means traditionally in terms of national importance but also its macho undertones,” he says.

Gomez’s journey to professional soccer fields came after multiple meetings with leaders of the Argentine Football Association. It resulted in an agreement that requires Gomez to block her natural hormones and to be tested for testosterone levels before and in the middle of each tournament, in accordance with guidelines outlined by the International Olympic Committee.

The test mainly targets transgender women like Gomez because of their perceived advantage from being born with XY chromosomes.

The IOC and other athletic organizations are making a somewhat arbitrary cutoff for what hormone levels should be for athletes, says Brad Anawalt, the chief of medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center, who has been seeing transgender patients since the 1990s.

Gomez accepts that she has to endure testing to play soccer — a sport that stopped her from acting on self-harming thoughts and gave her a zeal for life, she says.

But the constant tests Gomez and other transgender athletes take are sexist, says Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, an organization that seeks to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports. They are based on the assumption that those competing in women’s sports can only be so athletic and are an example of the way society seeks to control women’s bodies.

The world is a long way away from full acceptance of women in all forms and in sports, she says.

“The more we have visible trans athletes, the more the world will see trans athletes are not a threat,” Lieberman says. “If covid has taught us anything, it’s that we are fundamentally able to shift the way we view the world and live our lives. Seeing trans people as humans shouldn’t be such a big shift for people.”

Despite her concerns about how she moves on the field, Gomez has brought attention not only to transgender Argentines but also to women’s soccer, according to Romina Sacher, editor in chief of sports website El Femenino, which covers women’s soccer.

There are people following soccer now because of Gomez’s story and the inclusive message that the sport is sending, she says.

On the day of Gomez’s first match, people who said they have never paid attention to women’s soccer showed up buzzing about Gomez, excited to see her play, Sacher says.

Before the two teams walked off the field at the end of the match, the opposing team presented Gomez with a jersey in their colors with her name on it.

The moment made her feel like she wasn’t alone, she says. That she was understood by other players who have been discriminated against just for being women who played soccer.

Like the girls she played soccer with in her youth, Gomez says, another community of women is embracing her for who she is.

María Alconada Brooks contributed to this report.

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