Born an intersex, this ex-Nigerian player’s dream was cut short by discrimination

October 6, 2019
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James Johnson, a former Nigerian footballer, who is intersex, is now opening up on his story over a decade after his dreams of a successful career went away with the discovery of his orientation.

Johnson told the BBC that although he was born with both male and female sex organs, he was raised as a girl. But it did not take long in his life for Johnson to recognise he was not like other girls.

“At the time I was in full-time playing football for the [Nigerian] women’s national team and a club side, I noticed that other girls are far different from me”, Johnson said in the interview.

To confirm she is a girl, Caster Semenya had to walk naked into a changing room while in school.

Of the other girls, Johnson noted, “they have boobs and they menstruate. I don’t have boobs and I don’t menstruate.”

Unsurprisingly, this caused a personal discomfort to Johnson. He confesses in the interview to being confused over his identity, at a point.

He remembers being the last to take his bathe because he wanted to avoid the other players.

He was able to get away with his secret for a while until a football game in which an opponent literally stripped him bare.

“There was a time while I was still playing in the women’s league when one of our opponents – I think the lady was like I am much faster than her – and the best she could do was to just undress me.

“In [front of] the whole stadium, just draw my pants down.”

Johnson’s life would never be the same. He describes the period “as the worst” in his life.

The attention of the then Nigerian Football Association (NFA) was drawn. He was promised medical check-ups that would confirm which gender category he could represent Nigeria. But Johnson was sadly failed.

“The people I expected to push me from the Nigerian Football Federation (now NFF)…the support wasn’t coming from there. So what can I do?”

In response to Johnson’s story, a spokesperson for the current NFF said he wished the administration of the past could have done more to assist the player.

Johnson carries photos of his time as a footballer with the women’s national team, as well as the club side. These days, he says, he identifies as a man because, after a check, a specialist told him he was closer to a man.

He added that after his biology became public knowledge, he faced discrimination from certain football clubs even after he identified as a man. They could not fathom employing a former women’s footballer.

Johnson is, however, grateful that besides the fact that he was not given the chance to continue his career, everyone else outside of football loves him for who he is.

“I never even thought I am going to be loved like that”, he concluded.

“Intersex” is a term used for different conditions in which a person is born with one sexual anatomy but has significant biological of a gender that is not traditionally associated with that anatomy.

South African world and Olympic champion Caster Semenya has been described as having such a condition.

In Africa where advocacy on individual identities and sexual rights is still taking baby steps, stories like those of Semenya and Johnson can be good reference points for public engagements.

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