Former Super Falcons forward, Iyabo Abade, is the most celebrated high-profile case of a hermaphrodite in women’s football, who subsequently had surgery in 2004 and is now living as a man, with a new name, James Johnson. He tells ’TANA AIYEJINA about his travails trying to adjust to his new life as a man, societal discrimination and his aim to help hermaphrodites
Now that you are a man, has it been easy playing men’s football?
I thank God for how far He has brought me. I have made every effort to get to the top as a footballer but there is no support from anywhere, even the Nigeria Football Federation. I am just trying on my own to get to the top but it hasn’t been easy. You go for trials and you do well and you are recruited but after sometime, they will start acting funny; they use my past against me. I try to ensure that I don’t let clubs know who I am. I don’t like telling them that I am the former Iyabo Abade; I have to go there like every other normal player and fight for a place in the team. But when they hear that former Iyabo Abade has signed for either Crown FC or Plateau United, they start discriminating against me. Meanwhile I got there as James Johnson but they keep asking,
“Can she cope in the midst of guys?” They have forgotten that I am a man and I met their requirements before they signed me up. Once they now know my past, they won’t allow me to play anymore. Were they blind when they signed me? With that, I feel frustrated and discriminated against so I decided that there was no need disturbing myself and I decided to quit. I am praying that God helps me so that I can continue my career abroad. I think things will be better over there.
Has the society accepted you for who you are?
Some do but some have not. Everybody cannot like you for who you are, so you just have to take life the way it is. My colleagues who we played together in the women’s league all welcome me. Some people want to be my friends even when they don’t know who I am and even when they know that I am the former Iyabo Abade turned James Johnson, they are still happy to be my friends. I am happy with that. There is no need for me to be feeling sad that God created me the way I am. So, I am happy with life but I feel sad because some people are out there to cut short your happiness. I will be happy playing football but some people don’t like it.
What is your relationship with your Falcons teammates?
Some of them still welcome me; they see me just like every other person. They don’t discriminate against me; we grew up together and did things together even though I am no more in their group. I am so happy about that. When the news first came out, a lot of them were shocked because they didn’t even know anything about hermaphrodite. But later, they sympathised with me; they said I am not God and didn’t create myself. That was how it went and we are still friends till now.
Your rehabilitation should be in stages. How far have you gone?
I am still on it. After I went for check-up in 2009, I am due for the next stage, where a surgery will be carried out to enable me become a full man and live a normal and perfect life. But every effort has been futile; nothing is really happening and I am looking up to God to intervene in this issue. I have made every effort and gone to the NSC but they did nothing. I took a letter there and was going there for about seven months. So I have to look elsewhere to enable me complete the surgery. I also wrote to NFF when Sani Lulu was the head and he gave me hope. He said, ‘Bring your letter and we will see what we can do.’ But at the end, they said, ‘We don’t know what happened to your letter.’ When it gets to releasing money, that is when the letter gets missing. Only Family Worship helped me a great deal to go for the check-up.
How much do you need for the surgery?
I will need about N12m for the final surgery. My doctor says I have to stay in the US for one year, so that he can monitor the final process. Aside the surgery, I will have to pay for accommodation for one year and other things like feeding and transportation.
Now that you haven’t finished the rehabilitation, would you say you are living a man’s life?
I would say I am living happily but my joy will be to complete the whole stages of the rehabilitation. Then I can boast of myself as a real man just like other guys. I will say I still need the final surgery before I can answer your question further.
You once had the ambition of becoming the first person ever to play for the female and male national teams of a country but the dream seems dashed. How do you feel?
I feel rejected and frustrated because football is my life but the NSC and the NFF are not in support of my ambition. If we had a good sports commission, I won’t be in this situation. Do they want me to cry to the US government? That will be a disgrace to Nigeria.
Who are those that stood behind you during your trying times?
I want to thank former FCT ministers Abba Gana and Nasir el-Rufai; they were very helpful. I wrote to the former First Lady, Turai Yar’Adua, and Patience Jonathan, who was then Second Lady. Though I didn’t get money from the First Lady but I was given the opportunity to enter Aso Rock. Unfortunately, her husband fell sick and she couldn’t attend to me. She asked some people to attend to me but I didn’t hear from them. The present First Lady has not done anything to help me despite all the efforts I have made to reach her, a fellow Niger Deltan like her. If northerners can show concern for me, why not her? Family Worship also gave me money for my check-up as well as the Redeemed Christian Church of God. I appreciate all of them.
Would you accept if the US says you should naturalise and play for them?
I will accept it with both hands. It’s everybody’s dream to be a US citizen, so I will jump at the opportunity.
What is your advice to other hermaphrodites, who are ashamed to come out or don’t have the opportunity you have?
I have some already and I have given my doctor in the US their contacts. They are two and they are into female football. They say a problem shared is half solved. If people don’t know your problem, you will die with it, so they just have to come out and let the world know what they are passing through. They need to look unto God. If not for God, I would have been a forgotten issue because at times, I feel like committing suicide. You will want to run into a moving truck but I thank God for being in charge of my life. I am happy today and everybody wants to mingle with me. So, life goes on.
Are you thinking of setting up a foundation for hermaphrodites?
Yes, so that many people with such issues can be treated. I hope to make it a worldwide foundation. There are a lot of hermaphrodites but they are shy or afraid to come out. There was a case that happened in Delta State when they almost killed a hermaphrodite. They said she is a witch. But it is not proper because these people didn’t create themselves. They should use me as a sign of hope. They can also be treated and be happy just like myself. I won’t blame them for not coming out because the support is not there in Nigeria. If they come out, they will be discriminated against.
When ladies you approach realise later that you were once like them, do they run away?
I am loved by women, there’s no doubt about that. They want to be my best friend. Everywhere I go, women always appreciate me because of my looks even when they later get to know about my issue. They always want to grab the opportunity to date someone like me. Some of them are happy to be with me because they have never seen such a person before. Every woman is mixing with James Johnson.
How was your trip to the US in 2012 with the Marasata Soccer Academy?
Marasata Soccer Academy brought me back to life because I felt so frustrated when I was neglected. The academy brought me in to lead the female team because I once played female football. That was how I became head of the coaching crew and with time, I will get to the top. The trip to the US last year was a success.
Aside not having a club side, do you still play football?
Of course yes. Football is part of me and I play every now and then, even with my boys in the academy. I derive joy in football; I play with Karo All Stars in Abuja and we play so many competitions.
If you look back now, is there a time you will recount with joy while playing female football?
Sometimes I feel sad that I didn’t continue what I know how to do best in the midst of the girls but I ignore it and let go. It’s not over, I still feel I will play for this country one day as a man but whether I play or not, I am happy with life. I was excluded from the 1999 Women’s World Cup but when the team returned home, my club FCT Queens had a match against Pelican Stars, which paraded all the superstars like Ann Agumanu, Mercy Akide, Eberechi Opara and Stella Mbachu. I was the only star in my team. It’s a game people still talk about. We were 2-1 down and I scored an incredible goal from the flank. That goal helped us beat Pelican 3-2 and they were complaining that why did they allow me to play the game after it was discovered that I am a hermaphrodite. People still say it was the best game they saw me play. My goal gingered my teammates to beat them. I will never forget that game. FCT Queens also won the Challenge Cup and I was one of the team’s trainers. That was how I got help to go for surgery. We were hosted in Sheraton and the then FCT Minister Nasir el-Rufai sponsored me to the US for the surgery.
Initially, was it easy blending from a female to male?
It was not easy in the beginning playing with the men but I took up the challenge. I didn’t get support as a male footballer. If I had remained as a female footballer, I knew where I would be now. In men’s football, it’s all about who you know. If you don’t have someone to back you up, forget it, no matter what you play. I felt there was no need going to a club and telling them that I was Iyabo Abade. I wanted to be there on merit but after signing, I faced discrimination. I played for NEPA and Plateau United. At Plateau, they brought me in always as a late substitute because they didn’t believe I could play. But we were five they selected out of over 100 players that came for trials. If I was not good, why did they pick me from such a large number of players?
Do you sometimes feel like being a woman?
I chose to become a man because it is what God wants me to be. I didn’t use money as my priority in opting to be a man. If it was for money reasons, I would have remained as a woman because I was getting to the top of female football in Nigeria. I am happy with the decision I took. If I became a female, I probably wouldn’t have been happy with my life. So I just decided to move on. I am not regretting the step I made. I can tell you, women are running after me like Usain Bolt and I think it is better for me. I like it that way. I never expected it that way. Today, I am pleased that people want to know me.
We know you have been very close to Agatha Agu for a very long time. Are you planning to get married to her?
She is a very good person and if God says she is going to be my wife, I will be the happiest man because she deserves it; she has always been there for me right from our days in female football. She has been my backbone even when things are not working well. I know by His grace, we will get there.
Can you tell us your best moment?
I don’t have any yet until I wear the colours of the national team. If I cannot play for the main Eagles, at least I can for the home-based Eagles. I will appreciate if I get the opportunity.
If the home-based Eagles camp is thrown open ahead of the 2014 CHAN, do you think you can make it?
With God, I will make it. I am so sure of myself.
What is your word for coach Stephen Keshi?
I wish him the best. He has won the AFCON trophy, so we should appreciate him even if he is making some mistakes. We shouldn’t be criticising him always. He is a good coach and he needs our support.