Gotham FC’s Imani Dorsey: Becoming the Norm

By: Imani Dorsey, Gotham FC

Conventionally, our society encourages conformity. Conform to the status quo. Conform to your gender role. Conform to what is expected of someone of your age, race, gender, sexual orientation and social class. However, the unique, the different, the special, the exceptional, the bold are the people, ideas, and talents that change the world. So why do we ostracize, and taunt, and discriminate against those we consider different?

My name is Imani Dorsey and I am a professional soccer player. I play with and against some of the most talented female athletes in the world every day. I have been coached by titans of the women’s soccer community — women who paved the way in the sport I now get to play as a professional, and women who taught me grit and determination amidst adversity while always emphasizing compassion, humility, and teamwork. From my experiences playing women’s soccer I know I am a talented, poised, and powerful athletic black young woman. I am grateful to the sport for helping me understand my own strength, because that wasn’t always the case.

When I was a young girl, I wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin. I was afraid and constantly searching for the approval of my male peers to be an athletic and competitive female. From first to eighth grade, my school would hold an annual race. I was a great runner. The fastest, in fact, in my grade from Kindergarten to Seventh grade. But, this annual race became a point of apprehension for me. Classmates, especially the boys, always told me I “cheated” and didn’t actually win the race. Every year. It became a running joke. “There was no way you beat ALL the boys.” “You must’ve taken a short-cut.” “It’s ok. You can tell me. Did you actually cheat or not?”

As nonsensical as I knew the accusations were, they still really bothered me. I always thought to myself, “Why was it such a surprise that a girl could win?” and more importantly, “Why did some of my classmates assume I cheated, not because I won the entire race, but because I beat the boys?” Clearly, I learned gender roles quite early in life, as most of us do. I also learned that daring to live outside of traditional gender norms can be met with opposition, but it’s also the only way some of us can truly be happy and who we are.

I loved all sports growing up. At recess I would always be the first to play football, soccer, tag, or anything I could do to run around. This often meant playing with the boys. Even though they couldn’t ignore my athleticism, they often didn’t respect it. It was evident in their mocking of my first place finishes. It was evident in the way some boys would treat other girls, who maybe weren’t as athletic as me, but wanted to play as well. And it was the most apparent in the way they teased their male counterparts if a girl ever beat them at any point during a game. I knew girls could play sports. That we had a right to play sports. But, I always felt like I needed the permission or approval of my male classmates in order to do so. While I excelled, sports made me feel like I wasn’t “normal.” An athletic female was an exception, not the norm. Luckily, that began to change when I found travel soccer.

Since the age of eight, I have been playing soccer with talented and competitive girls unique in their own special ways. Surrounded by a group of girls with the same passion and enthusiasm I had for soccer opened my eyes. Regardless of my strength or speed or skill, I didn’t need a boy’s permission or approval to play the sport I love. I had all the support and positive affirmation I needed from my female teammates.

Even as a cisgender athlete, learning to be comfortable in my own skin and discovering who I am is an ongoing process. Yet, I know the camaraderie and friendship I share with past and present teammates has enabled me to discover, and increasingly celebrate, what makes me special. While the coexistence of my femininity and athleticism made me feel “odd” and “different” as a child, it gives me confidence and purpose today.

Trans female athletes deserve the opportunity to celebrate their womanhood alongside other women in sport. As a cisgender athlete, I welcome trans females to women’s soccer. At all levels, you will be our teammates. You will broaden our worldview and change our perspectives. You will help us understand all the different ways we identify as females and how our athleticism and femininity doesn’t make us an exception, but the norm.

For a long time, I was not comfortable celebrating and embracing who I am and what makes me special. Therefore, as a cisgender athlete, I can only imagine what a young trans female must feel. Women’s soccer gave me an opportunity to experience life, learn, and grow with and from young women like me. All women, including trans women, should be able to have this incredible opportunity, and be able to celebrate who they are and all they bring to the sport they love.

Photos: Howard Smith/ & Jesse Louie 

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