Editor’s note: This story has been translated and edited from the original Spanish version, which appeared on ESPN Deportes on Monday.
Alba Palacios says she has finally found happiness, and a sense of contentment, as the Spanish football federation’s first transgender player, which has made her roller-coaster experience worth it.
Palacios, who now plays for Torrelodones CF of the Spanish federation’s newly formed semi-pro third division, began her transition six years ago and started hormone therapy in 2017.
It was a tumultuous few years for her and her family, who she says struggled to accept her, and she spent nearly a year in therapy to come to terms with how her life would change.
Palacios, who made history when she played for La Rozas CF in 2018, told ESPN: “In 2017 I took that definitive step on starting hormone therapy. But one year earlier I started with psychologists who helped me with the process, which I think was very important to me.
“It was complicated, because I was 30. I had a very stable life, was in a relationship, and I was afraid of losing my work, that relationship, friends, all that.
“At the end of it, with the help of those specialists, I spent a year taking steps, little by little, with certain people and letting them know. And once all of my circle knew, I started in 2017 with the therapy.”
Palacios became an unintentional role model as she engaged in the fight for her identity, which she says put pressure on her to be more visible than she’d have liked as she was held up as a role model for trans athletes.
“I didn’t choose to be an example,” she said. “When they talked to me about coming out publicly to help others, I said [to myself]: ‘Don’t be so selfish, Alba. Because you have always looked for someone to see if it could be done, and didn’t find anyone.’
“But yes, I would have liked to be known more for football than for being trans.”
But to get to this point, in which she is content at her club and in her life, Palacios endured years of indecision and internal questioning, well before she ever took the step to speak to psychologists at age 30.
“[At 21] I was aware that there was something going on with me, and so said I decided I had to try to find myself,” the striker explained.
She said she quit football for eight years, unsure of how to proceed, then “at 29, I started playing for a regional second-division [men’s] team and played there for two years. The second year was when I started therapy, in the middle of the season.
“I didn’t dare tell my teammates, just the manager. They caught on that I was growing my hair long and that I appeared to be losing weight, but I had never shown signs of femininity. They didn’t put it together. I left it there and started my time at Las Rozas Femenino, that’s where it all started.”
While she was pleasantly surprised by players’ and the general public’s reaction, her family was a different — and difficult — story.
“In public, at work, friends and everything else, it turned out well,” she said. “It was much more complicated with family … more because of fear and rejection. And acceptance was hard [for my parents].
“In the end, it’s something they don’t understand when you’ve been with your son for 31 years, in this case, and he tells you this. I have always liked girls, cars, football. It’s something very complicated for parents to take on.
“I had a girlfriend, and I’m still with her; I made the transition with her, we’re still together and in a good spot, to be honest. Everything is great. My mom struggled because I was the only son at home. It’s complicated. Now, we’re super good. She comes to see me play and is super proud of me. It’s great.”
It’s not only her family that has come around to support her: Her local football federation in Madrid and the Spanish national governing body stood by her from the get-go.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to play competitive football, I just wanted to train,” she explained. “Then I saw that I could play football with my national identity card that identifies me as female, after two years of [hormone] therapy.
“But as the Madrid federation was aware that I was transitioning and practicing with Las Rozas, one year before I got the [updated identity card], they contacted the club and told me I could play without issue with the Community of Madrid league.
“There was a law, which I wasn’t aware of, that you can compete in the gender you identify with, even if you’re not undergoing therapy. So because of that, Community of Madrid and the Madrid federation helped me out a lot.”
Palacios remembers feeling great joy when she learned she could compete.
“I thought it was going to be a preseason of training and that’s that,” she said. “And when my manager called me to explain everything that was going on, the truth is I jumped for joy at the thought of helping out my teammates on the pitch, which is what I’ve always wanted all along, to compete with them. I was very excited.”
That said, Palacios is not unaware of the controversy surrounding trans athletes, with international swimming federation FINA changing their rules for trans women in elite competition, and athletic bodies such as FIFA and the IAAF considering the same.
But she feels there is room for trans athletes on a team, regardless.
“Every trans person is a world unto themselves,” she said. “In my case, for example, maybe you notice that since I’m one of 11 players — even if you put in a guy — you could still lose. So it’s very complicated. I don’t think trans people should be barred from competing.
“And I believe that there’s a lot of fear, a huge lack of awareness, of what it is to be a trans person. When people say, ‘trans athlete,’ I know they’re referring to trans girls because with guys I don’t think there is going to be a problem.
“We have to keep advancing, studying more cases. Never, ever should a trans person be barred from competing in sport.”
Alba is of the same mindset as U.S. trans swimmer Lia Thomas, who recently said that the perception of her transitioning just to win medals is ridiculous. Both Palacios and Thomas say they just want the chance to compete in the sports they love.
“I don’t compete for money or medals,” Palacios said. “They used to say, ‘Alba Palacios just wants to be the best, that’s why she’s playing with women.’ No way, not even true.
“I just wanted to play women’s football because when I first saw [third-division club] Pozuelo play and I saw their women practice next to us in the other pitch, the only thing that crossed my mind is that I wanted to be there.
“Where I really feel comfortable is in the women’s locker room, I feel more at ease. I never had a problem with any of the guys. But now that I can enjoy being with the girls, it’s like feeling you’re at home, where you fit in. It’s a great feeling.”
Palacios has found more understanding and support than she could have imagined, she says, and while she has lost some friends since her transition, she has gained many more.
“What’s funny is that I’ve gained friends instead of losing them,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot more people. I have people who support me a ton, but I’ve gained a lot of female friends more than anything, male ones too.
“To be honest, a friend here or there, we’ve distanced and we no longer talk, but I always say that if this serves to filter the true friendships, then it’s a welcome thing. In the end, if people love you, they love you for who you are and not for your gender.”
As for transitioning at a later stage in life, Palacios says she regrets allowing fear to slow down her self-acceptance, but she feels that each person’s journey is their own.
“It’s true that I would have liked to transition much earlier,” she said. “But I think every person transitions when they can. In my time, it was complicated; there wasn’t as much visibility as there is now, and I was really, really scared. I didn’t even know where to turn to, what to do, nothing. I was scared. The stereotypes of trans persons that existed centred more than anything around transvestites — which isn’t a bad thing — who always wound up in prostitution, and that scared me.
“I knew that I didn’t have to end up like that, but when that’s the only ‘example’ you have, it’s not as appealing to take that step, knowing how society treated … I had gay friends and everything, I saw how hard it was on them.
“I didn’t want to listen to any of the comments, deal with that hurt, so I shut myself off. I’ve always regretted it. I think I should’ve taken that step earlier. I would have liked to have enjoyed my youth more as Alba. I would have liked that.
“But what’s important is taking that step, continue to enjoy each moment, and being happy as you are.”