Gay men claim soccer as their own in unsafe Brazil

Thomson Reuters Foundation, MEXICO CITY

Fri, Dec 14, 2018 - Page 16

Growing up gay in Vitoria, a city of almost 2 million people in southeastern Brazil, Joao Paulo Silvares never really liked playing soccer, the country’s national sport and passion.

“I was scared to play, because it wasn’t somewhere I felt comfortable,” 34-year-old Silvares told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “In Brazil, I think that it’s a bit of a homophobic sport, because the common curse words that are used are things like ‘faggot,’ ‘little fag,’ and if you’re a teenager, a kid who’s gay, you end up withdrawing from that environment.”

The country is among the world’s most dangerous for LGBT people, with 445 people killed last year alone, according to watchdog group Grupo Gay de Bahia, a 30 percent increase from 2016.

However, when Silvares came across Futeboys FC, a gay soccer team, in Sao Paulo last year, it helped him discover a love for the sport adored by the nation.

The club is a founding member of LiGay Nacional de Futebol, a league for gay soccer teams from across Brazil.

The league’s third tournament, which was staged last month, saw 16 teams vying for the championship, as more young gay men like Silvares seized the chance to play soccer without fear of discrimination.

The openly gay league presents a stark contrast to the anti-LGBT attitudes that often erupt at the country’s many soccer stadiums.

Last year, FIFA fined the Brazilian Football Confederation US$10,000 because of homophobic chants by fans. It was the fifth such fine in two years.

The confederation could not be reached for comment.

That sort of anti-gay prejudice is something 29-year-old Bernardo Villas Boas, another Futeboys FC player, knows all too well.

Although he did not have a problem coming out to his family, Villas Boas said that he often experienced homophobic bullying in school.

He claimed that he was even assaulted by police when walking home one night with his boyfriend in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro.

“It makes me feel very nervous, very angry,” Villas Boas said. “I feel powerless. That we end up being seen in a way that’s so inferior, that reduces who we are.”

Unlike Silvares, Villas Boas has always loved soccer and even tried out for teams throughout college and after graduation. However, he found homophobia was everywhere.

“When you’re the only gay man in such an environment and homophobia is the standard for teasing people, it ends up being awful,” he said. “I never felt part of the group, because I was always different. I liked to play ball, but I felt like there was never space for me.”

However, like his teammate Silvares, Futeboys FC provided a solution. The team is one of nine openly gay soccer teams in Sao Paulo, where the two now live.

“It was an incredible experience,” Villas Boas said. “I’d never seen football like that: a fun, carefree football, where everyone is learning together, playing together. When I first met the Futeboys, it was love at first sight.”

Futeboys started playing in September 2015, alongside a number of other gay teams in Sao Paulo that were seeking a friendlier sporting environment, said Erik Arnesen, the team’s founder and director.

“We started out as a group of friends who liked football, who wanted to play without being afraid of suffering the homophobia of straight teams,” he said via a WhatsApp message.

The group quickly grew into an amateur team and then became a full league. LiGay’s first tournament was held last year in Rio de Janeiro, with eight teams competing; a second was held in April in Porto Alegre.

However, following the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil’s presidency, the players fear that their newfound comfort might not last.

Bolsonaro is well-known for his openly homophobic rhetoric, telling Playboy magazine in 2011 that he “would be incapable of loving a homosexual son.”

“I would prefer my son died in an accident” than bring home a male partner, the now president-elect added.

Some of the Futeboys players worry that Bolsonaro’s anti-gay messaging is likely to intensify the growing attacks against LGBT people in Brazil and could result in a backtrack on gay rights.

A few weeks before the election, a video circulated online showing fans of the professional Atletico Mineiro soccer team chanting: “Bolsonaro will kill all queers.”

“It’s super alarming,” Silvares said of Bolsonaro’s election. “We’re worried about losing rights, losing visibility. We’ve achieved so much, we’ve had so many advances, and now there’s this fear of having some kind of setback after that election.”

“Brazil is already a very challenging country for LGBT people,” said Leandro Ramos, the director of programs at All Out, an international LGBT advocacy group. “It’s a bit of a powder keg, and this campaign lit a match to it and made it explode.”

Still, Silvares and Villas Boas were hopeful that, just by being part of an openly gay soccer team, they can fight back against homophobia in sports and politics alike.

“We are claiming a space,” Silvares said. “We’re showing that we are here, that we are proud of being gay, and that we won’t be ashamed to show it.”