Brazil has a split personality when it comes to LGBT people. Same-sex marriage is legal and Sao Paulo's annual gay pride parade is the world's largest, one the city embraces. On the other hand, anti-LGBT violence is so pervasive that one gay or trans person is killed almost every day.
Sexually liberated, Brazil also has a strong Catholic tradition and a growing evangelical movement that is not comfortable with LGBT rights. In sports, the county has never had a major soccer player come out as gay, yet there are five openly lesbian and one openly gay male competing in the Rio Olympics in various sports.
Felipe is a competitive Brazilian volleyball player, but is not playing on the Olympics team. We are not using his last name, since while he is out to his college team, he is not yet out to his family. He urged us to use his first name and not a pseudonym.
I met Felipe in the U.S. this summer and asked him for his thoughts on the struggles gay athletes face in Brazil, wanting his perspective with the Olympics in his home country. He sent me this as he was traveling to Rio to watch the Games. It has been edited for clarity:
Growing up as a gay athlete in Brazil is not easy. As a child and teenager dealing with my sexuality, I saw no depictions of gay and proud athletes in the media. When I looked at professional players, dreaming about being one of them someday, I felt different, like I was the only one who was gay. I felt like I was doing something wrong for being different from them.
That is how a lot of Brazilian kids feel. We have very few out athletes to follow, people who fight to show the world that being gay and being an athlete is not something bad or to be ashamed of.
I am a competitive volleyball player and play the second-most popular sport in Brazil. Many times I felt suffocated to be on the court. I had always to be monitoring my behavior and knew that if I wanted to make it to the professional ranks, I should not "look gay" at all. This is what we are taught.
I had a coach who used to tell his players that if someone was gay on the team, it was none of his business, but if they wanted to be a professional volleyball player they would need to exhibit a masculine behavior on the court.
Even though gay players in volleyball are generally accepted, there is still a lot of prejudice. People don't' talk about it, but we know it is out there. There are a lot of gay volleyball players and many are really good and the volleyball community learned that it is no big deal. On my club team, six out of my 12 teammates were gay, so I was in a safe environment. There has never been an openly gay national team member and in the past some players might not have been considered masculine enough to have been selected, but I see a more open-minded future for the sport in Brazil.
Brazil is known for the passion that everyone has for soccer, but we do not have a single soccer player who is out and proud. Research by esporte.uol.com.br, a popular sports website in Brazil, asked soccer players from the best teams in the country if they knew any gays who were currently playing professional soccer in Brazil — 56% of them said "yes," 27% said "no," 11% did not answer and 6% said that they "don't know."
This shows there are a lot of soccer players who have to be lying every day about their personal lives and can't have the freedom to live the life in the way they want. Soccer players are the biggest sports stars in Brazil and are very well paid. They have lot of prestige, yet coming out as gay could end their careers.
Fear keeps players from all sports inside of the closet, but as the time goes, I see hope. I now see a new generation who are more used to see two guys holding hands on the street. We had the first gay kiss in a Brazilian soap opera a few years ago and it was a huge deal for the country. In the past few weeks, we had the first gay sex scene on TV. There was a huge discussion based on those events, but I can say the majority of people are more respectful towards it. The times are changing and I see a new generation that is growing up in the middle of this diversity.
The 2016 Olympics are something positive for the country. Brazilians are seeing out and proud athletes from all over the world playing side by side with other players as something normal. The world will be shown that being gay does not make you different when you are on the court, on the field or in the pool.
There are six openly gay Brazilian Olympians -- Larissa França (beach volleyball), Mayssa Pessoa (handball), Julia Vasconselos (taekwondo), Isadora Cerullo ( rugby). Rafaela Silva (judo) and Ian Matos (diving). They might not know it, but just the fact of them being proud about who they really are is a huge step in Brazil's history. Young LGBT athletes are going to cheer for people who are just like them.
The Olympics is an amazing thing for the country and I hope someday being a gay professional athlete in Brazil won't be considered such a big deal. Because being true with who you are should be seen as something to be proud of. I applaud the few people brave enough to do it.
Felipe can be reached at Felipebrazil8@gmail.com.