Giovana Melo is used to being gay in conservative America.
Before taking the women’s volleyball head coaching gig at Cal State Bakersfield, she was a coach at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, Neb., population 14,000. It was an unlikely landing point for Melo, who moved there from her home country of Brazil.
After transferring to Arizona State to finish her college career, she returned to Western Nebraska and became a wildly successful coach, winning six district coach-of-the-year awards, posting an overall record of 262-20 and winning a 2010 NJCAA national championship.
Even with all of the success and accolades, Melo was wary of her rural Nebraska surroundings. The nearest major city — Denver — was 200 miles away. As she began to realize her sexual orientation, the idea of coming out to anyone in the community or her family seemed impossible.
That all turned upside down one day when Melo took one of her players to a clinic for an injury. There she met physician assistant Trisha Lacey, who had recently moved to the town.
“It was not love at first sight,” Melo told Outsports. Lacey had a boyfriend at the time, and sparks didn’t fly. However, the two women’s paths intersected again, and affection between them grew.
“It took a while before we actually got together.”
Once they did, they kept their relationship secret from virtually everyone in the small town, afraid of the reaction. Yet as the two women spent more time together, questions around town surfaced about this new-found friendship.
“There was too much curiosity,” Melo said, “people asking why we were hanging out so much, or why my car was at her house. Everyone knew her and everyone knew me and we were just afraid.”
Forging a future out and proud
When she became a candidate for the women’s volleyball head coach position at Cal State Bakersfield in 2014, she decided she had to make sure the school knew who she really was. she didn’t want to live professionally in the closet anymore. Still, there was cause for concern.
While Bakersfield is only a couple hours north of Los Angeles, it is a far more conservative area. In the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the county by 13 percent; He lost the state by over 30 points.
Still, she was an open book in the hiring process, and it was never an issue for the people at the school. In fact, Melo hasn’t experienced issues with anyone in the area.
“We have never had an issue,” she said, “but some of our friends we’ve met here talk about the things they’ve heard or experienced around here. It’s a more conservative town, but we haven’t had any issues.”
Becoming a visible role model for gay people in sports
While she was now out at work — and married to Lacey shortly after being hired by CSU-Bakersfield — she continued to keep her private life mostly private. Her presence on social media was closed to a small, select group.
Eventually, a fellow coach observed that keeping her social media private gave the impression that she was somewhat ashamed of who she was. That wasn’t the case — Old habits die hard, and Melo had simply become used to the closet in most of her circles.
When she opened her social media and word spread throughout her Nebraska and Bakersfield communities, the response couldn’t have been better. As friends and colleagues got a peek into her personal life, they saw a happy gay couple with a beautiful baby girl.
“Everyone afterward told us they had no problem,” Melo said of her friends in Nebraska.
The people in Bakersfield were equally accepting. And with new-found confidence, Melo has recently focused on enhancing the visibility of LGBTQ people in the Roadrunners athletics department and larger community.
After talking with the school president and her department, they collectively created a Pride Game during one of Melo’s home matches last October, days ahead of National Coming Out Day.
“I just wanted to be able to voice a little bit of who I am and try to reach as many people as I could in a positive way. With the pride game I thought it would be the perfect way to do it.”
As part of her team’s Pride Game, the school created this video to highlight Melo’s story:
Now Melo is looking to continue her career of coaching excellence, while expanding LGBTQ inclusion across sports.
To that end, you can join Giovana Melo for a conversation about addressing homophobic, transphobic and heterosexist language on your team or in a game by joining our Outsports Pride webinar June 3 at 8 p.m. ET. You can register by clicking here.
If you’re an LGBTQ person who works or has a career in sports at the high school, collegiate, professional or international level, check out the private Facebook group, Equality Coaching Alliance.