With efforts to discriminate growing amid an unprecedented level of anti-transgender hate spreading all around the world, Outsports is stepping-up in a brand new way. Although we typically announce awards in December, when the year winds to a close, every day for the rest of this month we are announcing a new winner of a new award.
The Outsports Triumph Awards celebrate a wide range of transgender athletes, coaches and other people working in the interest of trans competitors; Some names you know; others are only now making a name for themselves in LGBTQ sports. Today: Our pro athlete winner.
For Tifanny Abreu, this weekend marked the next step forward in her goal of a season championship in the Brazil Superliga women’s volleyball semifinals.
The task in the best-of-three series between her Sesi Vôlei Bauru team and defending Superliga champion Itambe Minas was formidable. Minas took the opening match of the series on Friday in 4 sets and ran their season win streak to 19 matches.
Needing a win in Sunday’s match two to extend the series, Bauru went all-out. They won the first set enroute to 2-1 lead. Abreu’s key block and digs tipped the scales in that third set. However, Minas fought back to win win the fourth set, and then powered to a 15-8 fifth set win to punch their ticket to the Superliga Final against Praia Clube.
Despite the season-ending loss, Abreu could hold her head high. The 36-year-old Brazilian outside hitter/middle blocker has made a definitive mark as a transgender woman living her life and competing at the elite levels of her sport.
She cut her teeth in a pro career in the men’s game starting in 2008 that spanned six years across five countries on three continents. Every match on the court also carried the inner struggle of her gender identity that stretched back to childhood in Goias state, Brazil, where she found volleyball as a refuge.
“I thought it was beautiful to see volleyball but at the same time I was afraid to get in touch with people because they would judge me for the way I was,” she recalled in an April 2020 interview with Globo. “I was feminine and I started to suffer a lot of bullying at that time.”
While playing for a second-division team in Belgium in 2012, Abreu made the move that changed the course of her life and her game. “I already identified myself as a girl since I was a child,” she told Glamour Brazil in January. “I couldn’t take any more living in that body that didn’t belong to me. I decided to look for a new life, the one I always dreamed of having.”
She resigned from the team and spent over three years away from competitive play while negotiating the legal, medical, and surgical pieces of her transition in Spain and the Netherlands. She assumed such a course would end her sporting career. Her plan was to head back to Brazil, find a job, and live as the woman she knew she always was.
Fate and regulations altered that plan. Abreu didn’t know that she would be eligible to play in women’s competition, but her agent did. “I received the proposal to play in the women’s game after my transition and with the documents to be able to play in the women’s game,” she told Globo. “I didn’t really believe it, but as my manager understood the rules from the international confederation, I said ‘ok.’”
The International Volleyball Federation, FIVB, affirmed her eligibility in early 2017, and she signed with Italian second-division side Golem Palmi. Her stint there ultimately led to her return home to play in Brazil.
Sesi Vôlei Bauru was an also-ran in the Brazilian Superliga. The year before they signed Tifanny Abreu, they were in 9th place and out of the playoff chase.
The league’s first-ever transgender woman to compete entered the stage amid headlines and controversy. However, Abreu was ready to play, with a style born of her experience as a mix of power, technical skill and court savvy.
“When I played with the boys, I also had this high testosterone and was very strong,” she told Globo in an interview in 2017. “When I started to make the transition, I was no longer that force attacker, I was already a more prepared attacker.”
The results speak for themselves. Abreu broke the Superliga single-game scoring record in her first year in the league. She ended that season as the league’s leader in points per set. In 2018 she started the season by leading Bauru to their first-ever São Paulo state championship. The season ended with Sesi Vôlei Bauru reaching the Superliga semifinals for the first time.
In four stellar years of play, she has been maligned by some, and was misgendered wilfully by an opposing coach, citing her imposing 6’3” height and power on the attack as “playing like a man,” after her strong performance in a 2018 win. Before the start of this season, Abreu faced state legislators in São Paulo who tried to pass a law banning her from playing matches in the state, citing “fairness for women,” in direct contradiction to IOC and FIVB policy, which Brazil’s national federation for volleyball follows.
The proposed measure was met with a counter-response born of what Abreu has meant to a transgender community in Brazil, which has been under siege more than any in the world. Statistics point to the nation as perhaps the world’s most violent for transgender people. Also consider the impact of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been openly anti-LGBTQ since even before his election in 2018.
As one transgender fan explained to The New York Times during Abreu’s first season, her example is a bright spot in a dark time. “Sports games are not usually comfortable spaces for trans people. She is doing so much for us, so we want to do something for her, too.”
On the court, Abreu has suffered some bumps this season. In January, she tested positive for coronavirus, but was asymptomatic and came back to the squad after quarantine. She left a match due to back spasms in February, spent a night in the hospital, but came back a week later with 14 kills that ended a 16-match losing streak against rival Praia Clube.
The semifinal ended as a disappointment, but small compared to what Abreu player has overcome in her rise in the sport. The kills, blocks and digs she makes aren’t just pieces of a dream, but also pieces of a greater mission and a homage to those who fought for her place in the game she loves.
“I want to do my best and get to the highest place,” Abreu told Glamour Brazil. “Now we want our space for equality. I thank these people, I thank my sisters who are gone, who fought for us, and those who are still fighting. Our fight is daily.”
Click here to read more about the awards, this year’s winners and other trans sports icons we are celebrating.
Outsports will announce another recipient of a Triumph Award tomorrow and every day this month, including on the Trans Day of Visibility on March 31.