Brazilian LGBTQI Soccer: Queer Resistance in Dark Times
WORDS BY BERNARDO VILLAS BOAS
After a long day at work, you finally get to see your partner. The two of you meet on the street, decide to take a walk together and grab something to eat. You’re having a good time, it’s been a long day, you’re crazy about talking to one another and spending some time together. In a careless, spontaneous moment, you give your partner a kiss. That’s when, from across the street, someone shouts “Hey faggots, Bolsonaro is coming. Be prepared”.
What sounds like a shocking scene from maybe a long time ago, is actually a true example of many situations that became very common to the LGBTQI community in Brazil over the past year.
The country is currently facing a challenging political and economic crisis, marked by huge corruption scandals, growing social inequality and the rise of a strong conservative mindset. Brazil already has the world’s highest LGBTQI murder rate, but hate crimes against queer people keep rising, and the country seems to be stepping back in many aspects regarding tolerance and acceptance of minorities.
Recently elected president, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, is openly homophobic and has already made countless remarks about how he believes LGBTQI people shouldn’t have the same legal rights as the rest of society, getting to the point in which he publicly advised parents to beat their gay kids in order to “make them straight” again. His harsh comments are also directed towards women, people of color and immigrants. In general, he represents the extreme conservative agenda that has swept many other countries in the late 2010s, and that changed by storm the political and social environment in Brazil. A sad setback from the days when Brazil hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, had all of the world’s eyes on it and blossomed in optimism.
In the midst of such a chaotic and violent political landscape, Brazilian queer men and women do their best to keep their heads up and fight for their rights, even when they are being targeted not only by their government, but also by the majority of the society who supports it. With the rise of this conservative agenda, it’s not hard to imagine how discrimination hits especially hard one of Brazil’s biggest, and most internationally known, passions: Soccer.
“Hey faggots, Bolsonaro is coming. Be prepared.”
It’s a known fact that sports are usually not the most queer-friendly environment. But in Brazil, where soccer dominates the nation as its most beloved sport, there’s not only discrimination and homophobia from fans and athletes, fuelled by the macho culture that has always been locally associated with the sport, but also an enormous lack of queer representation, with simply no openly-LGBTQI soccer athletes.
Being a sport dipped in such a straight-centered culture, soccer in Brazil is surrounded by homophobic remarks. Queer men and women have to deal with offensive jokes, a hostile perception that they’re less capable of performing well, and the unspoken prejudice of straight men and women of having a queer person side by side with them. This leads to many queer people simply leaving sports behind, or enduring by pretending to be straight.
However, in the wake of Bolsonaro’s election and the growth of inequality and discrimination, we are witnessing a very interesting phenomenon: the rise of amateur LGBTQI soccer teams.
The movement of Brazilian LGBTQI soccer started very small and somewhat informal five years ago, with just a handful of gay teams, mostly in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, formed by the gathering of queer friends who wanted to play soccer but couldn’t find a group in which they felt comfortable in. They invited their friends, rented small fields and played with no fear of being called names, of being looked down for being who they were or for openly talking about their personal lives. This is how I joined my current team, and it was love at first sight.
These LGBTQI soccer teams play a huge role when it comes to mental health, we already know physical activity is a positive tool for well-being. However, by connecting with a group of people who faced similar challenges in life, with whom you can share your personal story and truly feel equal and accepted, the positive impact is even stronger. Studies indicate that queer athletes – members of LGBTQI teams feel more motivated, and find satisfaction not only from learning new skills and practicing the sport they love, but also by overcoming childhood obstacles.
“Being a sport dipped in such a straight-centered culture, soccer in Brazil is surrounded by homophobic remarks.”
Further studies reinforce the idea of connection and brotherhood that are so evident in LGBTQI teams, by indicating that team sports could be more efficient in promoting health and ensuring exercise participation and continuation than individual sport. There is consistent evidence that engaging in team sports is associated with improved social and psychological health.
And what began as an underground movement, turned into a major nationwide phenomenon. LGBTQI soccer teams started receiving attention through word of mouth, Instagram and even local news. More and more queer players joined in, new teams were formed and, in 2016, three of the oldest teams (BeesCats, from Rio de Janeiro, and Futeboys and Unicorns, from São Paulo) decided to form a national league, in which all teams could get together in formal competition and play in a prejudice-free environment. It’s our own amazing version of the beloved National Championship, in which we would actually never be able to join.
The National Gay Soccer League, called Ligay, is now headed to its 5th edition, with 28 teams from all over the country and over 200 athletes. It’s already a huge event, hosted twice a year in two different cities around the country. Soccer fans, friends, family and queer activists all get together to enjoy not only the competition itself, which has proven to be of incredibly high quality, but also to celebrate the so hard-to-find representation from the LGBTQI community in Brazilian soccer. For those partial to a sporting event – it’s not your average soccer event: we include people from all social backgrounds, sexual orientations and identities, we collect money and donations for LGBTQI foundations all over the country, the matches are commented by drag queens and teams open the event with dancing performances that would give even Coachella artists something to worry about.
“The National Gay Soccer League, called Ligay, is now headed to its 5th edition, with 28 teams from all over the country and over 200 athletes.”
Ligay is more than a huge gathering where Brazilian queer men and women can grow as amateur athletes, live their passion for soccer to its fullest and compete professionally. Ligay is also a safe space, so rare to find nowadays, in which LGBTQI men and women can resist and empower themselves against oppressive times. There, we can remember that by staying together, we stay strong, and that we should always feel proud of simply being who we really are.
In a queer soccer team, like my own, there is no room for discrimination, prejudice or disrespect. My team is based in São Paulo and named Futeboys, a funny pun that portrays the overall attitude we use to deal with our current reality. We use humor and fun as a form of resistance. We do our best to play well, but we also do our best to laugh, support one another, share stories, connect and build a safe environment in which everyone can let go of their tough weeks and be their true selves. We don’t want people to act straight around us, we want them to feel free to be as gay as they want.
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