Mexico City (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Growing up gay in Vitoria, a city of almost 2 million in south-eastern Brazil, Joao Paulo Silvares never really liked playing football, the country’s national sport and passion.
“I was scared to play, because it wasn’t somewhere I felt comfortable,” Silvares, 34, 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 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people, with 445 people killed last year alone, according to watchdog group Grupo Gay de Bahia, a 30 percent increase on 2016.
But when Silvares came across Futeboys FC, a gay football 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 football teams from across Brazil.
The league’s third tournament, in November this year, saw 16 teams vying for the championship, as more young gay men like Silvares seized the chance to play football 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 football stadiums.
Last year, football’s international governing body FIFA fined the Brazilian Football Confederation $10,000 because of homophobic chants by fans.
It was the fifth such fine in two years. The BFC could not be reached for comment.
This sort of anti-gay prejudice is something Bernardo Villas Boas, 29, another Futeboys FC player, knows all too well.
Although he didn’t have a problem coming out to his family, Boas says he often experienced homophobic bullying at school and university.
He claims he was even assaulted by police when walking home one night with his boyfriend in his home town of Rio de Janeiro.
“It makes me feel very nervous, very angry,” he said. “I feel powerless. That we end up being seen in a way that’s so inferior, that reduces who we are.”
Unlike Silvares, Boas has always loved football, and even tried out for teams throughout college and after graduation. But 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.”
But, like his teammate Silvares, Futeboys FC provided a solution. The team is one of nine such openly gay football teams in São Paulo, where Boas and Silvares now live.
“It was an incredible experience,” says Boas. “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, according to Erik Arnesen, the team’s founder and director.
“We started out as a group of friends who liked football, that wanted to play without being afraid of suffering the homophobia of straight teams,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via 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 this year in Porto Alegre.
But with the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil’s presidency, the players fear that their newfound comfort may 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 and trans rights.
A few weeks before the election, a video circulated online showing fans of the professional Atletico-Mineiro football team chanting, “Bolsonaro will kill all queers!”
“It’s super alarming,” says Silvares, 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, both Silvares and Boas are hopeful that, just by being part of an openly gay football team, they can fight back against homophobia in sports and politics alike.
“We are claiming a space,” says Silvares. “We’re showing that we are here, that we are proud of being gay, and that we won’t be ashamed to show it.”
Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; Editing by Rachel Savage and Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org