It’s been nearly three weeks since Rostov-Don came back to work, and some of their players are enjoying a few days off, relaxing at a pool, before they resume the trainings ahead of the upcoming season. Mayssa Pessoa (1984, João Pessoa, Brazil) is among them. Life is almost back to normal in Rostov-on-Don, despite the uncertainties generated by the global health crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; they need the economy to revive, even though the contagions are not ceasing nor being under control. The 2013 world champion thinks of her family back in Brazil, where the situation is getting worse by the day, and ventures to conclude that of: “Until there’s a vaccine…”.
Sportswise, the panorama looks alarming for the Russian champions due to the pandemic as well. The fact that Russia does not belong to the European Union could mean that their participation in the DELO EHF Champions League (as well as that of CSKA) could be jeopardized as they may not be able to travel abroad nor to welcome their rivals on home soil; a matter that is still pending a resolution as of today. Pessoa, Champions League champion in 2016 with CSM București, tries to look on the bright side in the face of these uncertainties: “I’m sure all of this will be solved and we’ll be able to compete”. For now, her goal until next Sunday when the team will be back to trainings, is to enjoy this sunny day, poolside.
But in the meantime, the two time Olympian addresses a matter that she holds dearly, one that hits home and that has been a recurring subject in the news lately: the visibility of the LGBTI+ community, but with a focus on the handball sphere. The Brazilian goalkeeper went through a rough and bitter journey in which she struggled to reach her comfort zone, which she is now enjoying. It is from her personal experience, her own perspective and with the fluency she acquired throughout the years that she opens up to Playmaker | Women’s Handball to tell not only her story, but a reality many players face even nowadays.
Playmaker: Have you always felt comfortable and with the same freedom to share certain aspects of your personal life so openly? (eg. Social media)
Mayssa Pessoa: No, it was not always like this. I used to be scared to talk about this, not only for my inner fears, but also for what my family would say, up to these days there are some family members that do not accept my homosexuality, mainly due to their religiousness. There are many Christians and Catholics in Brazil, my mother is one of them, I’m also religious even though I’m not much into it. The truth is that this made it hard for me to open up to my mother, she does not understand love between a man and another man, or a woman and another woman. It was not the same with my father nor my sister, nevertheless.
P: What was the turning point for you? When did you open up about it?
MP: It was in 2012, that’s when I went public with it. At first, I did it with my closest ones (sister, teammates), but not with my parents. At the time, I was playing for Paris Issy, and I don’t know how, but I was contacted by the organizers of an international LGBTI+ handball tournament that would gather teams from all over the world. They wanted me to be the ambassador of the event, and I was very confused because I had not made public my sexual condition as of then; I think they must have seen me play and assumed I was homosexual by my moves or style, anyways, I accepted their request. I was then interviewed about it and this article was in a magazine that was made available all over France. They asked me lots of personal questions for that interview and I remember feeling comfortable talking with them, so I really opened up and I told them I though I was bisexual, but explained to them that it was not something everybody knew. Then the London 2012 Olympic Games came, and that’s where it all ‘exploded’.
P: What happened then?
MP: Well, you know how there are always ‘papparazzis’ who usually talk about the athletes’ private lives, rather than their performances. One of those found this interview about the LGBTI+ tournament I had been an ambassador for, and after a very tough match against Montenegro, which we won, a journalist reached out to me in the mixed zone and said he wanted to ask me a personal question. I was in a bit of a shock, it was my first Olympic Games and I had never seen so many reporters in a mixed zone, and he went on and asked: “Is it true that you are bisexual?”. Naturally, I got mad and I lectured him about how he was asking this question right after such an important victory for us. He insisted, asked me if I was afraid of answering, and I told him that if he had read that article then he would know the answer. Apparently, he got very upset about my reply because the following day my name was all over the media in Brazil: on TV, internet, on the newspapers. I was afraid of my mother’s reaction to that, and of course it all went wrong from then on. My sister called me to tell me what was going on in my country with these news, everyone was talking about my personal life and eventually my mother called me as well, to ask me why they were saying such things about me. I couldn’t just run away from it, but I simply told her “I don’t really want to talk about this now, I’m in the middle of the Olympic Games in London”.
P: And in the meantime, you had to remain focused on the most important competition in the World…
MP: That’s it. And it was not easy. I remember this one day in which we had a training session at the Brazilian Olympic Committee house (Somerset House); we’d always see reporters there who were covering the activities of the Brazilian delegation. As we arrived, I remember seeing all journalists coming towards me, none of them wanted to talk to Morten (Soubak) nor with Dara (Carvalho, captain), they all wanted to talk to me and I didn’t know what to do; I was not used to this kind of situations. Our press attaché told me not to talk to anyone, as they continued to follow me. She said to me: “right after every match, try to walk straight pass the mixed zone, you need to focus on the matches, so it would be better if you didn’t speak”. That’s how we did it for the rest of the tournament. If any journalist wanted to talk to me about the matches, which would make sense because I was having a very good performance, they had to talk to our press attaché first. Things got better from that moment on, I was always accompanied by someone at the mixed zone, but unfortunately it happened again during the tournament. So, after the Olympic Games I thought to myself: “that’s enough”. People were writing to me, inquiring me, so I thought about going public because I was tired of people not respecting my privacy. After a few interviews, it all got a bit better.
Pessoa arrived in Bucharest in the summer of 2014 as a new addition to CSM București, and she doesn’t hold the best memories of that first period in the Romanian capital, as far as her personal life concerns. While people in the handball environment were always respectful with her (teammates, club managers and staff), she recalls the relation with the outside world being rather complicated. “There are so many people, outside the handball, that does not respect”, she says as she remembers a time in which she not only had to put up with insults on the streets, but also on the court. “Monkey” or “lesbian monkey” are some of the insults she endured then, and she still remembers those moments with pain and annoyance.
P: How did you deal with those situations then?
MP: I was once invited to a television show in the country’s main TV station, so I accepted. I poured everything there and I even cried out of frustration because it’s really horrible to have to endure those behaviors. I never gave anyone any reasons for them to treat me that way! So, after I gave that interview, people started to treat me better, and I had less problems after I opened myself, I think people started to respect me. The thing with this is that you never know whether your own children are homosexuals, and it could totally happen because it’s something normal, so you cannot simply mistreat people, just like that. I honestly believe that things have improved, but I also think that this is a problem we’ll always have to put up with, because there will always be someone who simply does not respect us.
P: How important is it then to give visibility to this struggle?
MP: Very important. There are lots of people who do not understand why we wave our flags, the Pride parades, the importance of taking out to the streets; people criticize it all, but I think it’s important to show the world that we need to normalize it and let everyone know that it’s all about love. When people ask me about this, I always stress that you don’t ever see fights during the parades, not people killing other people; but how many people die in the carnivals instead? You don’t see that in the Pride parades because they’re all about love, respect, understanding. People must understand that this is something that exists, there are people who love people from the same sex, it’s about love, this is not a disease, as many people say. In my case, I’ve known since I was 5 years old that I was into girls, I always fell in love with the girls in my school, I didn’t like boys. You’re simply born that way, it’s in your genes, but there are still so many narrow-minded people out there; that’s why I keep saying that this is a fight we must continue to fight, it’s something we must continue to show to everyone.
P: As in many other aspects in life, it could be important to have someone to look up to, did you have any role models during this period?
MP: Well, yes. I used to look up to some handball players that were always very open about their sexuality. Marta Mangué, for example, was someone very important to me, she was someone who liked girls and always said to me: “Mayssa, do as you please”. I was lucky enough to look up to top players like her or Gro Hammerseng-Edin, who always spoke very naturally about this. I used to look at them in awe, how they lived their lives so freely, and I would think: “man, I want that for myself too, I don’t want to be scared of anything”. Having role models helps a lot and I think I could also be an example for many girls now. Because after all, we as handball players are known worldwide within our own sport, and if those of us who are homosexual can live our lives in a natural way, we could be helping someone who needs that example. And I know what I’m talking about because I get messages on my Instagram from girls aged 14 or 15 who tell me they’re afraid to talk to their parents, girls who like other girls and don’t know what to do about it. I always ask them why they hide, and I tell them to be cool about it, but most importantly to talk about it only when they’re ready to do it. They should not be afraid to talk about these things, so I’m open to reading their messages, some have even told me they considered committing suicide. There might be a lot of people who do not understand this, who might think these things don’t happen, but this is a reality that is very present and that might even happen within your own family; for example the fear of being expelled from your own house. I know many people who’ve been kicked out of their homes for being gay. It’s tough, and it’s something that I’m very serious about because it hits home.
P: Your first period playing in Russia coincided with the moment in which the country was voting the laws "for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values", also known as “anti-gay-laws”, what was it like for you to be living there at that time?
MP: At first, I had a few problems, but mainly for online harassment, mainly from men who were Rostov-Don supporters. I was playing for Dinamo Volgograd and Rostov-Don were our biggest rivals, so I would often get messages from their supporters. They would write things like: “This monkey, lesbian, she’s earning money in Russia, how is that possible?”; I would read them but never say anything about them. I was like: “I don’t care what they say”. But it was only the beginning. Everyone in the club has always respected me very much, they all knew I was dating a woman, but neither the players nor the club managers ever questioned me about it. So, it was only those first moments when I got mistreated on social media, and here in Rostov-Don people are very respectful. All of the players, we’re well known here, so people recognize us in the streets, in the restaurants or shopping malls and are always very polite. We have parents who come to talk to us with their children, the same happens in the playing hall, I’ve never had any problems with anyone here.
P: So those were the only episodes of harassment, at least the ones that were online, but have you feared walking down the street with your girlfriend?
MP: Well, when I was in Bucharest I was a victim of a violent episode, I was spat on the face. I was in a bar with some teammates and a man called out my name, “Pessoa, Pessoa”, when I turned around he spat me in the face and shouted “lesbian” at me. While in Russia the harassment was only via social media, at first I was afraid of holding hands with Nikita (Ramona). The thing is you never know what could happen, so far, I’ve always been treated with respect, but you never know if you’ll come across some maniac. So yes, I’m often cautious, I’m sometimes scared to hold her hand or kiss her in public. When we go to some places, we don’t normally sit very close to each other. But when we go to places where people know me and recognize me, then I feel safer. It’s usually men who harass us, so far, we haven’t been disrespected by any woman.
P: A few days ago, a Norwegian site published an article by Gro Hammerseng-Edin in which she mentions a situation she had to face in Serbia, during the 2012 EHF Euro. She went to the hotel to visit her wife, Anja, and the team guide told them not to hold hands, because it was not seen as something good. She herself told them she didn’t do it with her own girlfriend, because of the fear of being attacked. What do you think about this situations?
MP: Well, the Norwegian society has a very different mentality, they’re very open, their families usually accept everything, so I guess they don’t understand why other countries don’t, why other families don’t. And I understand why the team guide told them that, because being from there, she knew the situation best. For example, here in Russia, people also don’t accept homosexuality that much, it’s getting better but they don’t like it yet; so I respect their culture the way it is, that’s how they are and it’s very hard to change their mindset. It’s better to follow that advice if you’re somewhere else, in order to avoid problems. That’s why I think some things won’t ever change, because there will always be people who don’t understand, this will be a never-ending struggle.
P: You mentioned in some interviews that the president of Rostov-Don is homofobic, what’s your relationship with him like?
MP: Yeah, well, he’s very religious, he doesn’t like these things. He knows I’m homosexual and he knows that I have my girlfriend; but he likes me as a goalkeeper and as a person, I guess. He’s always treated me well, but I don’t show up to see him holding Nikita’s hand. He doesn’t like homosexuals, but I guess I’m ‘safe’ with him because he likes me as a person.
P: Were there any special requests for you?
MP: Well, yes. Before I signed the contract with them, they asked me not to date any of the players, not to mix things up. I told them I already had my girlfriend. I used to date a player, but and after that experience I told myself not to do it again; I never looked at my teammates with other eyes. So, while it’s something they demanded to me, it was already a personal decision. However, I understand it and I respect it, i don’t want any problems here as I’m the first lesbian player they ever signed.
P: There’s a part of the media that highlights the private matters of an athlete instead of focusing on the athletic performances itself, how damaging is this sensationalism when it comes athletes discussing their sexual orientation?
MP: Very damaging. But most of the media or people who talk about these subjects in that way, they mostly do it for marketing purposes. They don’t really want to talk about handball, they want to talk about what you do in your bed in order to create of all that marketing. That’s exactly what they did to me in Brazil.
P: Do you think this type of journalism could be one of the reasons why a homosexual athlete decides not to expose publicly?
MP: I can’t tell you what they all think, I think there are some players that might not want to do it, unlike, for example, Gro Hammerseng-Edin, who usually posts photos and so on. What happens with this is that I sometimes get these questions from people who ask me why I post certain photos and I’m like: “Don’t you post photos with your boyfriend?” So why couldn’t I do the same with my girlfriend? Because she’s a woman? It’s not how it works, I get so mad when I get that kind of comments, I don’t like them. I know some players don’t post photos, maybe because they’re scared, maybe they haven’t talked to their families yet, or maybe they don’t want to hurt them, we cannot judge them for that. As for me, I know my mother doesn’t like it when I do it, but this is my life, it’s my girlfriend, it’s the person I’ll marry, the one I will have children with. People always judge, but what they need to understand is that there’s always a fear, fear because of the country you live in, because of the religion or because of the family; that’s why I always understand when a girls doesn’t want to come out as lesbian or a boy does not want to come out as gay; because there are many men in handball who are gay, but they won’t say it.
P: Why do you think that happens?
MP: I think for men this is a very difficult thing to do because of the machismo, the male chauvinism, I won’t ever judge them. If a handball or football player came out and said: “I’m gay”, I’d be surprised, because it takes a lot of guts. We all know that the world does not accept this, that’s why we need to continue to fight, that’s why the Pride parades exist, that’s something that will be very hard to change.
P: Has being an athlete helped you in any way to go through this process or is sport a niche in which talking about one’s sexuality is still a taboo? Was it easy for you to be in this environment?
MP: I think sport has helped me, I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t involved in sports; because I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve lived in many different countries, I’ve known so many cultures. I’m so open now, and I’ve opened myself as a person and learned to accept things and to be strong and determined. I don’t know if I would have this courage to speak and think so openly if I still lived in Brazil, in my small hometown with my family, sport has definitely helped me a lot.
P: So, from that perspective, do you think it’s important for you be a person that the LGBTI+ community in Russia looks up to?
MP: Yes, I think in Russia there’s a visible oppression, tightness, but the world is accepting more and it’s becoming more and more open, so you can see many girls dating other girls, not only here but in other countries as well. There are many girls who write to me, asking me things; I just tell them that if they’re sure about it but they’re scared, they should take the step and come out, and so in that way I think I could see myself as an example. The younger generations are definitely more open to that, but there are some people from my generation who still have an old mentality and do not accept certain things; thankfully, this is changing, but we still have a long way to go.
P: Did it ever cross your mind to stop playing due to any discrimination act or the pressure that is being exposed the way you are?
MP: No, I never really thought about that. In fact, whenever I went through any of these situations, I’ve always played really well so I guess it was actually motivating for me. Even when I had that episode at the London 2012 Olympic Games, when my name was on the news and I had to talk to my mother, I never thought of stopping nor got depressed. All of these things have made me think more, fight more, have more courage and just face it; there’s no point in hiding, you have to struggle.
P: What do you think are the steps to follow in order to finally live in a society with acceptance?
MP: To simply accept that everyone has its own life and should be able to live it the way they want. When I was afraid, it was always because I was scared of what other people would think of me. But some others may be scared to lose their friends, their family, their people, afraid that it affects their careers or that they fall into depression. Some people even kill themselves for the fear of what the others may think of them; that’s the biggest issue. People need to understand and stop judging, and start helping those who might not feel safe enough to show themselves the way they are. You need to be patient and be calm, and once you’re ready to come out, that’s the moment, not when someone else forces you to do it. I’ve been asked why I didn’t do it earlier and it was because I didn’t feel ready to do it; every person is different and you cannot force someone else to do something they’re don’t want to. Just live your life, accept who you are and let love win; this is all about love, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man with a man or a woman with another woman, if it’s a threesome or a foursome (laughs), if you love it, then do it. It’s not OK to have to hurt someone because you have to hide them, that happened to me as well. But most of all, I think we cannot stop being happy because of someone else’s opinion. Right now, I feel that after all I’ve been through, and the fact that I have spoken with my mother and all, I am happy with myself and with the situation. I feel free.