After a decade of tearing up professional men’s volleyball leagues in Europe, Tiffany Abreu is used to taking on steep challenges. Fresh from becoming Brazil’s first transgender player, she is running for Congress in next month’s elections.
“Why not?” is the campaign slogan of a 33-year old who has learned to face down discrimination in a country struggling to curb violence against gay and transgender people.
Abreu is running as a candidate for MBD, the centre-right party of unpopular President Michel Temer in the October 7 election.
She has faced down criticism from the LGBT community over choosing to run for Temer’s conservatives, when most other candidates supported by the community represent leftist parties at the polls.
“I don’t give any importance to parties, but to people,” she said. Her links to the party come through her club, Volei Bauru, which is sponsored by industries linked to the MDB.
Abreu shot to public attention in Brazil last December, when she became the first transsexual to play in Brazil’s Superliga, the country’s top women’s volleyball league.
As Rodrigo Pereira de Abreu, a career in men’s volleyball had taken her to Europe, where she played in Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium and France.
But she says she always felt the torment of being a woman trapped in a man’s body.
“For 27 years, I’ve been consumed inside,” Abreu told AFP on a hotel terrace during a break between training and campaigning.
“I wanted to make my transition when I was 12 or 13 years old, because even from childhood, I knew I was a woman. But I lacked information, guidance and above all, hospitals where I could get the operation done.”
Born into a poor family in the central town of Goias, Abreu finally changed sex in 2012, after a long bout with depression.
“I left a team where I was the second-top scorer in the championship (in the Belgian second division) to start the transition.
“I could not live in that body anymore. I could not show that I was a man, when I was a woman. I couldn’t stand feeling ashamed of myself,” said Abreu, who has become one of the top players in her sport.
Extensive hormone treatment followed in Europe, as well as a series of operations — the most recent coming in May in Spain to sharpen her features.
The return to play in Brazil was a bombshell, for Abreu and the Superliga. Women’s league players were up in arms, denouncing what they saw as unfair competition.
But she was allowed thanks to International Olympic Committee rules that permits trans athletes to compete in women’s competitions if their testosterone levels in the bloodstream remain controlled.
It didn’t help that among her fiercest critics was Brazil’s Olympic bronze medalist Ana Paula Henkel, who said Abreu had an unfair advantage of having trained in the sport as a man.
“It’s not a question of prejudice, but physiology,” said Henkel on Twitter. “Her body was built with testosterone all her life.”
Abreu, who is eyeing a chance to win a place on Brazil’s team for the Tokyo Olympics, has taken it in her stride.
“If I’m protected by the rules, why should I worry about what people are saying,” said Abreu.
“I have the impression that they are criticizing me out of jealousy, a little like Neymar,” she said.
Despite their struggles for acceptance in Brazil’s macho society, 53 of the candidates in October’s elections are transgender — compared to just five in the last elections.
Abreu is one of the very few not to represent a leftist party. But she’s hoping her example will help transsexuals’ struggle for acceptance.
The stakes are higher than anywhere else. According to figures from the National Association of Transsexuals and Transvestites, Brazil has the world’s highest rate of trans murders, with 179 in 2017 alone.
“When they offered to bring me back to Brazil, many people advised me to stay in Europe because of discrimination, but thank God things are starting to change.”
The aspiring MP knows that if she makes it to Congress, other obstacles lie in wait within the parliament itself, where diversity is far from the order of the day.
Her mother has given her blessing for the move into politics. On one condition: “She told me: Don’t become like those politicians who rob the people and who’ve done so much harm to the country.”