By: Izzy Cerullo, Olympian and Professional Rugby Player, Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador
Nearly four years ago, my life changed forever. My girlfriend at the time proposed to me, which alone would have been significant, but it was a public display of affection that took on proportions of its own. Let me set the stage: I had finished competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, representing Brazil in rugby, while Marjorie was working with the Organizing Committee at Deodoro Stadium. New Zealand and Australia had just disputed a tense final, and Australia was crowned the first women’s rugby Olympic champions in history.
After the medal ceremony, when media personnel and the medalists were supposed to be in the media center, and I believed I was waiting to do an interview on the empty pitch, Marjorie began to address her sport management and event organizing team, as well as me and my teammates. When I finally realized what was happening, when I heard her say that she had an important question for someone, I was overcome with emotion. I answered the easiest question of my life. Yes, yes, yes.
At the time, we had no idea that our moment of love and happiness would become international news overnight. (There weren’t even supposed to be cameras!) What was meant to be an intimate, personal moment, shared with our respective sport families (her team and my teammates) was suddenly on display for the world to see, and to judge. We received an outpouring of supportive messages, from friends and strangers alike, an overwhelming number of positive responses compared to the hateful, condemning ones. We read messages that thanked us for our courage, that shared how important it was, and that told us that they felt represented by us. As I began to field interviews over the following days and weeks (Marjorie would continue working at the Olympic venue through the Paralympic Games), we understood the significance of what we had done.
Simply put, Marjorie and I showed our true selves to the world. We live (and play sports) in a heteronormative society and where silence on this topic favors that status quo. Marjorie and I broke the silence. By doing so in the Brazilian Olympic uniform, I said that I exist. That we felt safe doing this in our sport of rugby was also huge. It was a moment that showed that World Rugby and the Brazil Rugby Union walk the walk when it comes to demonstrating and upholding the values of respect and solidarity. The more I spoke about our relationship and the proposal, I began to reflect on how much of a difference it would have made to my younger self to see two women in love, so happy and supported. It would have changed my life.
Many questioned, whether out of curiosity or accusation, why Marjorie chose the Olympic venue as the site for her proposal. For our relationship, Marjorie and I had already started to have conversations about what would happen after Rio 2016. For many athletes, the Olympic Games are seen as a pinnacle in their career, with many changes and life decisions linked to this cyclical event. I had changed my entire life in 2014 to move to Brazil and chase after my Olympic dream; I gave up a plan to go to medical school, choosing instead to return to the country my parents had left while it was still under a military dictatorship. Marjorie and I met through the team, when she was still manager of the Olympic program. In hindsight, falling in love was inevitable. When we both achieved our Olympic dreams in Rio, Marjorie wanted to recognize that it would be the end of one journey, but also the start of another, together.
Since then, four years later, I still give interviews about that moment at Deodoro Stadium. I’m careful to spot and celebrate the small victories and changes that have happened over these last few years. There is more talk about LGBTQ+ rights and about inclusion in sport. More brands and sponsors have changed policies and practices to promote diversity and inclusion.
However, discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people still exists. It is still not safe or legal to be fully yourself in most countries. There is a long way to go. But, the motto of the Rio 2016 Games was “a new world”, and I believe in the power of small actions to help build that world. There is power and meaning in starting conversations, in the little things that will go towards changing someone’s mind, changing the tone and language surrounding a topic, eventually changing a culture. It might have taken me years to reach a point where I was proud to be who I am, but I know it is a solid path that cannot be undone. I’m thrilled that my path has led me here, to becoming an Athlete Ally Ambassador. Slowly but surely, this is the change Marjorie and I believe in and are proud to be a part of.
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