By JULIANA BARBASSA, Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The deafening chants roared from the packed bleachers each time the volleyball player stood and focused on his serve: "Bicha! Bicha!"
Michael dos Santos bounced the ball, sent it soaring and over the net. In one voice, the crowd called out again the homophobic slur: "Bicha! Bicha!"
Santos didn't flinch, despite the constant chanting of the Brazilian slang word for "faggot" during the playoff match in Brazil's widely popular professional volleyball league.
Four days after the game in early April between Santos' team, Volei Futuro, and Sada Cruzeiro, the player took the rare step among sports figures anywhere and declared on the GloboEsporte website: "I am gay. Everyone here knows it."
That announcement stoked a national debate over homophobia in Brazil.
On Thursday, Brazil's top court ruled that same-sex civil unions must be recognized. The nation has its first openly gay congressman. Even one of its beloved soap operas will feature its first televised gay kiss this month.
While Rio de Janeiro is routinely ranked as a top destination for gay tourists, watchdog groups say violence against gays is on the rise in Brazil, and the casual homophobia thrown in the face of Santos is an endemic problem, especially in sports and not only in Brazil.
Such controversies will resonate more widely now that Brazil is hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, bringing new scrutiny of its society.
Santos' team stood with him, asking the Brazilian Confederation of Volleyball for sanctions against Sada Cruzeiro, possibly a fine, loss of points in the championship or immediate expulsion from the league.
Few high-profile athletes anywhere have acknowledged they are gay, and most of those are women, such as Martina Navratilova in tennis, Sheryl Swoopes in the WNBA and Rosie Jones of the LPGA.
In Europe, where gay marriage is legal in seven countries, there are only two active big-name male athletes who have come out: Gareth Thomas, the former Wales rugby captain, and English cricket player Steve Davies.
There has yet to be an openly gay player in Major League Baseball, the NBA or NFL, and only a few have spoken publicly about their sexuality after retiring.
Santos, 27, said he felt threatened by the insults, which were heard around the country because the match was televised. Despite his stoic behavior during the match, Santos said the chants affected his play. Volei Futuro lost, 3-2.
"It really hurt me, and I think it should be discussed publicly so that it doesn't happen anymore with anyone else," Santos said in a statement after the match.
Both teams and Santos declined interviews with The Associated Press, saying they had released statements containing all they wanted to disclose. But sports fans, TV commentators and bloggers across Brazil discussed the issue for weeks as the two teams faced off two more times in the semifinals.
Santos and his team also became part of a larger struggle by Brazilian gays for respect.
Brazil's first openly gay congressman, Jean Wyllys de Matos Santos, took office this year, making gay rights part of his platform. A popular prime-time soap opera broke stereotypes by including several gay characters and producers of another plan this month to air the genre's first gay kiss, between women.
Last year, 60,000 same-sex couples in Brazil identified themselves to the national census in results released last week. Thursday's ruling by the Supreme Court on civil unions gives gays the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to alimony, retirement benefits of a partner who dies and inheritances, among other issues.
Activist groups are encouraging people to come out. Thousands have responded to an online campaign asking Brazilians, including the congressman, to submit photos of themselves holding a sign saying, in Portuguese, "I am gay."
"Brazil is living a crucial moment, a moment of conflict," Congressman Santos said. "There is a reframing of the debate."
Most Brazilian state capitals now have gay pride parades. Same-sex couples can file their taxes jointly. But there has also been a backlash.
The civil rights group Grupo Gay da Bahia, which has been keeping a record of attacks against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people for more than 30 years, said 260 were murdered in 2010, up 113 percent from five years ago.
On April 5, the body of 16-year-old Adriele Camacho de Almeida was found in a marshy area in the state of Goias. The father and brother of her teenage girlfriend were arrested in connection to her death.
Ten days later, security cameras captured the beating death of Daniel Oliveira Felipe, 24, in the northeastern state of Paraiba. He was a transvestite, a category particularly targeted by violence; 110 were killed last year, said Luiz Mott, the founder of Grupo Gay da Bahia.
"The greater visibility is provoking greater aggression," Mott said. Congressman Santos reported receiving threats of violence or death almost weekly.
At the volleyball tournament, Volei Futuro's effort to have Sada Cruzeiro reprimanded for its fans' behavior saw mixed results.
In the following game, Volei Futuro fans turned out with pink thundersticks bearing player Santos' name. The mayor of the small town of Contagem, where the game was held, hung up a banner denouncing homophobia, and even the maintenance crew wore rainbow-colored T-shirts with messages of support.
Many Sada Cruzeiro fans carried banners apologizing for the insults. When Santos went up for a serve, opposing fans booed him as they would any other player, but without reference to his sexual orientation.
Team officials for Sada Cruzeiro denounced discrimination in a press release, but they also called Volei Futuro "sore losers" and described the game as a "beautiful celebration, where enthusiastic fans celebrated and helped their team."
"The fans express themselves, not always appropriately, but moved by the customs of the society in which they live," Sada Cruzeiro said in its statement. The team eventually reached the finals, and lost.
Brazil's media and on blogs overwhelmingly lauded Santos' decision to go public with his sexuality to combat homophobia in sports, although there was no shortage of derogatory comments from mostly anonymous posts in online news sites and elsewhere.
A sports tribunal decided April 13 to fine Sada Cruzeiro $32,000. While that team is appealing, Volei Futuro said it was too small a price for using discrimination to unsettle an opponent.
"Now it has a price. You can pay and discriminate, pay and reach your objectives," the team said in a news release. "It's just a matter of money."
Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.