First openly gay couple in Brazilian jiu-jitsu launches Boynton Beach school, urges change in sport
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu power couple have brought their championship winning ways to Boynton Beach. The women are multiple time world champions in competitive jiu-jitsu. And as the first openly gay married athletes in the sport, the black belt instructors say their martial arts school serves as an athletic haven for women and the LGBTQ+ community.
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Ana “Baby” Vieira, who competed in the medium-heavy division, won her fifth world title in June at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation in California, one of the biggest tournaments in competitive jiu-jitsu. Her new medal fits well with the other gold medals adorning the walls of the school just a few feet from the live streaming TV, where jiu-jitsu practitioners — who live as far as Montana — stream the training sessions. The gold medals are a small, shiny “reminder for hard work" and grit, the instructor says.
Vieira, who married jiu-jitsu Hall of Famer Luanna Alzuguir in 2018, said female athletes, however, haven't won over many people within the sport. And going public as part of the first openly gay married couple had exposed even more difficulty for the athletes.
A journalist who interviewed Vieira about her marriage to Alzuguir said he was surprised by the level of hate he had seen directed at the newlyweds.
“And the guy, he came to me and he said 'I didn't know the community was so homophobic,’ Vieira said. “And I was like, ‘Really?’ He said, 'I received so many messages that I deleted the comments and I didn't allow them to comment anymore.'
"And I said, ‘yeah, that's that's how they in the community is, you know, so being a woman and gay in this sport is not easy.' ”
Vieira hopes her efforts can inspire and elevate female involvement in the sport. She’s from Rio de Janeiro and Alzuguir is from Sao Paulo. The couple met in Brazil in 2012. Six years later, they got married and moved to Boynton Beach, and in 2019 opened Aviv, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school. Aviv means “spring season” in Hebrew. The champions say training at the jiu-jitsu school is about constant personal and professional growth.
When you stroll into the school, you'll hear sounds of bodies, contorted in different angles, being smashed on the dark gray mat. That’s Alzuguir teaching students advanced ground grappling moves for self-defense. Alzuguir and Vieira say their school is intended for the LGBTQ+ community and women who often feel uncomfortable grappling on the ground with men in traditional schools.
“I believe the only way for you to develop yourself, it's being comfortable,” Alzuguir said. “Because I can be myself. That's important.”
Alzuguir said female jiu-jitsu athletes can’t improve their game if they aren’t comfortable in the gyms.
Vieira says a comfortable training process allows each athlete to feel “empowered” to “reach their full potential.”
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a form of a self-defense martial arts that places more emphasis on ground fighting than striking your opponents. The tactics are typically choking or joint locks like head locks, elbow locks, and leg locks.
Kat Janis is an artist from Delray Beach and a student at Aviv. Janis says other jiu-jitsu schools she's attended had plenty of men and not enough women.
“There were just few women on the mat and I started to want to compete. And I could tell going to the competitions that I just wasn't getting the experience of rolling with women my size or being able to work techniques,” Janis said. “Because just rolling with guys, I was getting smashed all the time.”
Janis said as a gay woman, Aviv Jiu Jitsu school in Boynton Beach gives her "a sense of freedom" she hadn’t felt in other schools before.
“I remember thinking it’s like my old gym, but flipped.It's kind of like this cool women's club. I feel like I can come here, like, shoot the sh*t with my friends and train jiu jitsu," Janis said. “And I'm not thinking about being a woman, which is kind of cool. It just feels like home.”
That’s what the world champion owners of Aviv want — a space for growth.
Alzuguir helped train her wife Vieira at Aviv before her championship win in June. Vieira said raising the profile of women and gay people in the sport is a battle they’re fighting together on and off the mat.
“I receive a lot of support messages from guys and girls around the world, from the LGBT community,” Vieira said. “I receive a lot of messages from men saying, 'Oh, thank you. You know, I don't feel safe to be myself at my gym, you know, you know how our sport is.'
In 2019, more than 6,000 people and organizations signed the couple’s petition in under three weeks. It called for equal pay, better media coverage, and more diverse weight class divisions for women in the big international jiu-jitsu federations. That resulted in an all women’s Queen Of Mats Grand Prix, a version of the all-male, high paying King of the Mat tournament. But the champions say more needs to be done.
Alzuguir is a black belt and five-time world champion. She said for years, female Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes have struggled to reach the same notoriety as their male counterparts.
“A lot of guys, they say the female jiu jitsu don't sell. The point is, if people don't see, of course they don't want to buy. So we need space,” Alzuguir said. “That's all we need. Because if you have space to show our jiu-jitsu, of course we're going to sell it because it's beautiful the way women fight. We don't hold … we go! It's different.”
Alzuguir said women's matches are often at a faster pace and are just as exciting. And she argues adding more diverse weight class divisions would give women more opportunities to excel. She said female athletes spend a great deal of time trying to prove themselves.
“We want to prove that we have beautiful jiu-jitsu,” Alzuguir said. “We want to prove that we know how to fight, but we don't have space to fight.”
And now they continue to fight perceptions in multiple ways. Vieira said the opening of Aviv Jiu-Jitsu is a huge step toward creating more female athletes in the sport because seeing champions in action is a blueprint, a template of sorts, for aspiring female and gay athletes.
Even before the couple met at a trials competition in Brazil, Alzuguir was a huge inspiration for her now-wife, Vieira.
“That’s what I felt for Luanna. So when I started training, she used to be already black belt world champion,” Vieira said.
“And I knew she was gay and I was like ’Wow, it can be me.' ”