Lesbian MMA Athlete Sonya Deville Takes Her Fight for LGBT Rights into the Ring

Written by | Lifestyle

MMA fighter Sonya Deville

How did lesbian and New Jersey native Daria Berenato become a mixed martial arts champ known as Sonya Deville? Easy, she says. “I grew up in a small farm town in South Jersey, riding quads and playing sports. When I got to high school I decided soccer basketball and lacrosse weren’t thrilling enough, so I decided to take on MMA.”

Diploma in hand, Berenato set her sights on professional competition. “The day after my graduation I got in my car and drove to South Florida to train with one of the best fight teams in the world,” the athlete recalls. “Over the next five years I trained, fought and produced an independent film. I worked for Paramount Studios, hosted a UFC podcast at AfterBuzz TV and managed a craft beer bar.”

Moving from New Jersey to South Florida, then on to New York City and Los Angeles, Berenato says her focus always remained constant and clear: “I was chasing my dreams and fighting all along the way,” she says of those years. “When I was living in LA and doing the podcast at AfterBuzz, the owner and founder of the network Keven Undergaro and Maria Menonous took to me under their wings and began to mentor me. When an opportunity for the reality show WWE Tough Enough came along, they encouraged me to try out — thinking I was perfect for the world of sports entertainment because of my background in not only fighting but also acting and my on-camera experience.”

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After successfully navigating a series of what she calls “intense tryouts,” Berenato signed a contract with WWE in October of 2015. “I was one of 13 on the show out of the 11,000 who tried out, she says. “During the filming of the show’s premiere I came out as being gay in front of a live panel of judges — which included WWE Executive Vice President Triple H and many other WWE lead executives. To say this was a nerve-wracking moment is an understatement. And to make it all the more uncomfortable I was in a bikini. This world was foreign to me and I was nervous, but I quickly fell in love with WWE and everything it stood for.

Her first match was a December live face-off with Nia Jax, which she lost. Berenato continued to compete, first in tag team matches then on her own under a new name: Sonya Deville.

Deville soon found herself on a winning streak, defeating a series of competitors including Lacey Evans, Rachel Evers, Jenna Van Bemel and Zeda. A year ago at an event billed “The Royal Rumble,” she entered the competition in the Top 10. Eventually she was defeated by Michelle McCool. In the subsequent Survivor Series, she remained one of the final two women in the competition.

As the first openly lesbian performer in WWE, Deville says, “I wanted to be a strong, independent female character and show people all over the world that strong can be sexy — and you should never be afraid to embrace who you are. Gay, straight, black or white, Muslim or atheist. It doesn’t matter. We are all one. Over the past three years in WWE I’ve been honored to be able to share my message on my social platform, and do what I love every single day: compete and perform.”

Last modified: January 8, 2019