Playing For the Other Team: Catch-22

So it’s Lavender’s sports issue. You should write a piece about the GLBT population, and why and how sports are important, they said. You know, like your other columns, but more broadly, they said. It’ll be easy, they said.

And at first, I thought yeah, this is easy. I mean, why do we play sports? Well, for all the reasons everyone else does, of course. Make friends. Stay in shape. Have fun. Win games. But, maybe, for us, isn’t it also because if you throw a pigskin seventy yards, or jump higher than everyone else, or run faster, or hit a ball over a fence, it might not matter if you’re purple and have horns growing out of your head; you’ll be accepted? Maybe admired? Maybe people will love you? Maybe they’ll even want to be purple with horns growing out of their heads, too?

That’s what I used to think. I knew, as a child, that I was different, as most of those in the GLBT population do. I even knew how I was different, even if I didn’t have the vocabulary to put a word to it. I felt awkward and embarrassed every time my classmates would excitedly giggle about which boys they wanted to kiss. I wanted to go home during sleepovers whenever the conversation turned to imaginary boyfriends who were supposed to whisk us away to magical lands like California and Paris. God forbid we ever play that horrible game MASH, which only happened every day, where my friends would stare at me expectantly and suspiciously as I tried to come up with “four boys” I liked. (It was much easier to name “four cars I wanted.” Chevy pickup, Ford pickup, snowmobile, four-wheeler, thank you.) Yes, I knew I was quite different than all the other girls. And I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be very much the same.

For girls, Owen, WI, population 900, is a basketball town. Home games are crowded, boisterous events. Game recaps make up a large portion of the local newspapers. Varsity athletes walk the halls of the high school with pride and the underclassmen revere them. As a kid, summer basketball camp and open gyms were the place to be. To me they represented a place for me to blend in and I willed myself to succeed, because maybe here there would be no expectant and suspicious stares. As average a player as I was, the basketball court was a refuge for me, a safe haven, a hiding place. Here there was no talk of boys, of dating. There was just, “How many free throws can you make in a row?” The same was true as I tried Little League, and then softball, through middle school and high school. It’s hard, being a gay kid. I internalized it all, the anxiety of which I still struggle with, to this day. Playing on a team with other girls, acting “just like everyone else,” allowed me to come out of my shell and gave me some semblance of confidence, when, really, I wasn’t very confident in the least.

That’s just me, though. My personal relationship with athletics. I imagine other lesbians share a similar experience — in fact, I know they do, because sometimes we share these stories over our beers. This story isn’t everyone’s, though. I eventually came out, of course, and didn’t participate in sports at the college level. Because of this, I didn’t endure the homophobia that still pervades sports at higher levels. That wasn’t the case, for say, Brittney Griner, who waited until she graduated and was a sure thing for the WNBA before announcing that she was gay. Looking back a few years, it wasn’t the case for Billie Jean King, who developed an eating disorder and worried her career would be over if she were outed. And it definitely wasn’t the case for one of the greatest female athletic pioneers of the last century, the Olympian (1932) Babe Didrikson, who excelled at every sport: basketball, track, baseball, tennis, swimming, and boxing, to name a very few, and later became a world-champion golfer. She was forced into marrying a man to combat the negative press surrounding her appearance and lack of interest in the feminine, and only eventually cohabitated with her “golf partner,” Betty Dodd, before dying at an early age. For these women, sports may not have been a refuge, but a homophobic trap into the closet.

I know, too, from the gay men and transgender athletes I’ve interviewed for this column, that my story is not their story either. Unlike some gay men I’ve spoken with, I didn’t play to prove my toughness or my masculinity. Unlike my trans friends, I was able to play as my identified gender, with teammates who were also the same gender.

And so, our relationship with athletics has always been something of a catch-22. To some extent, on some levels, our enjoyment of athletics has also been self-defeating. There are too many players that hide in order to play, and one too many Michael Sams that come out to be passed over. Too many men and women coaching from deep in the closet. In order to achieve greatness, we must also suffer. The vicious cycle. Bit by bit, though, hero by hero, this is changing. Each Sam, every Abby Wambach, every Jaiyah Saelua, every #BeTrue campaign gives me hope that maybe soon our relationship with sports will be one of wedded bliss.

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