Monday, March 19, 2007

Life in the Coaching Closet

Imagine you are a very, very closeted lesbian college basketball coach. You coach at a Division I school and are ranked in the top 25 year after year. You come from a conservative religious family and they do not know you are gay. They would not accept a lesbian daughter.

You played ball for a top Division I school that went to the Final Four twice while you were on the team. As a player, you knew the unwritten rule at your school: Lesbians keep it on the down low or they are gone. Teammates knew who was gay, but no one talked about it. You and the other lesbians on the team were tolerated as long as you kept it to yourselves. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the unwritten policy. Because you loved basketball and could not imagine your life without it, you did what you needed to do to protect your place on the team.

You watched your closeted lesbian coach carefully separate out her personal life from her coaching life. She never brought her partner to team social events, but you knew where she sat in the stands behind the bench at every game. You watched your coach erase everything about her personal life in the media guide and in interviews with the media. To the world she was single and driven. The message was that basketball was her life: She had no time to find a man or raise a family. She encouraged this reaction. It was all part of her cover.

But, of course, there were always suspicions about her, rumors whispered in the stands and innuendoes among the sports writers. Lesbian fans, citing their “gaydar,” claimed her as one of their own and waited impatiently for her to come out.

You heard rumors that coaches from other schools told high school recruits that your team was coached by a lesbian. In the cut throat world of Division I ball, playing on fears about lesbians was just another way to get the top recruits. Everyone knew about this “negative recruiting”, but nothing happened to the coaches who did it.

Then you graduated and spent a few years as an assistant coach in another Division I program. The head coach made it clear that he would fire any assistants who were lesbians. But you already knew how to hide. You had a good role model in your own coach and knew what you needed to do to negotiate life in the coaching closet. You dated a male friend a few times to throw the head coach off. You dressed carefully and kept your hair long to project a “hetero” image. You focused on basketball and avoided other lesbians who were too out or too careless about who knew about them.

Finally, with a glowing recommendation from your homophobic head coach in hand, you landed a head coaching job at a Division I school. You were treated like a rock star by the local and national media when your team rose quickly through the ranks to the top 10. Everywhere you went everyone knew who you were. You couldn’t eat in a restaurant without young girls and older folks asking for your autograph. Your name and picture were in the local news all the time. You had your own TV show every week to talk about the team. Your team played on national television regularly. You had a generous salary and everyone loved you. Your family was proud of you and your accomplishments.

You were relatively young so no one thought it was strange that you were not married. They understood the demands of Division I coaching. You knew how to lie smoothly or deflect questions about your personal life. You knew how to carefully separate your personal life from your coaching. You avoided social settings or places that might be associated with lesbians. You cut yourself off from old lesbian friends. You spent more and more time with basketball. You spent all your time with the team and your assistant coaches.

You knew that everything you had accomplished, all your success as a coach, the numerous national awards, your respected status in the community, the love of your family, your livelihood and career depended on your ability to keep up the charade of, if not heterosexuality, at least non-lesbianism.

This is just a story I made up. I’m not describing any particular coach, but I am describing the life of many closeted lesbian coaches. As you watch the NCAA tournament during the next two weeks, think about those coaches who have paid a terrible personal price for their coaching career and for the opportunity to succeed in a profession they love. Think about how it might be, how it should be, if more coaches associations, sport governing organizations and individual colleges and universities were commited to eliminating homophobia in sport.

Think about a day when the fear and shame, the prejudice and the stereotypes, and the harassment and discrimination of lesbians in sport are consigned to history where they belong. Think about a day when lesbian coaches do not live in fear of the accusation, exposure, and judgment that could ruin their careers. We are not there now. How long will it take?


Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this site and was quickly enthralled in this post. As a recent student-athlete grad (softball) I've seen first hand this very cycle.

I hope many people read this and gain a better understanding of issues such as these.

Thank you

Carol Anne said...

I just re-found this blog (forgot to bookmark it the first time) and read about "Life in the Coaching Closet." Right after the 2007 Final Four and in the midst of the coaching carousel, it packs quite an emotional impact.

I'm a fan of Kim Mulkey. I'm not a fan of Baylor University. As a Baptist school, it openly discriminates against gay students. It's hard for me to accept that Kim works for BU, especially now that she has just signed a ten-year contract extension.

Still, I'm told by a friend in Texas that there have been (and presumably still will be) lesbian, basketball-playing BU Lady Bears (and coaches). It's complicated, living in the real world.