Monday, May 5, 2014

The Reappearing Act by Kate Fagan

I highly recommend Kate Fagan's memoir. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who wants to understand how homophobia affects women in sport, this is required reading.

The Reappearing Act by Kate Fagan (Skyhorse, 2014)

The Reappearing Act is a gripping memoir written with honesty and wry humor about Kate Fagan’s painful, but ultimately triumphant journey to truth and self-acceptance as a lesbian.  As a college basketball player on a nationally ranked team Kate Fagan’s story exposes the influence of Evangelical Christian sport ministries on young athletes and the crushing fear of being publicly identified as lesbian that holds so many women coaches and athletes hostage.

I started reading The Reappearing Act after the evening news one night and could not put it down until I finished it in the wee hours of the next morning.  Certainly part of the book’s appeal is how it stirred memories of my own experiences as a closeted lesbian athlete and coach. I relived the suffering along with Kate through fear, isolation and shame as she wrestled with the growing realization that her feelings for other women were more than those associated with intense friendships.  Noting a player from another team passing a huddle of Kate’s teammates in the gym, she writes,

One of my teammates leaned into our little huddle and said, “I heard she’s a lesbian.” “That’s so disgusting,” said another of my friends, shaking her head, trying to fling the thought from her mind. “Yeah,” said another, “Totally sickening.” “Totally,” I chimed in, the flock of birds tearing through my insides.

It was depressing to think that, though I am about 36 years older than Kate Fagan, our torturous journeys to self-acceptance had so many similarities. Despite progress in cultural acceptance of LGBT people and our civil, parental and marriage rights in the last 40 years, some young LGBT people still suffer through a personal hell of self-hate as they strive to find peace and comfort with the truth of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Tragically, many never do.
Fagan’s struggles are complicated by her Evangelical Christian teammates’ condemnation of homosexuality and her ambivalent, yet regular participation in weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes Bible studies with her teammates.  Her experiences raise concerns about the unquestioned acceptance of Christian sport ministries in athletics at all levels, but particularly in high school and college sports. Young people seeking to understand and come to terms with their sexuality are the most vulnerable to the pressure exerted by these sport ministries to deny their inner truth.  At the same time their straight teammates are encouraged to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” which, in Kate’s case, results in the painful loss of support from the friend and teammate she cared most about. 

At the depths of despair in Kate’s lonely journey to self-love, she endures the abandonment of her best friend and teammate, estrangement from her parents and the loss of her love for basketball.  Barely able to function on or off the court, Kate engages in an internal war between what she increasingly feels to be true about herself and the terror of what naming that truth might mean. Her descriptions of this struggle are so vivid that I wanted to step into the book to take her hand and show her the way out of her pain. 

One of the most poignant parts of this memoir is when Kate reaches out to her closeted lesbian coach.  It is common knowledge that her coach is a lesbian (Kate’s Christian teammates regularly pray for her), but it is never spoken of in public.  One night Kate is alone in the darkened gym after practice when her coach comes in and finds her there.  Kate suddenly realizes that here is the one person in her life who might be able to help her see what the future could hold.  They go to the coaches’ locker room where her coach tells Kate how she has survived as a lesbian in the highly competitive world of college women’s basketball which relies on talking to parents and recruiting their young daughters. Kate describes her coach’s answer,

She has little choice but to pack away this part of herself – this intrinsic piece of her being –stuff it into a suitcase and stash it deep in the closet, unpacking it only on safe occasions, when people around her would understand all of what was inside.

I want to believe that, though this has been a necessary survival strategy for lesbian coaches, its usefulness is now outdated.  I want to believe that we have grown enough as a society to judge coaches (or politicians, teachers, or medical doctors) on the basis of their competence and character rather than their sexual orientation, but I fear that we have not. Not yet.

It leaves me wondering what kind of basketball player Kate, and other young lesbian athletes like her, might have been if not weighted down by the fear, shame and uncertainty she carried throughout her college career. It makes me sad that so many lesbian coaches pass on this legacy of the closet to younger coaches and athletes who yearn for a greater freedom to be true to themselves and play or coach the sport they love. Burdened by such fundamental secrecy who could possibly soar to reach their full potential and a coach, player or loving human being?

The Reappearing Act is ultimately the story of Kate’s successful journey to herself. As such it is a beacon of hope and a gauntlet laid down for current and future generations of women athletes and coaches.  As painful as her journey is to witness, those of us who care about women’s sports and the lives of girls and women athletes must take stock of how we pass on or challenge this legacy of fear. 
As such The Reappearing Act should be required reading for anyone who hopes to understand the crippling effects of homophobia for individual women of all sexual orientations and for the future of women’s sports itself.  Near the end of the book, Kate describes the long-term effects of living in the closet, even a glass closet, on individual coaches or athletes, but it could easily apply to women’s sports in general,

You tell yourself that you’re just wearing a coat, protecting yourself in public, against the elements. You tell yourself that it’s just temporary, that someday you’ll take off the coat and be the real you.  But eventually, years later, when the time comes and you’re finally ready to shed it forever, you realize you can’t.
The coat has become your skin.

Kate Fagan’s courageous memoir provides readers with an opportunity to reflect on the damaging effects that homophobia has had on women’s sports and on the individual girls and women who love to play sports.  We need a way out of the closet so that every girl or woman whose heart sings at the clean swish of a ball through the net or the crack of a ball off the bat can reach for her stars without the fear that has cramped the dreams of so many who have come before.  The Reappearing Act helps us to understand the urgency of that change.  It is up to readers to help make the change happen.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Women in the LGBT Sports Equality Movement: New Year and Birthday Thoughts

It’s the start of a new year and it’s my birthday. Both are great occasions to reflect on the past and look to the future.  I have been an active and out lesbian LGBT sports advocate and educator since 1982 when I spoke out for the first time publicly about homophobia in women’s sports at a national conference on the future of women’s sports.  As you might imagine, at that time, it caused quite a stir.  You just did not talk about lesbians or homophobia in sport above a whisper or in public! I actually had a colleague ask me once if homophobia meant fear of going home.

Billie Jean King had been outed by her former lover the year before and lost all of her commercial endorsements. Martina Navratilova had just been outed in a New York newspaper. She did not want them to publish the article until she had received her US citizenship since sexual orientation could have been used to deny her application.  Dave Kopay’s ground-breaking book was published 6 years before.  Renee Richards was the only trans athlete we knew of because she won her right to play in women’s competitions in 1977.  All in all, it was a fairly lonely and risky experience to be a fledging LGBT sports advocate in 1982. I did have role models though. Ellen “Lennie” Gerber and her partner, Pearl Berlin were my mentors when I was getting my Master’s degree.  They introduced me to Jan Felshin, a professor at East Stroudsburg, who was such an open and outspoken lesbian that she both inspired and scared me.

In the early 90’s, I met and began working with Helen Carroll, then athletic Director at Mills College and now director of the NCLR Sports Project; Sue Rankin, then an openly lesbian softball coach at Penn State during the Rene Portland anti-lesbian era and now a top researcher on LGBT issues on college campuses; Dee Mosbacher, who produced the first educational documentary about homophobia in women’s sports, Out for A Change, in 1995; Mariah Burton Nelson, professional basketball player and author; and Mary Jo Kane, a sport sociologist from the University of Minnesota specializing in research on media images of women athletes. Each of these amazing women inspired me and we supported each other in our efforts to challenge homophobia in women’s sports. It meant everything to have friends and colleagues who cared as deeply as I did about women’s sports and making sports a safe and inclusive place where LGBT people could compete openly without fear of discrimination or harassment.  With encouragement and support from these women I wrote Strong Women, Deep Closets in 1998, the first book to explore the depth of homophobia in women’s sports.  I am still humbled (and proud) when women athletes and coaches tell me that my book changed their lives in some way or helped them to understand and speak out against the destructive dynamics of heterosexism and sexism they experienced in sports.  I probably wouldn’t have completed the book without the support of my women’s support network.

Over the last fourteen years we have experienced an incredible explosion of advocacy and change in the women’s and men’s sports world.  The creation of LGBT sports advocacy organizations and the emergence of young leaders of all sexual orientations and gender identities who are creating change in sports at all levels.  The success of the LGBT sports equality movement is assured by these amazing young people.  Though we have many obstacles remaining before the work is done, we are up to the challenge.

My work as an LGBT sports advocate grew out of my own experiences as a closeted lesbian athlete and coach in high school and college.  I wanted to be part of a movement that would insure that future LGBT athletes and coaches would be able to compete and coach in the sports they loved without fear and discrimination.  As a high school and college woman athlete who competed and coached pre-Title IX, I also am very sensitive to the need to keep our focus on women’s and men’s sports.  Though we have made enormous progress, we have not yet achieved equality for girls and women in sports on the playing field, in coaching, in sports reporting or in sports administration. 

This fight against sexism is also a part of the LGBT sports advocacy movement.  We must not succumb to the myth that homophobia is no longer an issue or less important in women’s sports or let the media’s focus on men’s sports influence our agenda. Addressing heterosexism and transgender oppression in women’s and men’s sports is equally important. Heterosexism and transgender oppression sometimes manifest themselves in different ways because of sexist gender expectations, but their effects are equally devastating on women and men and boys and girls.  Our advocacy efforts must focus on both women’s and men’s sports equally.

One of the most exciting aspects of the thriving LGBT sports advocacy movement is the emergence of talented young women leaders whose work is grounded in a commitment to challenging, not only sexism, but racism, biphobia and classism both in and outside of the LGBT sports movement. 

Anna Aegenes, the executive director of GO! Athletes; Nevin Caple, executive the director of Br{ache The Silence; and Caitlin Cahow, the US Olympic ice hockey medalist and member of the Presidential delegation to the Sochi Games are three young women who are providing the leadership that the LGBT sports advocacy movement needs to successfully reach its goals.  They, in turn, are inspiring other young women who are working on their campuses, on their teams, in their schools to follow their example. It is an honor to work with these young women and to celebrate their successes.  And so the cycle of supporting, mentoring and learning from women continues.

I have always thought that the struggle for social justice is like a relay race.  Older members of the team complete their leg and pass the baton on to younger generations who continue the race to the finish line.  Women like Lennie, Pearl and Jan passed the baton to me. I am inspired to know a younger generation of women leaders, exemplified by Anna, Nevin and Caitlin, as teammates who are taking the baton and running their leg with the kind of fierce determination and power we need to win and making sure that women are part of the race and the victory.