Sexuality and Softball: Living in a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Culture

I played softball my whole life. It was my identity, my passion, my classroom, and my counseling sessions. I threw a ball, swung a bat, and knew exactly who I was, where I was going, and what I needed to do to get there.

Throughout my successful career, from five years old to twenty-two, I was always surrounded by strong, passionate women, both as teammates and as coaches.  I had the privilege to learn softball skills, social skills, and leadership skills from national champions and gold medalists. On the field, we were women who were able to break records, compete, and overcome. 

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, though, that I was confronted with the reality that this sport that I loved was shrouded in a silent but many times overt cloud of discrimination. The strong, passionate women that taught me as coaches and teammates lived within this stifling cloud.

I remember the day when someone first called me gay and hoped it would hurt me. Maybe it was because I was too close to my best friend, maybe it was because I didn’t like to wear what the other girls wore, but it was definitely because I played softball. It was one of my teammates.  She carefully chose this word too, because that was the worst thing you could call a high school girl in our town – not whore, not slut, not bitch- gay.  In a panic of self-preservation, I, of course, denied it and continued to deny it for the next seven years of my life.

I knew the stereotype-you know, lesbian softball player. I heard my teammates joke about it in the locker room in a tone of assumptive privilege because they knew no one here would ever be that. We were the pretty, athletic girls.  And lesbian meant not pretty, manly, weird, and gross. The word became a common, laughable insult when a teammate would hug another girl.  Unfortunately, the result was then having to hear details of this teammates recent date with the boy from her Algebra class, so that she could prove that these rumors were false.

My teammates would wear ribbons, bows, and makeup while we ran shuttle sprints and, between strained breaths, talked about Jennie Finch being their favorite softball player and that she was “so pretty,” not that she is one of the best pitchers and players of all time. And I joined in because I was an immature high school girl afraid that I could possibly be that stereotype, praying every night that I wasn’t.

I tell my story because, unfortunately, it is not unique within women’s athletics-a place that should be open to all ways of expressing diverse femininity. Softball pushes young women to compete when society often urges us to settle.  Softball tells young women they can accomplish great things when society often reminds us that we can only do certain things.  Softball allows us to get dirty and mess our hair up but still feel great about ourselves when society unfortunately still forces one idea of beauty and self-confidence onto us. Therefore, these injustices and inequalities of society often creep into the sacredness of sport implanting fear and discrimination and impacting the developing self-image of young women.

I proudly came out a year and a half ago after a seven year silent battle against these stereotypes and negative messages.  The feeling of fear that I felt in my bedroom that night in high school never leaves, though. Sometimes I still hear that teammate in my ear and wonder if I should really be who I know I am. I met many beautiful teammates and coaches in my seven year journey that have this same fear.

We have been witness to the cloud of discrimination in softball that allows jokes to be made about teammates being gay, whispers to be shared about the woman our coach spends time with, and vacuums of silence to be formed keeping anyone unsure of their identity silent. We have been friends with the girls that love bows and makeup but also those who wore them only to end the rumors after practice. We have abided by the unspoken don’t ask, don’t tell rule within many college softball programs. We have labeled her a roommate, friend, or fan when we knew and they knew she was more.

We have been afraid. Afraid that our identity would somehow take away from the accomplishments we had in our sport.  Afraid that a teammate would feel uncomfortable just because of our presence in the women’s locker room. Afraid that our careers, built on success and confidence, would end because of who we love. Afraid that we would have to choose love or our sport.  Afraid of being known. Afraid of what parents might think of us coaching their daughters. Afraid of being just another stereotype. 

I now coach my own softball team, empowering young women to experience all the lessons, accomplishments, and successes that I was able to in my life.  I see the cycle continue, though, and often feel powerless to stop it. Young softball players listening more to the lessons of society than of their sport.  Defining womanhood in a small, narrow box of limitations instead of inclusion. Choosing bows because they like them, but also because it is what they are told is better. Exchanging jokes and whispers at the expense of a possible silent minority.

And I’m afraid. Afraid for them. Afraid for myself. But, in my fear, I remember the courageous women that taught me, even in their forced silence, that change is not easy but it is necessary.  Even in my fear I am confident that things can change.  We change the culture of softball when we choose to focus on an athlete’s ability not her image.  We change the culture of softball when we refuse to talk about a person’s sexual orientation without their permission.  We change the culture of softball when we see playing and succeeding as an expression of femininity. We change the culture of softball when we are allowed to talk about and be open about our entire identity without the fear of repercussions. We change the culture of softball when we are able to compete, succeed, accomplish, and love whoever we want without feeling the need to apologize about it.

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A Time to Heal: A Lesson of Patience

After an almost two year sabbatical, I found myself back in therapy. Okay, I guess I didn’t “find myself back there,” I chose to go back.  See here’s the thing with depression and anxiety, it tends to never go away.  I always know when it’s getting bad again because my brain feels like it is on speed. Racing from one thought, worry, obsession to the next.  No control. No filter. See, if these thoughts were at all helpful, anxiety wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but instead the normal thought whirlwind goes something like…

Did I leave the oven on? No. But I need to figure out what to make for dinner tonight. If I can make dinner tonight. I have so much to do and there’s no time to do it in. This meeting is taking forever. What time is it? Oh my gosh, I wonder if they saw me looking at my watch.  I’m sure they did.  Now they are going to think I’m bored or not listening.  I hate it when people don’t listen.  People never listen to me.  How am I going to be successful if I can’t even get people to listen to me? Maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe I just have terrible people in my life. Well, then it must be my fault that I have terrible people in my life. Oh we are finally done.  I wonder if I said the right things?

I could go on but I think you get the point.  Welcome to my anxiety. As you can see, when my anxiety increases I start blaming people, mostly myself, for the discomfort I’m feeling.  I find every single reason that my life isn’t perfect and dissect it until… well, I create a mess in every area.

My new therapist recommended I read a book about the practice of mindfulness, or being fully aware and in the present moment.  I have just started it and I love it so far.  One of my favorite chapters, though, has been the chapter on patience.  In the book, the author describes patience as ceasing to try to “get anywhere else” within the present moment.  In other words, you aren’t looking to the problems of the past or the possibilities of the future.  You are here, now, with this moment. “Remembering things unfold in their time.”

With this definition then, impatience is not wanting things the way they are in the moment. Impatience is the relative of anger and blame. When we want to change the present we are saying that our wants and needs are more important than the situation at hand.  Not only that, but someone CAN and SHOULD change this moment. I totally get that.  I think that way.

These passages about patience, though, also reminded me of the chapter in Ecclesiastes wherein the author poetically describes the many times of life.  “For everything there is a season…A time to be born and a time to die…A time to break down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh…”

I have studied this passage repeatedly in many settings, but by removing any prior meaning or knowledge, I see this passage fitting in with the practice of patient mindfulness.  Through recognizing the present situation in life, whether it is new life, death, mourning, or celebrating, one can more fully live in the moment.  So much of our life is trying to change that given moment or move past it, instead of living in it.

Okay, you say, if I just “live in the moment” my life will be great, right? Not necessarily. The acceptance of our current experience does not make its reality any easier, but through this acceptance we cultivate patience. The book tells the story of the Dalai Lama and his lack of anger toward the Chinese government killed, tortured, and imprisoned his people for years.  When asked about this, he said “They have taken everything from us; should I let them take my mind as well?”   In that wise response, he outlined why patience is crucial.  We must understand that anger, impatience, and blame cause greater self-harm and pain than any difficult situation may cause in this present moment.  He’s a guy I wouldn’t mind emulating.

Every moment or time in life is connected to the one before it and the one following it, though some connections are disjointed and random, but as mortals all we have access to is this present moment. Therefore, whether the moment is full of grief, anger, or joy, be present to it. For if each present moment is given the attention it requires, the moment will no longer lend itself to blame, but instead to peace and compassion for yourself and others.  Here’s to a year of cultivating patience.

May we all be more open to our given moments, even through pain and even through joy. May we find peace in knowing that all we can do is what this present moment presents to use.  May we cultivate the patience that the present rhythm of our never-ceasing breaths beckons us toward.

 

**The book mentioned in the post is Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Three Steps to Fight Big Scary Feelings

feelingsI work in an elementary school twice a week as part of my social work intern.  Most of my job description entails observing children’s emotions, talking to children about their feelings, and teaching children what to do when these emotions and feelings strike.

I help run a social skills group for special education students ranging from kindergarten to second grade.  The students in this group fall on a wide spectrum of social and emotional functioning.  Some of them have been diagnosed with autism, OCD, Down Syndrome, or Bipolar Disorder and some of them have learning disabilities or require extra academic assistance.  All of them, though, struggle with interpersonal interaction.

This week we read a book called Sometimes I Get Scared where a kid explains the many things that scare him throughout the day. The book talks about spiders, clowns, dogs and the dark.  My favorite page, though, talks about “big feelings.”  The narrator explains that we all have big feelings inside us, like anger and sadness, and sometimes these feelings build up so much that feeling them scares us.

The book continues to explain different ways children can handle being scared, like breathing, thinking positively, and asking for help.  Through these techniques, the children are suppose to learn how to control and lessen these “big feelings” to make them safe rather than scary.

As I was reading this book to the kids, I felt like I was at church. “Preach!, I thought as the book talked about “big feelings.” Being a deep feeler, this fear of feeling is all too real. Many of my days are paused by thoughts of fear, like “what happens if I’m disappointed?,  how will I react if someone misunderstands me?, what if I get my feelings hurt?, how can I hide that I’m feeling emotional right now?” Because “big feelings” don’t stop when we grow up.

While children may have “big feelings” about not getting ice cream after lunch or not being included in the popular group’s text or having to do a classroom assignment, adults have “big feelings” because they are not satisfied with their lives, their trust was betrayed, or they are stressed from work. What causes the feelings can be different, but the reactions are often the same.

The difference between adults and children, though, is that adults are expected to remain in control of these feelings while an occasional tantrum from a child is somewhat acceptable. When we reach a certain age, we are expected to be in control at all times…or at least when we are around other people, but adult tantrums happen just as often.

Has someone you love ever stopped talking to you? Shut down completely after an argument or even one comment? That’s a tantrum.  Has someone you love ever lashed out and said something hurtful to you?  That’s a tantrum.  Has someone you love ever used alcohol or other substances to block out their “big feelings”? That’s a tantrum.

So adults need to learn these lessons just as much as my students.  How do we reduce the fear we have about our “big feelings”?

  1. Allow ourselves to feel the genuine emotion.

Often when we feel big feelings, like betrayal, hurt, pain, sadness, we react without processing.  In order to shield ourselves from the pain or overwhelm that we may be feeling, we go straight to action.  Unfortunately the actions we take often lead to more hurt for ourselves or for others around us.  We shut down, we lash out, we numb.   If only we took one minute when we are flooded with a certain feeling to recognize the feeling and feel it in our physical body, then we could begin the process of control the feeling instead of reacting and letting the feeling control us.

       2. Breathe.

Emotions are physical as much as they are mental.  Chemicals are releasing and nerves are activating throughout our bodies. Therefore, when we feel “big feelings,” they feel like that are actually washing over us and coursing through us.  Our breath shortens, our heart pounds, or skin becomes hot. When we take deep breaths, we are working to reverse these automatic reactions within our body… slowing them down to a halt. We are then able to think, process, relax.

       3. Release the fear.

Feelings and emotions are important evolutionary adaptions because they warn our bodies that we may be in danger [And if your emotions are telling you that! Listen!] But many of us deep feelers tend to activate the danger signal at any slightly uncomfortable experience, therefore, these steps are crucial to surviving in adult life. After recognizing the emotion and breathing through the intense first minute of feeling, we must begin to learn to separate ourselves from the emotional experience. While the emotions are happening in our body and they are real, this does not mean they are right.  For example, I can have a strong reaction to how my girlfriend says the word “cheese” to me and the emotion that I feel could be real, but it does not mean that it is appropriate or accurate.  Therefore, it is important to think about the experience that brought about the emotion, assess whether it warrants a danger response, and if we decide it does not allow the emotion to wash away.  Like waves, emotions come intensely and crash on us but if we breathe and feel the genuine emotion instead of the primal reaction we can then allow them to retreat in a slow and methodical manner until they are needed again.  We can allow the emotions to wash away by breathing, removing ourselves, or logically explaining why we felt the way we did.

Just like my students are learning to do with their “big feelings” adults must learn to not let tantrums ruin their peace, because tantrums simply intensify and prolong emotions.  Instead learning to recognize our genuine emotions, breathe through our bodies physical reactions, and mentally watch as they emotion wave recedes can help us lessen the fear of these “big feelings” and be more in control of how we respond.

We are All Getting it Wrong about Caitlyn Jenner

Yesterday I sat down and tried to think of the first time I ever judged someone. I’m sure it was before preschool when I looked at that one kid with glue on his face and was sure I was of higher stature.  Probably even before my toddler years when that one babysitter didn’t sing Itsy-Bitsy Spider with the hand motions and I knew she was inherently inferior. Maybe it was sometime during infancy when the polka dots on my grandma’s dress were so distracting I would blame her choice to wear such an outfit on my incessant diaper soiling.

Whenever that first moment of judgment crept into my consciousness, I knew it was there to stay. I enjoyed using this evolutionary adaptation to make myself feel better,  to inflict pain on others so as to not notice my own. Judgment allows us to bubble wrap our own feelings as we plow through fragile humans that surround us, using their flaws, their mistakes, and even their bodies as fertile ground to plant our inflated facades.

When I judge someone else, I am deciding for them that my life, my beliefs, and my choices are superior to theirs and, because I decided this, they should feel bad about themselves.

Judgment destroys vulnerability. Judgment destroys dialogue.

I have seen dialogue destroyed by judgment in the past week, especially dialogue around Caitlyn Jenner. Disgust, self-righteousness, popular opinion, celebrity attention, religious belief and judgment have clouded this conversation.  We have ALL been judgmental.

When I was planning this post, I was thinking about all the points I would make about why Caitlyn Jenner’s story is heroic, beautiful and overwhelmingly spiritual.  I was going to explain how seeing an individual being honest, vulnerable and confident about her inner self after years of shame, secrets and insecurities is exactly what the gospel, the good news message of faith is about. Christ came to set us free, to give us life. Freedom to be who we were made to be and who we can most fully and openly live as each day.

I was going to talk about all those things and more but then I realized that even by doing so I would be judging Caitlyn. Having one-sided conversations, opinion pieces, and Facebook posts about Caitlyn Jenner’s “decision,” is not productive nor is it dialogue. For in the same breath that we all air our feelings about her life, her body, her choices we are deciding her worth and her value for her. We are not her close friends, family, community members.  We are simply privileged outside observers to human beauty.

Let us not use her real, human life as a pedestal for our opinions instead of celebrating with her. We are called to “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” And I know that in this moment Caitlyn is finally rejoicing.

May we simply be still, despite our judgments about her, and rejoice in another human’s rejoicing.

Omar

One year ago today, Omar Castel lost his life. I was awoken early in the morning by numerous missed calls. After calling my friend back and hearing “Omar was shot and killed.” out loud I nearly threw up before I started crying all day. I will never forget you, Omar, and you will always remain a part of me.

Welcomed Wanderings

Every time I try to write this my hand won’t let me
won’t let my pen solidify in ink, which seems more permanent now than ever,
the fact you are no longer here.
Each word I try to suppress like the tears that I won’t let myself cry for you
but as my pen now confesses the truth that we all know
tears fall with aimless rhythm.
And I finally let myself cry
because you were a child
because you were a child
because you were [in some ways] for a year my child
———————
I wouldn’t let myself write for each word etched into
the tightly woven fabric of a page
felt like drops of your blood now forever confined within the concrete
the asphalt, black as death.
———————-
No I won’t let myself write because it can’t be real
but every time I pass that corner I’m forced…

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To the Boy that Killed My Friend

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t hate you.
For months, yes, I did in my anger and grief.
I yelled at you, cursed you, sometimes I still do
when I cross that fateful Marshfield street.
For a year I tried to understand you,
I tried to imagine your grip on that trigger
and how you slept that night with sounds of sirens
rushing past to clean up your mess.

But whenever I imagined
all I could see is him.
A kid.
Facing the barrel of a gun
held by another kid.
Not in this country, you’d think…
not here, you’d think.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t pity you.
For months, I wished his same
lonely, fate upon you
hoping you get what you “deserve”
but who truly deserves that?
Through eyes engulfed by tears,
I’d cry aloud for vengeance, for answers.
Yet, silence remained.

But then I remembered
that blood
that blood that now has been washed
clean from the street
will remain with you,
stained into your conscience.
For you must now live regretfully with something
more painful than death’s immediate relief.

To the boy that killed my friend
I do not fear you.
Maybe once I shivered at the dream
of your all-too-steady trigger finger
pressing again, again, again.
And then silence.

But that has stopped and all I can see
is you, or how I imagine you
a trembling child as fearful as he is feared
holding a gun bigger than his own hand
hoping his purpose, his meaning, his life
will come with each consecutive shot.

To the boy that killed my friend
I do not know you.
Maybe I could assume or guess
that you didn’t look much different than him
but I don’t know that.
You live only as an idea, a representation
of life’s quick cruelty and evil, uncontrolled.

But that’s not who you are.
And I don’t know who you are.
I know you have a mother.
I know you have a name.
I must believe you have experienced love.
And for a year I have tried to see you,
understand you as more than just this choice.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t blame you.
For too long I have hated you.
I have seen you as other, evil, worthless
but I can no longer hold that excruciating hate within me.
But instead each day I must let go
and live forever in his memory instead of my pain.
I hope that this moment has defined your life
not so you live in fear and shame
but that you hold precious each breath and hope for change.
For you deserve this hope, this chance
because my friend can never have it again.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I love you.
Not out of my own will or choice
for with those alone I have hated you
but because in moments like this there’s nothing left
nothing left but to recklessly love in hope’s that
things will change and that you will be the
last
the only
boy that will ever kill my friend.


Please read my original poem dedicated to Omar here: https://mackenseycarter.com/2013/09/04/omar/