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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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.

The Crisis of Quiet

Chicago does not lend itself to quiet moments.  Most of the time horns are honking, people are shouting across a crowded street and an airplane is flying overhead to land at one of the airports in the near vicinity.  Quiet never comes.

This morning I was walking to my usual bus stop in the heart of the city’s Little Italy neighborhood that is more little than Italy these days.  As I was about to cross the street, a siren became audible from a few blocks away.  Another delightful symphony produced by city life.  At first, the cars and pedestrians around me were hesitant but continued to their destinations knowing that they still had moments before they would have to stop to let this ambulance pass.

As the flashing emergency vehicle approached the intersection that I was standing at, a rare thing happened. Everything, everyone stopped.  I had always seen this happen, obviously, since the law requires you to stop at the sound or sight of such a vehicle, but I never noticed the quiet that results.  Now I’m not talking about actual quiet, since the blaring siren was loud enough to urge the woman next to me to hide her ears beneath her hands trying to produce a type of faux-earplug.

The quiet that surrounded us at that intersection was the quiet of a crisis.

I have only experienced a few crises in my life, but they all produce that same still yet acute quiet that I saw on the corner this morning.  Cars came to a halt, people walking on the streets instinctively stopped their movement and looked at the approaching vehicle, the world for a second became completely centered around this ambulance.  Centered around this symbol of unrest, of emergency.

Such a quiet is not peaceful for it stirs within you a worry for the outcome, a desperation for resolution, and an anticipation of its passing.  Crisis in life can come as an unexpected death, the recurrence of an illness, the dissolution of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the questioning of your own purpose.  Crisis can look different, but crisis always results in the same.  A chaotic quiet.

A quiet that is self-centered, survival focused.  One of my crises was my own acceptance of my on-going battle with anxiety and depression.  For months, my life was like that scene at the intersection.  Nothing else moved or mattered except my sickness. No one existed except myself in relation to this crisis.  Everyone and everything revolved around navigating around my own crisis.  But see, unlike the ambulance that speeds quickly past freeing the surrounding world to return to its noise and routine, crisis feels like a slow motion switch has been hit and you are waiting, watching, hoping that the ambulance passes next week, next month, next year.

Crisis is an unbearable quiet that demands not only your attention but your entire world. As I was waiting this morning, thinking about this idea, though, I became encouraged in a way that only a person not experiencing such a crisis at the moment can.  I was encouraged by the passing of such quiet and the world resuming to its own rhythm and pace.  For it always does.

Yet during a crisis you can’t see that.  You spend most of your energy reorganizing your life around this crisis that you get to the point where you can’t even imagine losing that quiet in your life. You begin to love the self-focused quiet. But that quiet fades. And you return to a more aware world where things happen that are good and bad but that are, in the end, bigger than yourself.  And you find equilibrium within the noise once more.

We must remember that equilibrium when crisis is far away.  We must learn to live in this noise without the fear of yet another pause of crisis.  We must learn that crisis is not a permanent state, but it is, just like the ambulance, just a passing moment of stillness, of navigation, and of quiet.

Such an idea reminded me of one of my favorite songs, Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell.  As you listen to this song and read the lyrics, remember that life changes, it is fleeting, it is filled with both noise and quiet.  But what this song reminds us of most importantly is that you are not alone in this silence. All around are other people preparing for crisis, in their own crisis, or emerging from a crisis.  We must take heart.


Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell posted on youtube by GregLaswellMusic.