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.