(Phoebe Sexton/Daily Free Press)

When I was little, I loved that people called me a tomboy. Even the name “tomboy” made me feel strong — all the privileges associated with being a boy without having to be one.

My best friend hated to be called a tomboy. In all honesty I didn’t think she qualified. She poufed her bangs and cared about having a bump-free ponytail. Sometimes she wore cute jean shorts to our softball practice. She also took dance lessons and liked it. So it angered me that people thought we were both tomboys. It brought my tomboyishness down a notch or two.

Beth Ann moved away from Kansas in sixth grade. By then she was getting too old to be caught doing pliés in right field. As first base-tomboy, it was my job not to let anything get to her. But sometimes I had to miss games for soccer, and she’d be left solo to pick up grounders or circle underneath pop flies.  

She and I ran into each other ten years later in an H&M department store in Manhattan. I was on a weekend trip to New York from Boston, where I had just finished my fourth and final season as a soccer player. She was auditioning for a Broadway chorus line. We were 22.  

Beth Ann had moved away right at that hazy time when girls who are tomboys become girls who are probably going to be lesbians. Around that same time boys who play sports become Gods. Quarterbacks. Point guards. Short stops. They are all revered.  It doesn’t matter if they can’t spell the name of the position they play. Boys become men on the playing field.

At this transitional time when I was 12, my soccer career took off. I played on two club teams that traveled around the country and on a state team whose players had the opportunity to advance to the national team. I basically lived in my uniform until I won a scholarship to play in college. Then I really lived in my practice shorts, my team sweats, and all the other gear they gave us.

I don’t look like a lesbian. That’s what all my friends and family told me when I came out to them. My dad actually said to my brother, “But she doesn’t look like a gay.” Which is to say that I did not fit the stereotype of a lesbian the same way I did the stereotype of a tomboy. I had long blond hair when I came out. I pierced my ears after my last soccer game, and I wore dangly earrings. I wore dresses, sometimes, and heels. And I liked that.  

People noticed these things, but nobody seemed to notice that I had never, except half-heartedly under extreme peer pressure, expressed any interest in boys or men. It somehow slipped by that, at college parties when girls teased about kissing other girls, I was perfectly serious. I didn’t look like a lesbian, and so I could not actually be one.

During the summer before I went away to college in 2000, I coached at a local soccer camp. On registration day I sat at the table for the youngest age group and welcomed nervous moms, dads, and their oblivious toddlers.

One woman approached, pushing her son in front of her. She had read about my college plans and soccer scholarship in the coaches’ bios in the brochure.  

She stood over me as I handed her four-year-old a size three ball and tiny t-shirt.

“Congratulations,” she beamed. And then she leaned in closer to whisper. “But aren’t you afraid that, you know, there will be a lot of lesbians on the team?”

If I had met the woman four years later, I would have told her that there weren’t any lesbians on the team, except for me, and because of her question — and the stereotyping and attitude it reflected — I spent four extra years in the closet.  

I waited until after I finished soccer to come out because I was terrified of being “the lesbian soccer player.” I let my best friends think that I was asexual and uninterested because I didn’t want them to think I was looking at them in the shower. All my life I had avoided stereotypes and stereotyping successfully. Although I was a tomboy, I wore skirts. Although I was smart, I sat at the “cool” lunch table. Nobody could quite nail me down.

I loved the competition, the pressure, the excitement, the commitment, and the skill that soccer demanded of me. But here’s a confession: I also needed soccer because people aren’t suspicious of the mysterious way a team of girls loves each other. A team of girls can touch, giggle, cry, sleep on each other’s shoulders, and kiss each other’s cheeks without arousing cries of lesbian. They can be angry and scream and shout at each other without drawing whispers of why does she care so much?  Americans love the intensity of sports — even women’s sports — and so, insignificant details like falling in love are not always noticed. I made it through undetected.

The woman at my registration table and her honestly fearful question represented my first personal experience with homophobia. In my back-and-forth struggle trying to decide when I should come out, it never occurred to me that my teammates might be afraid of me.

When my brother found out I was gay, he asked me if I was going to cut off all my hair. He thought I was going to suddenly morph into his default image of a lesbian.  

I wish I had allowed myself to be “the lesbian soccer player,” if only to prove that not all lesbian soccer players are the same. But I waited until I could avoid that very stereotype before coming out.

And when I did come out, those who knew me — including all of my former teammates — found a louder, freer, more intimate version of me.

A lesbian former soccer player, yes.  And many other things as well.

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