Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Breathe. Racket up. Extend through the serve. Follow through.
I repeat those words in my head like a mantra as sweat rolls down my forehead. It’s a hot summer morning in 2017, the type of day where the sun beats down incessantly on the green and blue court. Days like this always make me jokingly reconsider why I’m out on the court, why I’m running after a small green ball with a netted circle on a stick.
My coach snaps me out of my inner monologue, asking me what corner of the box I decided to aim at. It provides direction, he says, to have a position or corner in mind before I start my backswing.
“Down the service line," I answer. That’s a lie. But certainly not as big of a lie that I felt I lived everyday.
You see, often on those summer days we spoke of social issues and general news, freely and uninhibited, unleashing our opinions, our disappointments, and our hopes. I was always quite comfortable speaking with my coach due to his open mind and good heart, but whenever our discussions approached my community, my mouth shut close.
“The LGBTQIA+ community”, he would start, “is facing ... and it’s a disgrace that they have to face that everyday." “Yes," I’d respond, “I wish that community didn’t have to face that. It’s unfortunate.”
During that summer, never once did I refer to that community in the first person. My community remained in the shadows of third person, an entity removed from our dialogue because of my fear and deep sense of shame.
There was always uncertainty then around disclosing a part of me. Actually, that’s not completely true. When meeting new people I was unabashedly clear about my identity. If they didn’t agree with who I am then they just left or didn’t pursue a friendship. Fine with me, I thought, spares me the effort.
It was the people I deeply cared about, the people I truly loved and respected, that I had hesitancy around. It was my coach, the man who has helped me through so much, that I feared would judge me (even though deep down a seed of hope knew he wouldn’t).
Yet, for me, and so many LGBTQIA+ students, that fear of rejection lingers and stings, regardless of how supportive that person may or may not be. This exists because for me and so many of my sisters in the sports community, there is a warranted fear of homophobia, but beyond that sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, and islamophobia.
We fear being cast out by our teammates, belittled by our coaches, kicked off our sports teams, and not being seen the same way. As athletes who truly love and value the game, this scares us more than anything. Our lives are so intertwined with the game, the match, and the journey, that anything that could jeopardize that frightens us.
During the summer of 2018, I missed a Saturday pre-season practice for L.A. Pride. I told my coach, and he asked some questions and compared it to how he remembered it years ago. Even then, I doubted myself. Did he know I was gay? What if I was just an ally supporting the community? Did he care? Would this change everything?
Our next private lesson rolled around, and he told me about a new documentary he had watched, Alone in the Game, about LGBTQ athletes in the professional, collegiate, and Olympic levels.
My heart swelled in that moment. I knew he knew. But instead of dread, I felt nothing but welcome. I felt nothing but supported.
Thank you coach, thank you. You’ll never know how much that day meant to me. You’ll never know how much each e-mail with the latest LGBTQIA+ news means to me. You’ll never know how much you mean to me, Coach.