Healthy Mind

To My High School Soccer Coach, Thank You for Showing Me That Lesbian Adults Can Thrive

Gabrielle Kassel

Photos: Stocksy/MARCO GOVEL; Gabrielle Kassel; Graphic: W+G Creative
Who has inspired you? Challenged you? Shaped you? In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing the women who made us who we are today. To all who came before, the mothers, grandmothers, mentors, teachers, and trailblazers… thank you.

Coach,

You weren’t my coach in the traditional sense. As a spectacularly average high school soccer player, I didn’t have the skills to earn your direct guidance in the sport like the varsity-level team members did. Still though, I call you coach because by watching you be you—out and proud—I learned how to be me.

The first time I saw you, I wasn’t your history student or a player on your soccer team—in fact, I didn’t even go to your school yet. It was springtime, the year before my freshman year of high school, and I was taking tours of various high schools to decide where to go.

When the guide led us through the history building at your school, I saw you. And in your spiked, bleached hair, eyebrow ring, and suit pants, I saw myself 20 years down the line. I smiled, and decided to attend your school after that. (Go Wyverns!).

That day, when I was 13, I had neither an understanding of myself as a non-normatively sexually oriented person, nor the language I use for my sexuality these days (“dyke,” “queer,” “biromantic.”) But at the time, I did know I was transfixed by things other girls my age were not: that Madonna and Britney Spears kiss, South of Nowhere, The Ellen Show reruns. And after seeing you for the first time, you.

In Alison Bechdel’s cartoon-memoir Fun Home there’s an iconic scene where the young main recognizes herself in the “old-school butch” delivery woman. In the musical rendition of the work, that defining moment is memorialized in the song Ring of Keys. “I thought it was s’pposed to be wrong/But you seem okay with being strong/It’s probably conceited to say/But I think we’re alike in a certain way,” go the lyrics. “I know you/I know you/I know you.”

You, you, you, Coach, are my Ring of Keys person—the person who made me feel like there was a future where I could be me.

The first time I heard the song, my brain conjured the image of you. You, you, you, Coach, are my Ring of Keys person—the person who made me feel like there was a future where I could be me.

Thanking you for what you gave me hadn’t occurred to me until the WNYC Studios queer-focused podcast Nancy ran an episode in December of 2017 called “Return to Ring of Keys.” In it, queer reporter Sarah Lu emails her Ring of Keys person, a woman named Maura Koutoujian, who owned a general store in Wisconsin that Sarah would visit when she was a kid. After writing Koutoujian, Lu got the opportunity to thank her person. When I heard the episode for the first time, yet again, it was you who came to mind, Coach. Since I heard it in 2017, I’ve been wanting to pen this thank you to you:

Thank you for being you. I cannot imagine it was easy. Sure, you were employed in Connecticut, a state where it is—and was, at the time I was in high school—illegal to fire someone for being gay. But still, article after article after article would detail just how difficult being an LGBTQ+ teacher, let alone an out LGBTQ+ teacher, can be.

I imagine you asked yourself any number of questions about this at some point in your life: Could coming out derail my career? Will being out color how staff and administration view my performance? How will the student(s) react? How will their parents? Thank you for ultimately deciding the risks were worth it.

It is because of your presence in the classroom, halls, and on the soccer field that I felt comfortable being me; and I believe the main reason I wasn’t bullied when I did eventually start kissing girls my junior year of high school is in large part your doing. Your very presence normalized lesbianism in a way that quieted potential potential bullies and ultimately shielded LGBTQ+ kids like myself from their homophobic wrath.

These days, I’m as out as can be. I write about my queerness for the internet, have a little rainbow in my Instagram bio, and host a podcast about queer sexuality and sex. Still, there are days when I wonder if I’m making the right choice being “loud and proud.” On those days, I think about you and the Ring of Keys, and I am encouraged to keep being my proud gay self because I want to offer to coming generations what did for me me: Proof that it’s possible to be an LGBTQ+ adult who thrives.

In pride and pleasure,

Gabby

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