We're told it's supposed to be easy for lesbian athletes: Sports are a wide-open panacea of lesbianism where every woman is able to live openly. To be sure, there are more out lesbians in sports then out gay men, particularly at the professional level. Yet that doesn't make it easy for lesbians to embark on the coming-out process.
It was no different for Columbia University soccer goalkeeper Jourdan Elyse Sayers. Growing up in New Jersey 50 minutes southeast of Philadelphia, Sayers had trouble putting a name on her identity for years. She knew she wanted to be really close to her friends and didn't care about boys, but she wasn't sure what it was.
Early in her high school career she found a name for it: Gay. That was the word she settled on, wary of using another word that seemed to cast a spell over her.
"The word lesbian was daunting," Sayers said. "The process of having to say it out loud was tough."
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Eventually she did say it, coming out to some friends her freshman year in high school. Coming out to her high school team took longer, as she was afraid of rejection by teammates. Homophobic language was tossed around to demean success on the field. While men use "faggot" to label the weak, Sayers said her teammates used "dyke" to marginalize the strong. If a girl beat someone on a one-on-one, she'd be a labeled "a man." If a team played a physical style of soccer, she would hear them called "a bunch of dykes." Sayers heard the message loud and clear.
"They were essentially saying, 'They're only good because they're masculine, so they're not like us.'"
It kept Sayers in the closet on the pitch, focusing hard on improving her skills. Soccer was also a great cover: Because she was aiming for a college soccer career, her hard work and long hours weren't questioned.
"My mom would joke that soccer was my boyfriend, which is why I couldn't have one," Sayers said. "I'd spend my weekends at tournaments and my nights training, so I didn't have time for one. I buried myself in soccer a lot. It was a way to focus on something else."
Eventually she found the courage to open up with her family. She came from a religious background, and that complicated matters. Yet it was one of her grandmothers who reached out to her when she saw a revealing post on Facebook; She let Sayers know she was proud of her for being herself.
Now she is the first out lesbian to be a member of the Columbia Lions women's soccer team. She initially just told a few close teammates, then the floodgates opened. When she helped organize an Athlete Ally week on campus last autumn, a former college coach reached out to say how proud he was of her. She has found full acceptance on the team.
"If anything, my coming out made me less tentative around them. One girl told me she likes me more now. They'll tell me about an incident that happened away from the team and they'll ask me about it because they didn't know what to say."
It's a continuing process for her. She's a big, strong goal keeper -- The very kind of woman she would hear labeled stereotypically. She's proud that, as teammates have gotten to know her, she's making an impact.
"I felt at times I had to make that space safe," Sayers said. "People weren't trying to make it unsafe, but I had to be very willing to answer lots of questions and be open to people not quite understanding at times. Though I've never had anything negative happen while here."
Looking back now, Sayers realizes much of her internal turmoil was false, built up in her own head from years of church and hearing casual homophobia in her sport.
"I think the whole idea of, if you can play, you can play, is true in athletics, especially the women's side," she said. "There are times when people have been surprised by how visible I am. There's still an idea that I shouldn't be so open all the time. Homophobia is less and less of a problem. For me, the problem was when I thought it would be a problem. I thought it would be, so I had all this built-up tension and fear about it. And the fears turned out to not be true, which was wonderful."
Jourdan Elyse Sayers works with Athlete Ally and helped organize her school's Athlete Ally week. You can reach Sayers via email at email@example.com. You can also find her on Twitter @jourdansaywhat.
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