Basketball, Jesus and young lesbian identity in Waco, Texas

Emily Niemann #51 of the Baylor Lady Bears waves to the crowd after they defeated the Michigan State Spartans in the 2005 Women's NCAA Basketball National Championship game on April 5, 2005 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. - Andy Lyons / Getty Images

Former Baylor basketball player Emily Nkosi opens up about being a lesbian on Kim Mulkey's basketball team and the environment in Waco. Now she regrets not blazing a trail for other lesbians at Baylor, like Brittney Griner.

"I will always worry about Emily."

That is what coach Kim Mulkey said about me in her book, Won't Back Down. Though this is not a flattering line to have your basketball coach write about you, I actually appreciate it. I have been worried about me too, and with good reason.

Things have not been easy for me over the past decade. I don't think my struggle is particularly unique. We all have struggles. The clearer I get on my own pain, the more compassion and authenticity I have in relating to the world around me. I hope I can share parts of my story and my pain in a way that others can relate to and learn from. That's why I'm writing this. It's not about setting the record straight or telling my side of the story in my own words, but rather trying to excavate the hard earned nuggets of wisdom that, if shared, could help someone else avoid the same mistakes or feel less alone.

There is a Zen saying, "Patience is the companion of wisdom."

In 2005, I was a 19-year-old on the Baylor National Championship women's basketball team averaging about 10 points a game. In a matter of a few months, February to July, I dramatically shifted my level of consciousness as a human being and liberated myself from a belief system that felt constrictive to me.

Had I been more patient in those transformations, I might have just been one of the wisest 19 years old on the planet who might have done some incredible things in the basketball world. But I was not.

The transformation began with serious questions about what was motivating the energy I was investing in my basketball dreams, my faith and my purpose in life. As I looked introspectively at myself I realized that fear was a dominant motivating force in my life. Upon that realization I started to take small steps of liberating myself from that fear. The problem was I did not pace those small steps. I was impatient and that led to some unwise decisions.

Starting in seventh grade I attended a private Christian school affiliated with the Church of Christ. Spirituality was central to every part of a student's experience at my school which for me included basketball. My coaches were huge influences on me and I soaked up their perspective on and off the court daily. I was taught that being a good teammate is analogous to being a good human being. So when my coaches taught values, morality and character though basketball, it affected every aspect of who I was.  Looking back, I embodied my coaches teachings in a bizarrely intense way for a 13 year old. I took it all very seriously. Becoming a great basketball player was my obsession and my junior high and high school coaches tied that success to my ability to be a good teammate and, ultimately, a good person.

There were many benefits to this mentality. I cared about my contribution to the world and my development as a person from a young age. I invested in young children around me through basketball camps and clinics even in seventh grade and led community service projects in high school like bringing gifts to families in need during the holidays. I would not have developed compassion like that without it being modeled and encouraged in me.  

Being a person who cared about doing the right thing in line with those beliefs felt mostly good. I liked praying for people who needed it. I liked feeling connected to a bigger purpose for my life. But there was a catch: I knew I was gay since the third grade. I had always been unsure of what to do with it and picked up on the social stigma associated with it. I actually told my family twice by accident, but when I felt the intensity of their reactions, I backpedaled on what I had just said. They did not bring it up again (status update: my parents deeply love and support me today, I am immensely grateful for them both).

Being gay was certainly something that concerned me, but I put it on the back burner so that it did not cause daily unrest for me. However, when I became deeply involved in my spiritual journey as a Christian in high school, being gay became a really big scary problem. I didn't want to be a bad immoral person and surely did not want to go to hell. Plus, if God was at odds with me, I thought I would never be able to achieve what I wanted to as an athlete. I see so many flaws now my thinking, but at 16 years old this was real to me. I consciously buried every part of me that was related to my sexuality: no dances, no dates, and I daily prayed for this thorn to be removed from my flesh. My hope that God would cure my gayness was the driving force of my spiritual life.  

April 1, 2002 (my junior year in high school) two of my best girl friends told me that they were "together." They seemed guilty and very upset. Without hesitating or thinking it through I immediately said, "It's okay, I think I am gay too. I mean I don't know what to do about it, but..." I stopped. Their faces were red and their jaws dropped. They then told me they were kidding. It was an April Fools Day joke on me. They said they were so sorry and ran away. To be fair, they did come back, but then I told them to go away. I was scared to death someone might find out, but even more scared of God's wrath.

I made my way to the Chaplain's office crying the whole way. I confessed everything to him. I told him about every time I was attracted to a girl or pictured myself with a girl romantically. Most of these confessions involved sweet country songs about love and I always replaced he with she. I also told him how when I watched Armageddon with my friends and they were talking about how cute Ben Affleck was, I was totally watching Liv Tyler. The Chaplain prayed over me and said God would deliver me from this evil if I stayed strong. That was my underlying fear: could I be strong enough? Could I resist the feelings that I had for other girls?

By the time I graduated high school, I had a plan to basically be a nun in the church of basketball. I would just not allow myself to engage beyond that world. I kept myself in the safety net of the sports world where I would never have to explain why I did not want to wear a dress and I could gender bend without as much social condemnation while getting lost in endless basketball goals and dreams that demanded most of my energy and that people thought were admirable.

I had two on and off relationships with girls that, for the most part, went un-labeled thus granting me a weird sense of okayness as I cuddled with girls and texted sweet nothings all day during my first two years at Baylor. As innocent as they were, I carried a lot of guilt and shame about those relationships. At the same time I was very homophobic toward my teammates as a way to protect my own secret. To these former teammates who felt like I was homophobic toward them, you were right on. Now I understand that this was a classic case of internalized homophobia.



That brings us to 2005. It was the middle of my sophomore year and I was in a sophomore slump as an athlete. I considered transferring, but no more than many athletes do, though no one likes to admit it. I was questioning basketball and its role in my life, which was deeply tied to my faith, which was deeply tied to not being gay. One question led to another, but I was not talking to anyone about any of it. I was living in an apartment by myself not eating well and taking pain medications to fall asleep, I was on hydracodine for about a year. If you are thinking that it sounds like good material for therapy, it certainly was and I'm still working through this stuff.

I met someone during this time. I fell in love with her, but I did not tell anyone for months, not even her. We eventually shared our feelings with each other and spent a lot of time together. Looking back I don't think I actually hid it that well, but people were shocked when they learned that I was gay, so who knows. She made me feel strong and fearless.

I began to shed a lot of the fear that had been weighing me down. I started to find my voice. I started to feel like I had a right to be true to myself. I started to believe that finding my truth and myself was my purpose. Conceptually, all ok. But the tools I had to do this were very immature, under-resourced, and under-developed. I had never used them before. So, like the first time you shoot a basketball you start to get feedback and coaching based on your experience and with that feedback you refine the skill over time. I did not give myself that time to develop these new skills.  Emotionally I started shooting step back three pointers before I could make a lay-up.

After we won the National Championship I felt unfulfilled, but that had nothing to do with anyone but me. Coach Mulkey also says about me in her book that "unhappiness comes from within" and I agree. The lack of fulfillment I felt was a product of the flaws in my motivation. I could have used this to grow a new perspective on the game of basketball, a much healthier one, but instead I set myself on a path that eventually led me to thinking basketball no longer made sense for me. I decided to leave the team. I came to this conclusion too quickly and I acted on it far too impulsively. I could have used the game to grow in so many way personally and I might have actually been able to do some good things for other people. It was a missed opportunity and I regret it. I also let my teammates down and I am sorry for that.

Brittney Griner is one of the people I wish I could have created change for. If I had stayed and really pushed myself to find ways for the new me to serve the Baylor community, I would like to think a number of people on campus would have supported me. I often day dream about what would have happened if I had tried to rally my teammates, alumni, fans and the community around me by coming out and living openly at Baylor. We'll never know what would have happened and what kind of pressures that could have applied to Baylor both socially and on an administrative level to create a more inclusive environment.

At the time, I had never met a lesbian or gay man who was out and in a relationship. I had no idea what that would look like. I realize now I could have sought those people out even in Texas, but when I was first coming to grips with my sexuality seeking out others like me was terrifying.

I did not leave Baylor because coach Mulkey is homophobic.

I was a scared 19 year old wrestling with some serious value-based questions about the direction of my life and I impatiently and impulsively ran from the things that were not working in my life without a clue of what I was running to. I have been unsure of what I am running to for some time.

Coach Mulkey is a member of an athletic department, a school, a town, a state and even a region that is known for its conservative belief system, which very much includes homophobia. As leader and icon in each of these arenas, coach Mulkey has been unfairly singled out as particularly homophobic based on what happened with me and then Brittney Griner. But in my experience she did not express opinions that were different from the dominant belief system held in that community.

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Nkosi (left) today, with her family.

My fear of coming out at Baylor came from millions of directions.

During my freshman year, my Bible professor taught that homosexuality was a sin. A fellow student at my Christian high school was kicked out of school after he was outed. I remember the kid who called me a "gay-transsexual" after school one day in sixth grade and tried to hit me. I was regularly called a "dyke" by people who intended to hurt me with that word. At Baylor, my Fellowship of Christian Athletes mentor had an intervention meeting with me about how she was noticing things about my relationship with my "friend" Ashley that needed to be addressed. I had several members of the athletic department ask me who Ashley was or tell me that they heard I was out with someone on whatever night and they just wanted me to "be aware" or "know" that "people were watching me". This list goes on and on. My point in sharing this list is to convey that it was not just what I experienced as a basketball player that impacted me. 

I had no idea what coach Mulkey would actually say if I told her I was gay in 2005, but I had enough information from my life experiences to be afraid. I was afraid of what everyone would think or do if they found out I was gay, not just her. So, while coach Mulkey and Baylor women's basketball are often portrayed in the media as anti-gay, I think it is important for people to recognize all the other people at Baylor who contribute to the fears a Baylor athlete, or any gay student or staff member, might feel not only at Baylor but in conservative places like it all over the country. This is one of my primary goals in writing this piece, we need to zoom the lens out from Baylor Women's basketball and recognize the larger systems within which it reflects. Conversations about the larger systems can lead to change. Picking apart the personal narratives of people like me and Brittney Griner will only take us so far.

Brittney Griner articulates the effects of living in this climate beautifully,  "For so many years, it felt like I was folding myself into a cramped airplane seat. ... There were times it seemed like no one had any real perspective on who I am, and some of that was my own fault. But now the plane has landed, and I've stood up and stretched out my arms and legs, and people can see all of me. I hope they also see how hard it was stuffing myself into a space that didn't quite fit me - how hard it is for anyone to do that."

There were no safe zone stickers at Baylor in 2005. There were no out lesbians for me to know personally and look to for guidance or even observe. Beyond my Baylor community the Christian communities I engaged with were very clear about their belief that being gay was living in sin and unacceptable. Ashley, the "friend" everyone noticed with concern and who is now my wife, and I were trying to overcome lifetimes of fear and internalized homophobia alone. We were scared and alone in our pain. Given all of that, I do feel proud that Ashley and I were able to dream something better for ourselves and actually had the courage and grit to make it a reality. The costs for us both are, and continue to be, significant. In spite of all that we were brave and I am proud of that. And I am deeply thankful for the light she continues to bring into my life.

Honestly, at the time I didn't even know I wanted to be out but knew I wanted a different life. That is why I left Baylor.

The fact that I was living in deep fear and shame every day largely because I was gay had a significant impact on how I went about obtaining that different life. Ultimately that fear drove my decision to leave Baylor and basketball altogether, but being gay was only a piece of that puzzle. The whole story is mine to process, to regret sometimes, to be proud of sometimes and in the end to learn from.

If you have ever felt regret about a life changing decision, I hope you find parts of yourself here. If you have ever felt overwhelmed by your life circumstances, I hope you found parts of yourself here.  If you have ever felt confused, ashamed, guilty, alone or scared in your process of dealing with those emotions and you made some wrong turns along the way, I hope you find some compassion for yourself here. If one person reads this and feels less alone in their pain or fear then I have achieved my goal.

Regardless of how either Brittney or I handled being Baylor athletes and being gay, it is clear that gay people struggle in that school environment. I hope that by sharing some of my story as a gay Baylor athlete, I can help Baylor understand how damaging that climate can be on young people struggling to accept their sexual orientation.

I think a much more productive conversation for the Baylor community would be what can we do today to make sure this does not happen again? From a policy level will we make changes to make our community a better place for gay people today? From a religious perspective do we actually want Baylor to be an inclusive place? Can that goal be consistent with the mission of a Christian school? I don't mean turning a blind eye or just not being overtly hateful, that is not enough. I mean changing policies and taking actions to address heterosexism and homophobia on an institutional level.

If not, can Baylor acknowledge that they are not an inclusive environment so that gay students know exactly where Baylor stands before they enroll and as they process their sexuality? How, when and why Brittney or I came out is a small piece of the conversation and only useful in the big picture if we can use these narratives to inform and inspire social change.

While there are many passionate Christians who perpetuate faith-based homophobia, there are also many Christians fighting to change the culture within the church. Beyond Christianity, heterosexism and gender oppression are rampant culturally from Disney movies to Happy Meal toys, it's everywhere. We have much work to do create a more inclusive world for LGBTQ people. And there are many people doing this work right now. The intersection of this movement with basketball and faith presents an opportunity for places like Baylor to become revolutionary leaders in creating this social change.

I hope there will be more conversation with big, passionate, soulful inspiration around how to encourage communities like Baylor to join the movement of inclusion.

Emily is a mom and wife, a web communications strategist and content creator, and she knows she is very blessed to be surrounded by friends, family and teachers who nourish her daily.  Among them are Pat Griffin, Ellen Landis, Tuti Scott, Dena Evans, Diane Williams, Leah Rush, and Ashley Nkosi, each of whom helped refine this piece.  She can be reached at www.emilyknkosi.com or by email at emilyknkosi@gmail.com. You can also finder her on Twitter @EmilyNkosi.

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