Gay Iowa coach comes out to homophobic friend
Evan Risk is a jr. high school track & cross-country coach in rural Iowa. When his friend talked about killing the queers at an Iowa basketball game, he knew he had to come out to him.
For millenia, women have been told what they are supposed to look like, sound like and act like. Wear this, work here, accept this reduction in pay. Only recently has society afforded women the opportunity to participate in something as simple as sports.
Despite so many recent advancements for women in the world of sports, we still hear about female athletes being told they need a certain look if they want to be successful. Through all of that, athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, Brittney Griner and Layshia Clarendon have blazed their own trails, finding success and stardom by simply expressing themselves and their creativity with every thread of clothing they wear.
Stereotype dictates that shot putters be massive, masculine athletes - something out of a Hans and Frans sketch. The women in the sport are overweight, wear short, "butch" haircuts and have sweatpants permanently attached to their hips. That's what these athletes are told to be. That's society's expectation they have to live into.
When I first heard that a female shot putter wanted to meet me during my trip to Iowa State University last month, that was the image in my head. Yet as I walked into Memorial Union and found Tina Hillman - with her long blonde locks and undeniable femininity - my Soviet-era stereotypes were quickly turned upside down.
Sure, Hillman is a powerful woman. At 6-foot-2 she avoids high-heeled shoes lest she tower over the crowd. Other than the added few inches, she would love to wear those shoes. She expresses her true self very differently from Griner and Clarendon, who have taken on more masculine expressions of their identities. Hillman embraces pretty dresses, feminine make-up and, yes, her flowing blonde hair, an equally powerful expression of her self.
"I want to prove to myself and others that you can be physically strong, succeed in a masculine sport and still identify as feminine," Hillman told me as I asked her about the stereotypes that expects a very different expression.
For Hillman, the expression of that femininity isn't about rebelliousness or a rejection of any kind of masculine stereotype in women's sports. She embraces people of all gender expressions. Instead, it's simply a reflection of who she truly is.
* * *
Hillman isn't just a member of the Iowa State Cyclones track & field team. She's a cornerstone of it, and a humble one at that.
"So, how good are you?" I asked her in those early moments of our conversation as we felt each other out.
Adam Guenther, my host in Ames for the day and an LGBT student leader on campus, slammed his fist on the table.
"She is not OK," he demanded. He was right.
Hillman is the defending NCAA champion in shot put - both indoor and outdoor. She's also defending both titles in the Big XII. In 2013 she was a first-team academic All-American and All-American in the shot put (again, both indoor and outdoor). In 2011 she was in the high school indoor national champion in the shot put. In 2012 - as a freshman at Iowa State - she finished 15th in the shot put at the Olympic Trials. At the USA Outdoor Championships last June, she finished fifth.
"OK" doesn't begin to sum up Tina Hillman the athlete.
One of the secrets to her success is a complete dedication to her sport. She practices with her Iowa State team six days a week (they are graciously given Sundays off). In the autumn they lift three days a week and throw the other three. Sometimes the throwers work out with the jumpers and decathletes, including some running thrown in for good measure. Workouts last 90 minutes to four hours each day.
That's in the offseason.
While the scholarship and accolades and national championships are powerful for the wallet and the ego, the driving force behind Hillman's hard work is a higher calling.
"My girlfriend and I used to talk about it. What if I could get really good and I could be this out pansexual Olympian, that it can just be normal. That's one of the things that drives me, to be able to be a role model for others."
Pansexual. There's the gay community, there's LGBT, there's LGBTQ... some people add an "A" to that for various reasons. But pansexual?
"I think of it as being gender blind. Gender doesn't really factor into who I'm attracted to. For me gender doesn't matter. It's like eye color. It just doesn't play a huge defining role in whether I'll date someone.
"I fall in love with humans."
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When Hillman first explained it to me, I wondered why she didn't simply define her orientation as bisexual. She likes girls, she likes guys. She likes both genders That's bisexual in my book.
Except, it's not. For pansexual people like Hillman, gender doesn't matter. Bisexuals are attracted to women and men for their being women and men; Pansexuals are attracted to people despite their gender.
"For me, pansexuality is being attracted to anyone of any gender physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally."
The eye color analogy is spot-on. Gay men date other men regardless (for the most part) of their eye color. Hillman dates people regardless of their gender. Pansexual.
While she has found acceptance on the team at Iowa State, it wasn't always that simple. As mentioned above, she had a girlfriend in high school. In her Catholic high school, St. Thomas More Academy. With a Catholic mom. And Catholic classmates.
It was not a secret that the two girls were a couple - they started dating Hillman's sophomore year. When word spread, one parent asked the school to expel the two girls as their relationship was against God's will. Hillman's father protested any kind of expulsion, far more accepting of his daughter's sexual orientation than her mother. The school principal refused, and Hillman and her girlfriend stayed at the school.
Still, their holding hands and hugging caused quite a stir.
"It was not a good atmosphere for our relationship in high school," Hillman remembered. "It was simple things we were getting in trouble for."
Since arriving in Ames, Hillman has been using her identity and self-confidence to shift conversations at Iowa State. As I visited the campus it was clear she was one of the prides of the LGBT community in Ames. Various community members justifiably gushed about her.
She even came out to her sophomore roommate, who had declared just days earlier that homosexuality was wrong. The roommate had gotten to know Hillman aside from her sexual orientation and found her to be a good person. Knowing Hillman for her personality beyond her sexual orientation made the acceptance that much easier.
While teammates have "been fine with it," Hillman said there were upperclassmen during her freshman year who made it very clear they didn't agree with it.
"It wasn't in a mean way. They weren't trying to be mean. They told me they didn't agree with it, but as long as I didn't come on to them, it was going to be fine."
As long as she didn't come onto them. I have never understood the fear that some straight people have of an attraction from the same sex. If a woman is attracted to me, I find it flattering that they think so. Yet so many straight people find it desperately threatening (sometimes) to the point of threats. Bizarre.
Now a senior and defending national champion, Hillman has little hesitation sharing her pansexual attraction with teammates, though she still prefers to open up after they get to know her away from her sexual orientation.
"I guess I have that little worried feeling when they're new members of the team."
Her biggest struggle has been with her mother, a devout Catholic. While administrators at her Catholic High School found acceptance for Hillman and her girlfriend, even requesting she notify them of any problems she encountered with students, her mother has not been so quick to reconcile her daughter's sexual orientation with the Bible.
Still, her mother has come a long way. She still prays about Hillman not being straight, but she's also made it clear that she loves and supports her trailblazing daughter.
"At first I was worried if I married a girl most of my family members wouldn't attend the wedding, but now I realize that almost everyone would come to the wedding. My parents certainly would."
* * *
Before I gave my hourlong talk to several hundred students at Iowa State, I told Hillman I wanted to mention her. She approved. As I wound down my remarks I focused on what the audience could do to improve the culture in the athletic department in Ames. Various coaches were already working at some level with the LGBT Center on campus. Brad Freihoefer, the program coordinator for campus LGBT student services, had conducted a workshop for various people in the athletic department. Progress was being made.
When I flashed the photo of Hillman on the screen I heard her gasp from the front row. She knew I would be talking about her, yet her image on the screen at an LGBT sports talk still elicited a reaction. I asked her to rise - in her well-chosen dress, reserved make-up and beautifully styled hair - to say hello to the crowd.
Hillman is the most important agent of change in that athletic department, I said. No one changes hearts and minds - including Catholic moms, new roommates and head coaches - like a kind young woman at the top of her game being out as she ascends to the highest peaks of her sport.
As she nodded to a chorus of applause from her fellow Cyclones, her choice to come out publicly was affirmed. She would have a broad support structure among her peers.
As she rises all the way to the Olympics in the coming years, consciously advancing the conversation about sexual orientation, she will be bringing them along with her.