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Gay hockey player went back in the closet to become a coach

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Nora Cothren was an out lesbian ice hockey player at Smith College. Yet after she graduated she went back in the closet to become a coach, even denying her engagement to be married. Now she's finding the strength to be her true self.

Michelle Lawler

Each and every time I travel for my work fighting LGBT discrimination in sports, it is like a boost to my soul. Whether I am speaking to athletes or coming together with other advocates for a training on LGBT issues, I approach it with an extra pep in my step. I arrive home with a renewed confidence from existing in a space where I can be 100% authentic while being inspired and empowered by so many amazing people.

That pep dies down pretty quickly. Initially I thought that was due only to missing the amazing people who have changed by life, and that I see so infrequently.

Recently I've realized the truth, a tough pill to swallow: For the past year in my advocacy I have been a huge hypocrite.

The majority of the work I do in the LGBT sports world is around making sporting environments safe and inclusive so that LGBT athletes can feel free to work/compete in a safe environment. A piece of that is as an inspiration to closeted LGBT youth who play sports. I was a closeted athlete for years in high school. I hid who I was. I commented on the attractiveness of male celebrities my teammates admired, I made up crushes on boys, I tried to wear tighter clothes around my teammates, and I let the words thrown around by teammates sit and stew into self-hatred and fear inside me to the point of near destruction.

I lived in that toxic bubble for too long. Even being out to friends who were disconnected from sports didn't help too much. Hockey was, and is, a part of my identity - just as much as my sexuality - and hiding that part of me around some of the people I felt closest to was literally killing me.

After my high school senior seasons were done I stepped out of that bubble to nothing but love. The casual homophobic language that my teammates used had instilled a fear that was unnecessary. I was a new person. I blossomed both on and off the ice leading to the best four years of my personal and academic life playing ice hockey at Smith College. Those experiences lead me to this advocacy work today.

Being out to friends and teammates was empowering. I was no longer a closeted athlete.

Today, however, I am a closeted coach.

Soon after college I started working at a youth hockey non-profit helping with academic services and doing some on-ice coaching. I went into this work knowing that my sexuality could become an issue. I was very happy to be received with open arms for all that I am by my coworkers - My sexuality wasn't an issue. I could not ask for a better group of people. I can make fun of myself and crack jokes in the coaches' room without worrying, I bring my partner to social events with other coaches, and our recent engagement and wedding planning has been a popular talking point while doing work in the organization's office.

Yet I still have one foot in the closet and one foot out - just as I did in high school.

Student: "Coach Nora, are you married?"
Me: "Nope."
Student: "But you have a ring like you are..."

The students I work with in the foundation range in age from 5 to 18. On any given day I work on writing letters with a kindergartener, then the next minute I'll help a high schooler with a chemistry assignment. Then I'll hop on the ice to work my U12 girls team practice. The way I present myself to different ages and groups of people has many levels. I act differently with all of the aforementioned groups of students while at the rink. I pride myself on my ability to connect with students of all ages.

Yet one consistency in my work across the age ranges is a reticence to talk about my personal life.

When these things come up in conversation I refer to my partner as my "roommate," say I'm not seeing anyone, and when questioned about my engagement ring, make up some terrible story on the spot. I wear tighter jeans when I am working at the rink. I try to fit as much into the mold of a stereotypical feminine straight woman as is possible for me as a masculine-of-center gay woman.

When some of the moms joke around with me about a recent event where the kids interacted with a local NHL player and how nice it must be to be so close to these men, I just laugh.

At our NHL team's annual charity event last year, I was caught on camera for a split second speaking to our local team captain after a photo-op. That clip was used in a wrap-up video on the team's website, and a mom came to me very excited to talk about it, and asked what I was saying to him. I told her I couldn't really remember after the excitement of the moment. In reality, I was thanking him for his support of an LGBT sports organization, You Can Play. His support in the organization's launch video a couple of years ago helped me gain the courage to tell my story. It was an extremely personal moment for me to get to shake his hand and thank him personally.

That's something I just wouldn't share with this excited mom.

I am a hypocrite. As I go around the country speaking at different LGBT events and trainings, I hope to inspire a kid like me to come out and live as their authentic self - All while I live partially in the closet.

I speak to hundreds of kids about creating safe and inclusive athletic environments through this work, but I can't even talk to the kids I work with every day. I have shared more of myself with kids I have never met than those who I care so deeply about. This is all motivated by fear - Fear that I will lose the relationships with these kids and their families, fear that I will limit the access to our hockey programming because they don't want their kids around a gay coach, and ultimately, fear that I will lose my job.

In the state of Pennsylvania, I can be fired for no other reason than my sexual orientation. The organization could easily say that my sexuality is a detriment to their programming, and that since parents don't feel safe sending their kids to a program with a lesbian coach, they need to let me go. In no way do I think that this organization would ever do that, but it would be legal if they did - and it terrifies me.

In high school I let fear keep me in a toxic state of being while existing in the hockey world. Once I got over that fear, I realized in the end that it was unnecessary. I was better for it.

Why is it so hard for me to do the same in this situation? Is it because kids are involved? What is it about being a coach that makes this harder?

As I've been contemplating those questions over the past couple years while working in the organization, there is one that I never asked myself until now: What would the closeted kid in the program think? How does me not being my authentic self around them impact the way they see their place in hockey and society as a whole?

In a world where so many female coaches live in glass closets due to the stigma of homosexuality in women's sports, I - an LGBT sports advocate - am not out to the kids I coach both on and off the ice. As I press for more visibility in women's sports, I am staying invisible.

I'm changing that right now.

I will no longer be a hypocrite. I will live my life openly as my authentic self. I will answer questions about my life outside of the organization with honesty and pride. I will find the same community within the families I work with that I found in my coworkers.

I will make sure that when a closeted kid sees me, they can see that I am proud of who I am, and that they should be too.

You can follow Nora Cothren on Twitter @NoLowCo.

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