It was ultimately a woman who kicked down the door.
In men’s professional team sports, there has never been a publicly out gay coach until Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers responded to an interview request from Outsports’ Jim Buzinski, resulting in his powerful piece today. He’d messaged Sowers last week about the importance of visibility for LGBT people in sports, hoping to encourage her to talk about being gay. For Sowers, it was a no-brainer.
“You are correct about visibility,” she quickly wrote back, “and I am happy to have you share my story.”
It shouldn’t be any big surprise that it’s a woman breaking through as an out gay coach in the NFL. Women have been leading the charge out of the closet in sports for decades.
Tennis legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova came out publicly as active athletes many years before they were followed by any men. Countless WNBA players — like Sheryl Swoopes, Michele Van Gorp, Sue Wicks and Seimone Augustus — were out and proud during their careers before any American men in pro team sports. Successful coaches like the WNBA’s Lin Dunn and soccer’s Pia Sundhage have been winning with very few men following in their footsteps.
Even for transgender athletes it was a woman, Renee Richards, who first busted open the opportunity to compete, in her case at the U.S. Open.
Certainly the godfather of all gay people in sports is David Kopay, the former NFL running back who came out publicly in 1975. Bill Tilden was semi-out only in certain circiles in tennis as early as the 1930s. Coaches like Curt Miller and Kirk Walker have certainly blazed trails of their own in sports.
Yet for so many years since Kopay it has been the women leading the charge out of the closet.
Sowers is just the latest courageous woman in the long line of trailblazing women.
When the 49ers take on the Carolina Panthers in San Francisco on Sept. 10, Sowers will be the first publicly out player or coach to participate in a regular-season NFL game. Previously Michael Sam played in four preseason games for the St. Louis Rams but did not make a regular-season NFL roster.
Some detractors will falsely claim “it’s so much easier for women to be out in sports.” Sowers’ hit back on that is spot-on, explaining that it’s never easier for a woman in football. Even in the sport of women’s basketball, women are losing jobs regularly to men. It’s a point other women, like national-champion coach and advocate Helen Carroll, have made many times: Women are already undervalued in sports, and coming out multiplies the struggles those women in sports face.
It is not easier for Sowers because she’s a woman. It is actually harder, making it all the more powerful that she is not shying away from her role as role model and inspiration.
If you think doing anything as a woman in the NFL is easier, you may need to be checked in the concussion protocol.
Still, Sowers’ life experiences have made her uniquely prepared to bust down the closet door in the NFL: She is used to being “the different one,” the trailblazer. As a woman in football, she is already the lone woman in the coaches’ office, and she probably has been that lone woman at every single program she’s ever worked. When you’re used to standing out as “different” for who you are on one level, I imagine it empowers you to step out on other levels.
The very fact that Sowers is a woman in football made her “the perfect choice” for this trailblazing role.
I’m now left wondering, who’s next? If a woman in pro football can step out of the shadows and declare herself different in yet another way, surely there is a male NFL coach — among the hundreds of them — who is gay and equally committed to the “visibility” that Sowers said is so incredibly important today for LGBT people.
Guys, don’t make the women do all the work.