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For this NWHL player, coming out was a mixture of heartache and joy

Anya Battaglino found the courage and support to become a champion of equality.

Anya Battaglino plays for the Connecticut Whale and is the director of the NWHL Players’ Association.
Matt Raney

I am a professional women’s hockey player for the Connecticut Whale in the National Women’s Hockey League. I am also the head of the National Women’s Hockey League Player’s Association. I make great stovetop popcorn. When I laugh too hard, I actually start to cry. I hate eating green peas. I am a brand new home owner. I have two adorable little dogs…and a beautiful girlfriend.

‘Wait, you’re like… a lesbian’?

It took a long time for me to be able to laugh that off, and respond with some witty little comeback. It took me a while to be able to smile through the ‘well you don’t look like a lesbian’ comments.

I mean seriously. That intrinsically always confused me. What do lesbians look like? Do we have a distinct facial feature? Do we have a marking that I don’t possess? I am definitely a ‘femme’ or a feminine lesbian, but that is a style not a sexual orientation. It seems to confuse people when I tell them I am a lesbian.

Coming out was an awkward struggle for me because of this confusion. It was night and day to have these conversations with the people I cared about most. Some people I told stared at me blankly with a face that read, “Anz, how are you just figuring this out now?”

Other people offered the complete opposite.

“You just haven’t met the right guy yet,” or “It’s a phase.” Even, “It’s your environment.”

My parents were divorced when I was a baby, and my step-dad was introduced into my life just about the time I learned to run into his arms. Growing up he was always my best friend, and I was his little sidekick. I literally told people I was Irish because my dad was Irish. I think it was high school biology class where I learned that wasn’t really the lay of the land.

“The talk” happened when I was a freshman at Boston University, playing hockey with the weekend off, and thoroughly homesick. I called my dad to come scoop me up to bring me home, knowing that on our 20 minute drive home I was going to finally tell him that I had feelings for women that I was supposed to have for men.

We were on Storrow Drive, a narrow two-lane highway stretching from Boston through my hometown of Waltham, Mass. I looked out my window and said my uncomfortably worded sentence, stumbling over every word, choking back tears.

My dad looked right at me despite still be headed home on Storrow Drive.

“Look at me,” he said. I did. “Is your name still Anya? You’re still my little girl, and I love you no matter who you love.”

Tears. My biggest fan. My dad. My favorite friend. He didn’t judge me at all. I mean come on, this is like the dream. My dad is a goof ball. He literally followed up the hardest sentence I have ever had to string together with a line I’ll never forget.

“Well I like women too,” he said, “so I can see the appeal.” Who does that? I will tell you who. My dad, Bob Kelly (BK Big Fish, Smelly Kelly, The Pres… etc.).

The true dichotomy comes in when I then tried to tell my mom the same truth. My mom is a strong, successful, independent woman. She is the Beyonce of my family, (or Bay-awnce as my dad would miss pronounce). Throughout my life I have aspired to make my mom proud whether it was in the class room, at church, on the ice, or just in the way I carried myself.

My mom commands a room when she enters, and when she and her friends are together they are constantly laughing and full of happiness. Telling my mom that I was a lesbian was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I didn’t have many friends in high school, but I always had my mom. She was truly my best friend.

When I finally gained the courage to talk to her, it decimated our friendship. She was completely shocked and could hardly look at me. I saw complete disbelief and disgust across her face. She stood up from her chair at the kitchen table, walked right into her room and sternly closed the door.

We went from talking every single day to having forced, awkward conversations. That ultimately led to having no conversations at all. We went months with this heavy air and lingering tension. There was no middle ground for us to walk on, and I was completely heartbroken.

My mom was having trouble understanding that this wasn’t a personal choice. I wasn’t choosing to ostracize myself and create this challenging life path. It got to the point where we couldn’t even talk about the weather without something coming up, both of us shutting down, and eventually hanging up. We were both emotionally exhausted and utterly drained. We both subconsciously knew the only person that could help either one of us was the other, but for months there was no chance of resolution.

All seemed lost until my mom wrote me a letter. I was shocked that this was our first communication. But I also knew we were never going to hash it out face to face. We both had too much pride.

“I am so sorry that my confusion and lack of understanding has hurt you,” she wrote. “It’s broken my heart as well.”

As tears rolled down my face, all I could think was my mom might finally have been understanding and recognizing. For months the woman who had been completely removed from my life was finally extending the white flag.

“You are the brightest light, and your light shines on the people around you and makes them light,” she continued. “Never lose that light. Anya, you will never know how much strength you have given me, from the day you were born and even more today.”

This gave our relationship the breath of fresh air it needed. It provided us a place to stand on the same ground, and it enabled us to begin talking to each other again, as opposed to talking at each other. To again be able to look at my mom and have a basic conversation was a dream for me, and something I had desperately been missing in my life.

We endured a battle, of slinging words and vast misunderstanding, and in the end we were both hurting. My mom went from an enemy to an ally on that day, and it was a beautiful place to start anew.

Having these two completely different experiences coming out made it impossible to truly understand my identity. It made what was already an extremely confusing and difficult journey feel like sprinting through a field of landmines. I didn’t know where I could turn or what I could say.

Battaglino (left) with her girlfriend, Madison Packer, who also plays in the NWHL.

What I did know was this simple fact: I was doing my best to be my true authentic self, and I was embracing the fact that the person I am is a little different than I had originally thought.

All in all, it took some soul searching, some relationships that broke my heart, a lot of growing and maturing. But I have since become a very open and proud member of the LGTBQ community. I use my position in professional hockey to speak openly and freely about coming out. I use my platform to engage in difficult conversations.

I work tirelessly to educate people to speak up, even when it’s a challenging conversation to have. I know how vastly different those conversations can go. I know how uncomfortable it can be to speak out when inequalities exist.

I am a lesbian. But my sexuality does not define who I am as a person. I am a successful businesswoman. I am an athlete. I am a sister. A role model. A leader. And an advocate for the rights of all people regardless of our sexual orientation.

I am a lesbian. But I am so much more than that.

Anya Battaglino plays in the NWHL for the Connecticut Whale and is the director of the NHWL Players’ Association. You can follow her on Twitter or on Instagram @battaglinoa. She is also on Facebook.