One of the most consequential moments in Kelly Lawrence’s coming out journey happened when one of the juniors on her team came to her for advice. At the time, Lawrence was the assistant women’s soccer coach for Syracuse University, and determined to rise through the competitive coaching ranks. An elite collegiate player herself, Lawrence was enthralled with the game. But this player did not want to talk about soccer. She wanted to talk about life.
At that moment, Lawrence realized she wanted to stop being invisible. While she ultimately took the job at Syracuse to advance in her career, it also afforded her a clean break from her previous life. She met her ex-wife in California, back when she played professional soccer for an upstart league in the Golden State. Lawrence fell in love with the new striker from New Jersey, and moved back east with her following the season. It was a quintessential romance, except for the fact Lawrence didn’t feel comfortable holding hands in public. They got married one day at City Hall, and that evening, Lawrence went back to coaching.
There was no celebratory dinner, never mind honeymoon. The marriage ended one year later.
“I was just paralyzed,” Lawrence said. “I just couldn’t see a way through.”
The “Invisible Life”
Lawrence was a stellar soccer player growing up in England. She spent seven years with with the English Youth National Teams (U15-U23’s) and Great Britain, helping to lead England to its runner-up finish in the 2007 Women’s Under-19 UEFA Cup. Lawrence continued to thrive on the field in college, playing four stellar years at Indiana University. She became the only player in the program’s history to earn All-Big Ten Honors honors all four seasons.
At school, Lawrence surrounded herself with a great group of friends, and had a family that supported her. But as she pursued a professional career in coaching, she lacked LGBT role models. As a result, Lawrence decided it was best to hide her sexuality in soccer circles. She didn’t want being gay to screw anything up.
“You’d have distant role models — maybe Ellen,” Lawrence said. “But I didn’t have a coach in my entire career who ever existed within the LGBT community, so it wasn’t something I ever thought about. I think the other part of it was being a young coach, I was always focused on trying to make sure none of my players would find it, especially because I started working with young kids in the beginning. I was so concerned about what parents would think. I was concerned that my players would lose respect for me. And that was totally logical to me in my 23, 24, 25-year old state of mind.”
Though Lawrence lived with her wife in New Jersey, she was concerned about being seen together in public, and the potential ramifications. Lawrence would become anxious whenever her wife would show up at practices or games, petrified somebody would ask who she was.
“The whole thing was just too much for her,” Lawrence said. “I’ve always said to people, I have so much respect for her, for holding her hand up and saying, ‘I want more. I want to be happier.’ I’ve always been really proud of her for that.”
Lawrence moved to Syracuse in 2015, following a nearly two-year stint as the assistant women’s soccer coach at Monmouth University. Still left without an LGBT role model in her direct orbit, Lawrence further buried herself in her coaching.
“I wound up kind of living even more of an invisible life in Syracuse, because no one knew me before,” she said. “I just didn’t want to talk about my past.”
But when that junior approached her, Lawrence knew she was looking for more than some fine tuning on her form. The conversation would require Lawrence to open up. So when the player asked Lawrence if she wanted to talk, she readily accepted the invitation to serve as the sounding board she lacked herself.
“Sitting down with her, I realized there wasn’t really a safe space for the LGBT community, and ultimately I wasn’t doing enough,” Lawrence said. “So I’m forever grateful for her. She did more for me than I think I could’ve ever done for her. I was just so grateful that I knew enough of what she might be going through to be able to handle that conversation with her in a way that made her feel safe, and come out with no bumps and bruises from expressing the things she was going through at the time.”
No more “invisible life”
Lawrence was already beginning to open up a little more to her colleagues, but the coming out discussion with her player gave her the nudge to start speaking more freely. She began explicitly referring to her girlfriend in conversations, and no longer omitted details about her weekend. Just acting normally became an invigorating experience.
It also turned out to be a professional turning point. In October 2018, Lawrence was named the interim head coach at Syracuse, and started connecting with her players on a more intimate level. In order to be a successful head coach, you must be able to preach more than the fundamentals.
“There were different moments where you’re standing in front of your team, and you realize as a coach there are moments where showing a little bit more of vulnerability towards your players shows them you’re human,” Lawrence said. “So there were moments where I made maybe plug in about my relationship, or when I would talk to the players about their weekends, I would include that, just to show them the whole person, versus just the coach.”
When Lawrence started interviewing with Boston University, she was enthused about the school’s accepting and diverse culture. There are multiple out coaches within BU athletics, and the school has a thriving LGBT scene (I would know. I went there.)
Her current values represent a seismic shift from earlier in her career, when she wouldn’t even consider mixing her sexuality with soccer. Now, Lawrence can’t imagine working somewhere that doesn't embrace diversity.
“I used to worry, ‘Am I not going to get that ‘Dream Job’ because I’m gay?,’” she said. “And now, I don’t even want to work for that institution or department if that’s going to be a dealbreaker for them.”
“I’ve learned some lessons”
As the associate women’s soccer head coach at BU, Lawrence gets to work under Nancy Feldman, who’s led the club to 14 NCAA Tournament appearances and 13 conference regular season titles. An 11-time coach of the year, Feldman is a legend in women’s soccer.
With that information in mind, it isn’t surprising the team has developed an organized training regimen to stay sharp through the coronavirus pandemic. The status of the fall season is uncertain, with BU working on contingency plans in case students aren’t allowed back on campus until January 2021.
Lawrence says she’s been in constant communication with players, and oftentimes, the conversations steer away from soccer. Lawrence has plenty of advice to give, and as an Athlete Ally Ambassador, wants to continue to work with young people.
“We put in a plan to try and mentor and teach as much as we could through this period, without being able to teach them how to kick a soccer ball,” Lawrence said. “So we’ve done a lot of work in terms of leadership, dealing with adversity, and really just giving them a place to connect. They miss that, they miss the locker room time. They miss coming out on the field.”
As for herself, Lawrence is quarantining with her partner, and says they have not killed each other — yet. Lawrence says it isn’t uncommon for the couple to go weeks without seeing each other in-season, so the downtime has been beneficial in some senses.
Most of all, Lawrence says it’s taught her to live more for the moment. She is no longer placing her career over personal happiness and self-care.
“That’s the other thing I learned with everything I went through with my ex-wife,” she said. “Just being present and slowing down and being grateful for the time that you have when you have it has definitely made me slow down. When it gets to the end of the work day, I put the work away, whereas before I would work a full 12-hour shift and then be back on the laptop after dinner. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve just learned some lessons. I’ve learned them the hard way, but I’ve learned them.”
If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Allicance to find other coaches and administrators.