Anybody who knows me can tell you, “Karleigh loves sports.”
I’ve loved sports since my late father showed me how to get out of the blocks, how to run an out pattern, or how to shoot a jump shot.
The love pours out every time I cover an athlete or a team, head out on the field with my softball team, or toe some starting line on an early weekend morning.
When I my found my true north in transition, sports had to be a part of it. I am a transgender woman, I am an athlete, and I am a sports journalist. Each are at the core of who I am as a person.
When a governing body, a league, a team or an individual athlete affirms and embraces LGBTQ athletes and fans, I take that personally. The action sends the message that I am welcome to play here, I’m welcome to root here, and I’m welcome to be a journalist here.
It’s another example of perhaps the most special thing about sports as a kid. When a coach or fellow player extends their hand, hands you a jersey and says ,“Hi teammate! Let’s win!”
Yet every Pride night at a ballpark, there are those who will yell and scream that LGBTQ people are not wanted in the seats or in the game. Even if in 2022 they are a noisy minority, those people are the ones who make me nervous to be in those seats, be on the field, or do my job as a member of the press.
“Why are you making a big deal out of your orientation, NOBODY CARES!”
“More woke nonsense”
“You all are selling out to the Gay Agenda(TM)! I’M NEVER ROOTING FOR YOU AGAIN!”
2021 was perhaps the gayest, queerest, most transtastic year in the sports world ever. Yet, 2022’s heightened level of open derision, from the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse, to statehouses across the U.S., leaves me a little bit angry, but more so hurt.
The backlash against the support for Pride seems to be more intense in 2022, most notably in the statement from Rays pitcher Jason Adam on behalf of players who refused to wear a Pride patch on their uniform.
“Because ultimately we all said what we want is them to know that all are welcome and loved here,” Adam said. “But when we put it on our bodies, I think a lot of guys decided that it’s just a lifestyle that maybe — not that they look down on anybody or think differently — it’s just that maybe we don’t want to encourage it.”
Amid Adam’s word salad defending his choice, I saw a contradictory, but definitive, message that is a slap in the face to my community: The “lifestyle” (I loathe this description) of some of me and mine is something he and his do look down upon (despite them denying it).
I read that underlying message in some tweets sent toward various teams and athletes who sent public support to LGBTQ fans. The idea of me being an athlete, or rooting for the teams I’ve lived for since youth, is just too much for a thankfully noisy minority of people to handle, let alone celebrate.
This noise isn’t new. It shows up every time sports becomes a fulcrum for positive social change.
“I’m not comfortable with that Black man suiting up for the Dodgers.”
“Keep that woman out of our marathon! It’s uncomfortable!”
“That Navratil-whosit winning Wimbledon? I’m not comfortable with her! She’ll turn our girls gay!”
The common denominator: Some cisgender heterosexual “typical sports fans” are uncomfortable that the ol’ ball game just might get a little more queer.
UFC flyweight contender Jeff Molina, himself a target of Bronx cheers of derision for donning a pride-themed kit in a win over Zhalgas Zhumagulov last weekend, put why Pride matters in a sharp focus.
Jeff Molina goes *off* about the negative comments he received for wearing UFC's pride month shorts.— MMA Junkie (@MMAJunkie) June 5, 2022
"I just thought in 2022 people would be a little more open-minded and not pieces of sh*t. But I guess I was wrong."#UFCVegas56 | Full video: https://t.co/mOxnqIFGCb pic.twitter.com/aKeVUUeXyg
“It’s not even about being an ally, I’m not saying I’m not,” Molina said after the fight when asked about the twitter barbs. “But it’s just like, just be a decent human being.”
I get it. Change is discomforting. It’s our hardwired human programming of different=dangerous.
I wish more sports fans would consider the discomfort and pain I feel in seeing them project their personal perspectives upon me and mine. And to direct it at fans, they do it without cause.
I deal with discomfort every day. When I walk through the world as a Black transgender lesbian woman in a largely white cisgender straight society, my head is on a swivel.
I’m uncomfortable with people misgendering me, seeing me as a “huge problem in a sane world”, using the “panic defense” to justify a crime against me and mine, and saying I should be “shot in the back of the head” just for being who I am.
For me, sports is a safe space and always has been. Being on a field or in the stands is a salve for the wounds inflicted by the willfully ignorant and a point of positive human connection.
The fear, loathing and discomfort these detractors project upon LGBTQ fans and athletes like me is a needlessly hurtful encroachment on that special place.
Some of them say “well why can’t we get a ‘Straight Night’”?
To quote my Outsports colleague Alex Reimer, “Honey, that’s every night of the season. Have you seen all of those droopy cargo shorts in the grandstands?”
They’re uncomfortable because of one night a year at the ballpark, so they send the message that they potentially will make me feel the same way for the other 80 home games of a season.
I’m uncomfortable with pondering if the same threats that trans cyclist Emily Bridges received for asserting her place in a competition — that she earned by merit and by rule — could be directed toward me if I simply enter a stadium or arena to my watch my favorite teams play, let alone enter a race to compete.
Some people’s discomfort and reactions directly affect where I feel I can go to enjoy sports as a fan or as a participant.
Would I feel safe going to Knoxville to see a revival of the Huskies-Lady Vols basketball rivalry, knowing Tennessee passed an anti-trans “Slate of Hate”?
I recently had a wonderful vacation in Ohio. While I was there, a draconian bill against equal treatment for trans youth was passed and sent to their governor.
Seeing my Steelers take on the rival Browns in person this fall just got more complicated for me.
I am huge fan of Formula One, and the world championship now has two races in the U.S.! Unfortunately, both are in places where their respective state legislatures and governors are sending a pointed message that some people cannot be transgender and expect equal access to care deemed appropriate by various health and mental-health officials.
I. Am. Uncomfortable!
The worst part of this for me? I believe in the power of sports to bring people together.
I believe in the process of building a team. A group of people who may not know each other at the start of season, but game-to-game they get closer on and off the field in a way that may not have happened in any other forum.
I believe in opposing fans busting chops in the stands. I’ve taken my share of it being a Midwestern-born Kansas City Royals fan in a Northeastern sea of Yankees and Red Sox.
I also believe in high-fives and respect among fans and connections that forge, even as they are chirping from the seats.
I believe in the camaraderie of shared suffering among those who just met at a start line of some half-marathon, tri or cycling road race.
I believe in the simple joy of Rice Krispie treats after a game at age 11, or beer and grilled brats at age 51.
Sports fandom and participation as an athlete are a power that is magical, transformative and unifying.
It’s hurtful to see such an awesome power weakened to feed some people’s discomfort and some people’s bigotry.
It’s hurtful that some sports fans would be part of the cabal to push me and mine back into closets we’ve spent lives fighting to leave. Homophobia and transphobia are offensive anywhere, but when they bring them to the ballgame, it insults me.
It’s hurtful that they say my rainbow can’t blend with Northwestern Wildcat purple, or my azure-salmon-cream can have no connection to the Steeler black and gold that I’ve rooted for since I was 6 years old.
It’s hurtful that they seize something I hold dear, to cede it to people who center sports to sell their own hate-filled and anti-LGBTQ agenda of their own.
That seizure and cession is the unkindest — and most painful — cut of all.