Katie Sowers recently became the first ever coach in the NFL to come out as gay. I’m not a diehard football fan or anything, but when I saw that headline on my Facebook newsfeed, I felt an impassioned joy. It is always beautiful to see members of the LGBTQ community stand up and declare who they are, especially when doing so requires an unimaginable amount of courage and can have a positive effect on so many people.
I may not know all the rules or the name of every player, but I do regularly attend Chicago Bears games. I love Soldier Field, the smells, the crowd, the way we get to sing every time the Bears score a touchdown. There’s something so enchanting about sitting out there in the middle of winter, bundled up in layers and sipping hot chocolate out of a massive souvenir mug while light snowflakes drift down from the sky. It’s a wonderful place to be, and I wish I could say I felt one hundred percent comfortable being gay there. While I haven’t experienced any outright homophobia in the stands, I am definitely more careful with how I act when I am there with my girlfriend–or when the two of us are in any large sporting arena for that matter.
The concentration of intense heteromasculine energy feels threatening in a way that makes holding her hand or sitting too close seem a bit dangerous. I don’t see myself represented anywhere. There’s no sign that if we did act out and open, we would be okay. Beyond the absence of any out players or coaches on the field, there are activities like Kiss Cams run by people who always seem to forget that kisses are not just shared between man and woman.
If I had the opportunity to sit in that arena knowing that somewhere down on that field was a gay coach being embraced by the team, I would feel more welcome at Soldier Field. I would breathe a little easier sitting beside my girlfriend at a game. And if that’s the kind of comfort it would give someone like me, who is out and proud and regularly writes about her sexuality for the world to see, I can’t even imagine what it might do for someone in the closet, still ashamed or confused or afraid of who they are.
This is one reason Katie Sowers coming out is so important. I don’t know if it will make others in the league feel more comfortable coming out, but I do feel it will help those who identify as gay, whether a fan or a player or a coach, feel at least an ounce of comfort knowing that there is someone else nearby who would understand.
Representation matters. As a gay person, it is difficult to find public spaces in which to feel one hundred percent comfortable being yourself. Katie Sowers has brought a little bit of that comfort to a world where there has been virtually none of it. And the thing about Sowers is that she had to do it all on her own, without the presence of another out gay person to make her feel a little safer or a little more okay. Sowers didn’t have anyone to help her breathe a little easier, and she came out anyway. That is more than brave. That is god damn heroic.
It’s especially incredible considering the challenges she more than likely faces on a regular basis just for being a woman. As Cyd Zeigler emphasized in a recent Outsports article, “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.” I am sure Sowers has to prove herself every day in a way her male counterparts do not. I know that coming out over and over is always scary and always hard and will always be accompanied by challenges and homophobic jerks. Sowers, I imagine, knew this, too, and despite all the other challenges she’s already facing, she still came out because it mattered to her. She told Outsports, “The more we can create an environment that welcomes all types of people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, the more we can help ease the pain and burden that many carry every day.”
The fact that we are still celebrating firsts like this demonstrates how much work there’s left to do. My jaw doesn’t physically drop often, but it did when I read that Sowers is not only the first coach to come out in the NFL, but she is also the first ever coach, male or female, to come out in any professional men’s sports league in America. It’s a shame that this is the case in 2017. It seems there is still a huge barrier to coming out in men’s sports, and I find it pretty awesome that one of the people attempting to kick it down is a woman.
Right now, Sowers is an island, and hopefully it won’t always be that way. I hope that Sowers represents the beginning of a new era in football, where coaches and players of any gender will feel comfortable being true to themselves. I hope Sowers’ unapologetic outnessand her role as a woman in football in generalis the beginning of the end of an environment that fetishizes dirt-rubbing, chest-bumping, woman-loving heteromasculinity rather than merely being good at football.
According to an article in Outsports, published in June 2017, there are seven known gay players in NFL history who have played during the regular season. Seven. And all of them only came outaftertheir time in the NFL. That, plus the fact that Sowers is the first coach in any professional American male sports league to come out, is a problem. There is still so much work to be done.
Michael Sam, the controversial first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, was supposed to be the beginning of something new. The problem was he got cut before the regular season began. I do not know enough about his skill level to form an opinion about whether he got cut because he wasn’t good enough or due to discrimination. I do know enough to feel that in general, trailblazers are usually the stars, those who are truly exceptional and already stand out for their skills. Of course, you should be able to be true to who you are whether you are the starting quarterback or a second string player, but someone who is already in the spotlight might make a larger impact.
Sowers has already been in the spotlight for being the second full-time female coach in the history of the NFL, and her skills sound truly exceptional. They would have to be for the boys club that is the NFL to even hire her as a female coach. Interviews with players and coaches alike discuss her incredible talent.
Marquise Goodwin, 49ers Wide Receiver, told San Francisco radio station KNBR, “Katie is a baller, 100 percent. She understands the game. She’s very familiar with the gameshe definitely has the attitude it takes to be in that room. She brings a great vibe and she understands so I’m happy that she’s on staff.” Head Coach Kyle Shanahan told the station, “She’s a hard worker. You don’t even notice her because she just goes to work and does what’s asked and because of that she’s someone we would like to keep around.”
Now that Sowers’ extraordinary ability has paved the way, hopefully more coachesand playersof any skill level will feel safer coming out.