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Voices

The Lost Language
of Kickball

The Lost Language
of Kickball

Kickball

For some gay and lesbian adults, having been chosen last in P.E. class inflicts a wound they still feel today, keeping them from enjoying sports and wreaking havoc on their self-esteem. Judy Kamilhor examines the "chosen-last syndrome" and other traumatic childhood sports experiences -- and shows how to overcome them.

Life as we know it changed for a lot of people in 1969. There was the first man on the moon, the "Miracle Mets" upsetting the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles to win their first baseball World Series--and the beginning of the end of my family. While my father, older brother, and I were at Shea Stadium in Queens, N.Y., for game 3 of that series, a tumor was growing in my mother's brain. She was dead before my next birthday, and we had to carry on without the driving force of our family.

Baseball was my first passion, and the New York Mets were my first chosen tribe. They provided the stability I didn't get at home. One of the last things my mother did for me, between hospital stays and five-day-a-week chemotherapy sessions, was to get me into the Forest Hills Lassie League when I was 9, one year earlier than the girls' softball league allowed. She knew I would need something to throw myself into once she was gone. My father later told me that she did this in spite of her fear that my passion for sports meant I would become a lesbian.

I was a tomboy from day one. Almost as soon as I could walk, I began to run, jump, and play baseball, football, and other games with neighborhood kids. I played schoolyard punchball and kickball in elementary school. Only one boy was a better athlete, and he later played in the United States Football League, a short-lived competitor to the National Football League. People who saw me play sports would often ask me if I was a boy or a girl because they couldn't wrap their heads around how well I played.

A typical kickball game when I was 8 years old involved me kicking the ball over everyone's head and sprinting around the bases. In the field I would play shortstop and cover the entire field, trying to make every play myself. I was happiest when I was playing sports; I felt whole and alive. Then we all hit puberty, a curve ball I was totally unprepared for.

I was a year younger than my classmates, which was fine in the classroom but socially and physically disastrous. I was a small, wiry, boyish girl, and around sixth grade my classmates started developing into women and following the rules of the popular girl hierarchy. They teased me about my lack of a boyfriend and my choice of clothes. And worse, boys didn't want to play with me anymore.

In junior high I lost my closest friend because of my passion for sports. In her rush to wear makeup and talk about boys, she abandoned me. Her mother told her to stay away from me because I was a "bad influence," meaning my love of sports was suspect and could lead to other perversely unfeminine behaviors.

Despite such traumatic rejections, I always believed that sports saved my life. I was so numb with grief after losing my mother that many times the only thing that kept me from committing suicide was anticipation of my next softball game or my desire to see how the Mets would do next season. Sports was often the only thing potent enough to break through the numbness.

I recently dug up an old journal full of awful poetry and found a science fiction story I wrote when I was 16 about an athletic teenage girl who runs away from home in "Musicville" and discovers a musical teenage boy who ran away from "Sportsville." They eventually start a family together where each child gets to choose who they want to be. I have always felt that I was born into the wrong world or time, and I have often identified with people who felt the same way. Coming out as a lesbian when I was 18 brought me into the LGBT community, another tribe I belonged to.

Childhood sports is meant to be a fun way to create a feeling of community. Unfortunately, it can be treacherous for kids who are different. Children who grow up to be queer are often chosen last or not at all: a prehomophobic judgment of how well we fit traditional sex roles. Boys are supposed to be jocks, girls, supermodels, and no one is supposed to be too smart or creative. Anyone who goes against the grain gets humiliated and abused by defenders of the status quo. Many children reject parts of themselves, trying to be something they're not, to fit in. Others become perpetual outsiders. Sports certainly has the power to reject--but it can also bring people together in surprising ways.

While I was recuperating from a serious kidney disorder in November 1999, the relationship between sports and healing kept popping into my mind. I felt like I was being given another chance to do something useful, and as much as I tried to dismiss this idea as not important enough, it made sense. Sports had always been part of my emotional healing, so why not help other people who need healing around sports in some way? For my own healing process, I bought myself a new softball glove the next spring as a 40th birthday present, to motivate me to be physically well enough to play softball again.

In March 2001, I was feeling much better and planned to try out for the Prospect Park Women's Softball League in New York, where I still live. A few days before tryouts, I taught a friend how to throw a ball, helping her move past her belief that girls are not supposed to be violent and that throwing a ball was a violent act. After I got her to throw the ball as hard as she could against a fence, she burst into tears. In that moment I understood that the barriers keeping some people from believing that they belong in the sports arena are almost tangible. It felt like my friend shattered the sports equivalent of a glass ceiling.

That experience convinced me to volunteer as a skills coach for the league instead of playing. I found that teaching people the basics of the game is as rewarding as playing it. It has also deepened my desire to help people reconnect with sports, especially those who felt excluded in gym class or sports in general as children. I created a workshop focusing on people who were chosen last in sports as kids and have talked to many adults, mostly gay men and lesbians, about their childhood sports experiences of feeling rejected.

"Gym class was a place of humiliation," a woman named Barbara told me, and she learned to avoid it as much as possible. According to a fellow named Allen, his lack of athletic skills and knowledge led to physical and verbal abuse and the clear message that he that didn't belong. "The feeling of being unwanted was crushing," he said. For Gary, a yoga teacher, "The number 1 humiliation in my life was playing baseball." A typical scene, he said, involved him "holding the glove in front of my face, having the ball hit my glove, the glove hit my face, and the ball drop out of my glove--and me cry on the field."

Many people believe time heals childhood trauma, but for most of the people I've talked to, it hadn't. Healing requires commitment and a willingness to explore old feelings in a supportive environment.

In children's sports today, the focus is shifting from competition to cooperation, and physical education standards have been instituted to make sure that as many children as possible develop a healthy attitude toward lifelong physical activity. These changes bode well for the future, but it does not help adults who went through sports hell years ago.

In 2005, I met out television and film director Victor Mignatti, who was looking for a sports coach. Mignatti believed that "the more I could push my comfort zone in the sports arena, the more I could do it in my career." He grew up in suburban Philadelphia, and his lack of interest in sports was something his parents and peers noticed early on. Other kids told him he threw like a girl, so he avoided sports that involved throwing. He remembered being chosen last many times, the last occasion during a ninth-grade dodgeball game. After that he became skilled at avoiding gym class.

Mignatti and I met three times in Prospect Park, starting out by throwing a soft Spider-Man ball. I broke down the components of throwing and catching, and we worked on each part separately, eventually putting them together into one motion. As we progressed to a softball and then a baseball, he talked about his relationship with sports. The biggest issue, he said, was that the pressure to learn to play sports "ruined an experience that should have been fun."

He talked about working with a personal trainer at Crunch, who one day threw a medicine ball at him, invoking memories of P.E. class. "I had no choice but to throw the ball back," he remembered. "So there I was playing catch in the gym in front of everyone. It was a truly major experience in my life," one that led him to want to challenge himself further.

Since then Mignatti's attitude toward sports has changed dramatically. "I wish I hadn't been pressured so much by the gym teacher or my peers in school so that I could have learned to appreciate the purity of athletics," he said. "I've started to understand why men love sports so much. Repetitive motion keeps me from being depressed, and it gets me immediately out of my head."

Sports reenacts tribal warfare, from face paint to fight songs. The problem starts when it is used to wage war against women and gay men or simply those who are smaller, slower, or less coordinated. Throughout sports history, brave people like Jackie Robinson have knocked down barriers, leading sports into ever-widening circles of inclusion. Former professional basketball player John Amaechi has done a great deal to shift the mainstream closer to the side of acceptance by having the courage to come out as a gay man after a successful career in the National Basketball Association.

Over the years I've encouraged everyone that I've talked to about this topic to challenge their beliefs and try to move through them. Many have done just that. Today, Gary, the yoga teacher who considered baseball the most humiliating experience of his life, is about to start his third season playing for his church softball team in Minnesota. Barbara is planning to try out for her local women's softball league this year.

The lost language of kickball is that small voice that says, "You belong in the tribe." From a girl playing kickball with the boys, a lesbian joining a softball league for the first time, or a gay man discovering his inner athlete, we all have a place in today's sports world, if we want it. We just have to step up to the plate and kick as hard as we can.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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