The sun was always warm but never hot as it set over Lake Royal on our Wednesday night soccer practices. I was only seventeen, not quite sure what to do as head coach of the Red Barons, a group of enthusiastic five and six year olds who were as excited about being at soccer practice as they were about the rest of the world. The Red Barons, five girls and three boys, would run through their drills having lots of fun even though they didn’t really understand why they were doing drills in the first place but knowing that the promised scrimmage (or “real soccer,” as they called it) was coming at the end of practice. I would play with them and chase after their stray shots to keep the tiny, size three soccer balls from floating away in the lake or being stolen by ornery geese. Their parents were excited, too; they could be found sitting on the sidelines in lawn chairs and on picnic blankets chatting eagerly with each other about their days and their young soccer stars.
I was always nervous about what the parents would think of me, being that I was still a high school student, that I had never quite grown out of being a “tom-boy,” and that I was coaching their impressionable young children. Adults in general made me uncomfortable as I got older; I liked being the parent-friendly kid with good manners that my friends’ parents did not mind having around. As it became clearer and clearer that I was never going to grow out of being a “tom-boy” and that it became clearer and clearer that I was their son’s or daughter’s “gay friend,” I worried about what it would do to my parent-friendly reputation. I know that there is nothing wrong with being gay and that the last thing I should be doing is feeling guilty about it, but I could not help but shake that feeling that these kids’ parents would figure out that I was gay and start thinking of me as some evil pervert.
I just loved soccer. It should not even be a “gay” issue. Why did something so simple as soccer have me questioning myself so much? People do not have an issue with the “gay thing” as long as I keep my mouth shut. Don’t ask, don’t tell. That’s the way the world works. It is the “tom boy” thing that makes people uncomfortable, that makes me tell without ever saying a word. The formal word for it is gender variance. Being a gender variant individual is what gets me thrown out of public bathrooms and what makes me fear for my soccer moms’ and dads’ approval.
I did not, however, fear for my team’s approval. They were eager to learn the basics of soccer. I was more real than Mia Hamm or David Beckham and therefore better. At the ages of five and six, it did not matter that I was only seventeen. They thought I was thirty years old, at least. They certainly did not assume that I was gay. To them, I was Coach Felicia. That is all that mattered.
Once I got over being dumbfounded by the fact that it was me, in fact, that had to run practice and come up with the drills, I loved every second of it. Wednesdays were my favorite day of the week. I had certainly never looked forward to my own soccer practices over the years as much as I did to the ones with the Red Barons. It was an hour of life where I could be myself and combine two activities that I loved into one: playing soccer and working with kids. I came up with my own drills and I also had the chance to bring back some of the more enjoyable drills that had fallen by the wayside in my own soccer career as I had gotten older. I taught the kids how to do throw-ins, goal kicks, corner kicks, and all those essential parts of soccer. My favorite part, however, was talking about my team’s days had gone and having other meaningful discussions with them.
I have found over the years that talking with young children is one of my favorite pastimes. One can talk to a child about anything in the world if it can be simplified down to the child’s terms. Sometimes in trying to tell a child about a problem that I was having, I would break it down and realize that it was hardly anything that I should be worrying about at all. The other wonderful thing about talking with young children is that they are never afraid to ask about exactly what they want to know.
“Why do you wear boy’s clothes?” Lydia, one of the Red Barons, asked me one day.
I froze. What do I say? I certainly was not about to go into an explanation of gender identity, the gender binary, and how I do not fit in it, even though that is exactly what had been occupying my mind lately. I thought for a second and quickly came to an answer. Or rather, I came to a question.
“Why do you wear girl’s clothes?” I inquired.
It was her turn to think. She looked up to the sky as she twirled her finger in her gigantic mass of curly brown hair.
“Because,” she replied, “they’re comfortable.”
“Well, that’s exactly why I wear boy’s clothes.” I said.
It was as simple as that. Lydia continued on with her drill, accepting my answer with no hesitation.
Another day at practice, we were finally getting around to our habitual “real soccer.” I was setting up the cones for makeshift sidelines and goals when I started thinking about how to split up the teams since we were missing one boy and one girl that day. In order to make the teams even, I decided that it would be the girls against the boys and me. I figured I could probably count for two Red Barons and make the teams even without making one of the girls be “on the boys’ team.”
I called out to end the water break and announced that it would be boys against girls with me playing on the boys’ team.
“But you’re not a boy!” Zach informed me.
“I know, but this way the teams will be even.” I told him.
It was at this time that the conversation went on without me as the Red Barns began to talk amongst themselves.
“Well,” Stephanie contemplated, “she does have short hair.”
“That’s because she has a Mohawk!” David protested. I did not have a Mohawk; I had a faux-hawk, a close relative of the Mohawk that involves more hair.
“No she doesn’t! A Mohawk has dots on the side. She has more hair.” Zach argued. I am assuming that by dots he was implying that the sides of my head needed to be shaved to qualify for the full blown Mohawk.
It was then that Lydia looked up at me and simply stated, “You’re weird.”
I laughed and we went on with the scrimmage. Not another thought was given to how my gender may or may not be determined by my hair that may or may not be a Mohawk. I chuckled to myself on the drive home.
I was glad to have the break of the soccer practices. It was a chance to get away from the heavy load of schoolwork as I neared the end of senior year as well as the thoughts that had been weighing heavy in my head about gender. I knew I did not fit into traditional gender roles; I had known that much for a while. I was trying to figure out how I could possibly manage to fit into this binary world in a way without completely alienating myself. I struggled to find allies I could talk to. Much of the world is unready or unwilling to think about gender critically. It is a system far too ingrained in society to be something to be messing around with. That was precisely my problem.
As I spent more time out in the world by myself, the fact that my gender ambiguity made people uncomfortable became more apparent. When I went to Starbucks to grab a latte, the barista would go back and forth between gender pronouns feeling embarrassed, apologizing profusely, and then forgetting my drink order. I would smile and reassure him that it was fine but I could not help feeling a little like it was my fault that I had embarrassed him so much.
I also developed a fear of public bathrooms, even within my own school. There is no place where it is more terrible to transgress gender norms than in bathrooms, it turns out. I have only been thrown out of one bathroom so far and barred entrance from another, but I learned quickly that I was not welcome in the deeply female world of the women’s bathroom. My entrance into the bathroom has often caused silence accompanied by horrified stares that were followed by snickers and loud discussion of whether or not I was in the wrong bathroom once I went into a stall. I learned which bathrooms in my high school were nearly always empty. I often walked across the school to use the bathroom in the music wing because I knew most of the people in band and was less likely to run into an uncomfortable situation.
As I got my identity more clearly into focus, the world around me seemed to start spinning out of control. Gender, I learned, dictates everything. Being ambiguous in appearance, and worse, actions made me an instant outcast wherever I went. I started to fear meeting new people, like my soccer parents, because I did not want to deal with their silent judgment and often awkward exchanges.
Toward the end of the soccer season, my hair had started to get too long to put up into its faux-hawk and I started wearing a hat to practice to keep my hair out of my eyes. The first day I wore a hat, I was shooting some goals with the kids who had come early while we waited for everyone else to arrive.
Zach, from far away, yelled out, “Who’s that boy?” He didn’t recognize me in the hat. I said nothing, waiting for him to get closer.
“You’re not a boy,” he yelled out once he recognized me. “You’re just Coach Felicia.”
I smiled. He understood me. They all did. Here, in the world of the Red Barons who were too new in this deeply gendered world to be made uncomfortable by my gender nonconformity, I was just Coach Felicia.