By Emma Coakley
Emma graduated from the University of Louisville in 2016 with degrees in Anthropology, Political Science, and Sustainable Agriculture. Emma is now working at Scheller’s Fitness & Cycling in Louisville, Kentucky.
I will never forget the first time someone called me a lesbian to bully me in middle school. A few boys would ask me why I never had a boyfriend and would scoff at me, my unshaven legs, unibrow, plaid shorts, and loudly exclaim, “Emma is a lesbian. Have you even kissed a boy?” Truth be told, I had not, but I was determined to never be the “lesbian” they thought I was. It became a dirty word. Throughout middle and high school I tried my hardest to like only boys. I put myself through abusive relationships with boys to show my middle school bullies I was not the masculine “dyke” I now take pride in sometimes presenting as. Ignoring the feelings I had for more than one woman I knew in both high school and college, I put myself through hell so I could perpetuate the perfect student-athlete-straight-A’s-straight-girl lifestyle. I did not want to be at the table where the queer kids sat in high school. People were ruthless to them. I convinced myself that was not me. I stuck in my identity as ‘athlete’ and their jabs wore off over time.
I have always been and will always be an athlete. Competition is in my bones and fire is in my heart. You cannot let stray thoughts about gender identity and who you are attracted to get in the way of athletic goals. In today’s society, getting lost in figuring yourself out can suck you away from the sport(s) you love. So I pretended. I pretended some more, I pretended through a successful high school swimming career and partially through a collegiate swimming career. I know I am not the only one who was pretending, but it was not quite acceptable to like girls in such an intimate setting as sports in a state like Kentucky. I was lucky to have a few teammates let me know that not being straight was okay. I finally outed myself to many people I knew my last year in college after nearly a decade of knowing and cowering from the truth.
Fast-forward a few years into adulthood. I now compete as a triathlete and cyclist. It is an exciting new challenge. This year I had the opportunity to represent Team USA at the International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Triathlon Championships in Pontevedra, Spain. At the start of the year, the ITU decided to add in its bylaws that flags depicting “sexual orientation” were not allowed at any ITU race. I was happy to see many athletes criticizing this ban, but severely underprepared for the amount of fellow triathletes agreeing with the ban. In my queer eyes, the ITU wanted to rid the competition of rainbow flags. Our identities were being erased as queer athletes. If we had a rainbow flag at a race, we would risk disqualification. In my bags packed for Spain, I made sure to include a Philly pride flag. If my community was at risk of being erased at an international level, I would make sure that we would still be seen.
Fortunately the ITU reversed their decision on a ban of flags depicting orientation at ITU events mere days after first releasing it. However, their decision and reversal still set a dangerous precedent. I do not want to speak on behalf of all athletes identifying as LGBTQ+, but attempting to ban rainbow flags feels like an absolute attack on us. We do not feel welcome or celebrated. Because of this, I brought my flag anyway. I planned to run across the finish line of my first Cross Triathlon World Championships shrouded in rainbows. Representation is ridiculously important for marginalized communities. If I did not have teammates in college and coworkers to look up to and feel safe with, I could still be unhappy and ashamed to be queer. There would be countless cases of people ashamed and closeted because they saw no representation, no people like themselves. Maybe some way, somehow a triathlete somewhere would see a rainbow flag running across an ITU finish line and realize that loving who they love is okay.
In 2019, there are A LOT of “out” athletes that are paving the way for the rest of us amateurs. Of these athletes, most are white and most are cis-gender. Our society still upholds whiteness and cis-genderness as the epitome of the American athlete. We have such a long, uphill battle ahead of us in not only leveling the playing field but getting the fear-based hate out of people’s hearts. It is more integral than ever to make safe spaces for queer athletes, trans athletes, and LGBTQ+ athletes of color. They must know they are loved and accepted. They must know that so many people look up to them. They must know so many people see them. Our voices must be elevated, and those of us with greater privilege must elevate those voices with less. As Pride month winds down and the glitter stops falling, we must still continue to rise up against hate and educate as best as we can. We do not stop being queer at the end of June. We are queer all year round. This is such a pivotal point in history that it is imperative we choose the right side. Love is the right side. Love is love, after all.