I Reconnected With Sports as an Adult to Reclaim Queer Joy

Photos by Fred Paul Goris on behalf of Gatorade

“I’m a grown woman,” I whispered as I grabbed a basketball off the rack. To calm down, I started dribbling, not yet ready to approach the net. It’d been almost 15 years since I’d been on a basketball court, and I felt like I was back in gym class.

I groaned inwardly; why didn’t I sign up for Pilates? Instead, I was preparing to run up and down a court – on purpose. In March, I signed up for a “basketball fitness class” to answer a question that had haunted me since I came out of the closet in my early 20s.

To display masculinity as a teen girl was as grave a sin as queerness.

If I could deny a massive part of my identity for so long, what else had I denied myself? In the last few years, I’ve experienced countless moments of queer joy I’d never allowed myself as a kid. So in that same vein, I wanted to know what would happen if I embraced an old hobby that I had once deemed too dangerous.

I wanted to know: what would happen if I played sports again?

Growing up, I was tall – so adults encouraged me to try out for every sport. Coaches would stop me at my school locker, and friends’ parents would remark on my broad shoulders. It was clear that athletics was one of the only acceptable reasons to be tall – to take up space – as a middle-school girl. When I made the basketball team in eighth grade, I was ecstatic.

Until I met my new teammate Alex.

My inexplicable unease around Alex started during one of our first practices together. She placed her hand on my shoulder, smiled, and said something I don’t remember. But that physical touch vibrated through my whole body. She was a “touchy-feely” person, and the other girls on the team picked up on it quickly.

“Alex is a little weird, don’t you think?” my teammate Anita asked me during a water break a few weeks into the season. I looked over to where Alex was practicing free throws.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she’s a little too comfortable in the locker room, if you ask me,” Anita said before lowering her voice to a whisper. “Do you think she’s gay?”

The sweat from practice started cooling my skin, causing me to shiver. Of course, I thought Alex was gay. I just knew it about her. It was the same way I knew I was queer, even if I never dared to say it out loud.

I concluded that I needed to quit basketball to stay closeted.

Unfortunately, Anita wasn’t the only person to pay attention to Alex and what she represented. The girls’ basketball team was starting to develop a particular reputation among our peers. Why didn’t we have boyfriends? Why were we so comfortable wearing baggy basketball shorts? As if any of this equated to revealing our sexuality.

Growing up in the Bible Belt, sports were placed in a category for boys and men. To display masculinity as a teen girl was as grave a sin as queerness. The math felt simple. Remove any association with masculinity, and I was promised safety.

But by who? Yes, I was in central Texas, but this social contract went deeper than religion. We all felt the tightening of the belt during our teenage years, regardless of where we lived. Uniformity was the goal. To fit in has always been a method of survival.

I concluded that I needed to quit basketball to stay closeted. At 14, what could be more important than maintaining this secret? “I would have poisoned myself if I thought it would transform me into a smaller animal,” Melissa Febos writes in “Girlhood.” To accept my queerness at this time was the equivalent of describing myself as bestial.

Leaving sports didn’t happen overnight. I finished out the season but devised a plan that I would enter high school as a new person. I daydreamed about becoming a cheerleader. In pop culture, they represented the perfect femme all girls should strive to be. Instead, I pivoted to the tennis team when I discovered the uniform included a skort. How could I be gay if I wore a skirt to practice?

But I worried it wasn’t enough distance. I began to spin a narrative that I hated sports. And eventually, I started to believe it.

In the basketball fitness class, I looked around the court to take in the other adults who’d decided to spend their Tuesday evening here on the court. No one looked like they were heading to the NBA soon, so I relaxed. I took a deep breath, bounced the ball twice, and aimed for the basket.

Swish! And a miss.

I looked around the court, but no one noticed me. So I tried again and hit the rim. Huh, I was getting somewhere. Eventually, I was making a couple shots, which unlocked a thrill I hadn’t experienced in a long time. The instructor said, “Gather around!” in a booming voice reminiscent of my middle-school coach.

He broke us into small teams for shooting competitions. The low stakes allowed me to loosen up. My face was tomato red from running around, but I forgot to care. I watched two players flirt with each other and smiled. It was all the best parts of recess without any of the pains of puberty.

When the hour was up, I felt enough momentum to keep going. It didn’t wholly loosen the grip internal homophobia had on me, but reconnecting with sports sparked curiosity. It was the same curiosity that drove me to kiss a girl, experiment with gender expression, and search for community.

Until my 20s, my identity never felt like a natural formation. Instead, my sense of self was carved out within the context of survival, regardless of how real that threat was. When childhood feels like a jungle, there is no room for fun and games.

But after that first basketball class, I was insatiable for opportunities to explore my relationship with sports outside the context of my childhood. So I took it further and volunteered to sub for my friend’s volleyball league. It was a sport I had never played, so it was fresh ground.

Putting myself in such a physical environment gave me a unique perspective to see myself. I liked knowing my interests and identity can be as fluid as my sexuality.

The morning of my first volleyball game, I felt the panic seep in. Again, my inner child berated me for these wild decisions. What was I thinking? I didn’t even know the rules! I fought back the urge to cancel, watched a brief tutorial on YouTube, and pulled on my Phoebe Bridgers T-shirt for comfort.

When I arrived at the gym, I again found myself surrounded by laid-back adults who were simply there to have fun. My team introduced themselves, and I focused on being my best for them. The referee blew the whistle, and I slipped into the bliss of distraction. My eyes were on the ball, my fingers alert, my knees bent in anticipation. And then, after some embarrassing stumbles and encouraging high-fives, it was over.

The adrenaline of trying something new overshadowed any self-doubt I’d felt going into the game. And while personal growth doesn’t always have to be this sweaty, putting myself in such a physical environment gave me a unique perspective to see myself. I liked knowing my interests and identity can be as fluid as my sexuality.

I thought about this as I walked off the volleyball court. I was chugging down some water when I felt a hand on my shoulder. A familiar zing went through my body as I looked over to see one of the players from the opposing team.

“Good game,” she said, faking a stern voice. I laughed and asked if she had done anything like this before.

She smiled and admitted that she was a cheerleader in high school, and my heartbeat quickened. I watched her take me in: my Phoebe Bridgers T-shirt, septum nose piercing, and shag haircut. I was no longer hiding who I was, but I braced myself for the judgment.

“Now I’m on a queer cheer squad,” she added with a knowing smile. The 14-year-old in me blushed, and I let her have her moment. She’d earned it.

Together, my inner child and I discovered that playing, the act of play, is a vulnerability many adults have written off as childish. But to me, playing is an effort to time travel – not necessarily to revert back to my childhood self but instead to leap dimensions. To find a space in time when gravity is the only thing holding me back from the perfect lay-up.

Will I spend my future Saturdays tuned into March Madness? Probably not. My renewed interest in sports is more about connecting my body to this small form of rebellion. And maybe in this portal between space and time, I’ll find Alex and Anita, and we’ll play together, and nothing will be that serious.

It’s just a game, after all.

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