Grace Lilly recently had the opportunity to chat with ESPN columnist and feature writer Kate Fagan about coming out and faith. This is the fourth installment in a series of interviews with experts, parents, and LGBTQ kids. In the coming months, we will be speaking with more parents, experts, and youth about their various experiences and perspectives.
Tell me a little bit about yourself: Where are you from? What do you do?
Kate: I grew up in upstate New York, right outside of Albany, and left to play college basketball at the University of Colorado from 1999 to 2003. Then I decided I wanted to be a writer/journalist, because no one can just sit around being a “writer”—it doesn’t pay much. So I jumped around the country working at a bunch of different small newspapers. And then about two and a half to three years ago, I started at ESPN. So now I work through ESPN. I do mostly columns for them. And I live in Brooklyn.
Can you briefly describe your upbringing and family life?
Kate: I grew up with one sister who’s only a year older, and we were really close. She’s a cross-country runner. Both my parents are alive and still together and we’re kind of from a big Irish Catholic family, pretty close-knit, in upstate New York. Basketball was our big family sport and we would all go to each others’ games. We had a really, really fun childhood. And I thought my parents were the coolest people ever. I have very good memories of my first 18 years on this planet.
You spoke about your Christian peers who would stress that they were not judging gay people, but who would at the same time make statements like, “the life she has chosen is ungodly.” What advice can you give to parents who witness or receive this sort of judgment toward their LGBTQ kids, and who feel equally feel uncomfortable with it?
Kate: I think there’s so much judgment everywhere and for me, the judgment that was the hardest to understand and to hear were from people who I truly cared about and who I thought cared about me. So my advice to parents (if they themselves are not Christian parents, and that’s a whole different question) is to make it clear that those are people with belief systems who are coming at things from a different perspective and that that’s not acceptable for them and that they raised their child whole-heartedly. Because as a parent you always want to think you can protect your kid from judgment and hardship. It’s just not going to happen, but all you can do is make sure that when you’re in their presence, you are making it clear how much you love who they are.
Knowing what you know now, looking back on your struggle to “choose” between your faith and your sexual orientation, what would you tell your former self?
Kate: I think the one thing that I learned now that I didn’t know then is that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Because of the Christians I was around and the feedback I was getting, I genuinely did not think I could be both. I could not be gay and Christian. It was like you had to make a decision to be one or the other. So I would tell my former self that the Christians I was around were not the only brand, and that if I was faced with something that was truly important to me, that I — my former self — could find a place of worship that was embracing of LGBTQ people. That those places do exist and those Christians do exist. I don’t think faith was ever for me—I think I’m kind of too critical of a thinker and too cynical at times. So I don’t think it would have lasted no matter what, but I think there are a lot of young people out there who are yearning to have faith and would like to be reinforced that it’s possible to keep your LGBTQ identity and also your faith identity.
Do you have any tips on having a respectful relationship/friendship with someone whose faith opposes your sexual or gender orientation?
Kate: I think there are levels of friendships and there are circles that you keep as a person. Some people are allowed as close to your heart as possible, some people are on the periphery, and some people are in the middle. I think it would be solid advice to say that you should always keep that in mind that, for this kind of person, this is part of their belief system—so that you’re not hurt when things are said. And this person might suggest that certain things you do aren’t right. I’ve never been able to get to a place where somebody close to me who was faith-based truly was fundamentalist and believed that being gay was wrong. They could never be too close to me. I could certainly be friends with them, but they are never going to be in my inner circle. And that’s not to say that somebody else couldn’t do it, but I think you have to be cognizant of how your friends can hurt you. And to me that was always a non-starter. As much as it’s advice, it’s also just like, keep your eyes open. Friends can hurt you. It’s hard to have friends who you know can hurt you before they do it. Most of my friends just inadvertently do things that hurt me. They don’t present this one thing that can cut straight to my heart. So just have your eyes open.
In your book, you said, “I wanted my mom back. I wanted her to say, ‘I love you no matter what,’ because nobody else had said that yet, and I was starting to believe no one ever would” (164). Can you offer parents of LGBTQ children some insight into the importance of providing this kind of support?
Kate: I think there are so many factors at play when you hear that your child identifies as LGBTQ. And some of the pressures that weigh on you are societal, socially-constructed and you worry how people will react, what people will think or say. And I know that can cloud your immediate reaction to your child. And that’s a very real thing, social judgement, but my advice would be try to be in that moment and realize that even that initial reaction of unconditional love will be so soothing and will stick with them for years if your reaction is pure, accepting, unconditional love. Of course there are going to be challenges as you move forward; there always are. Whether you’re LGBTQ or not. That initial moment of just seeing your child as somebody who just needs your support in that moment I think is something that parents really need to keep in mind.
Can you tell us a little bit about the difference in climate between being an athlete when you were in college, and the climate now?
Kate: I think the climate for LGBTQ people in sports has certainly gotten much, much better in the past 10 years. I think we’re in a place now where if you do identify as LGBTQ, you can look up and see people like you. In the trans community you can see Fallon Fox and there are people in sports media who are trans. And I think we’ve gotten to a place where a lot of kids can feel like they can still excel at their sport and there’s still a possibility they can be whatever it is they picture in their mind, even as identifying as LGBTQ. I do think that there are plenty of hurdles still left, and I think especially in women’s sports there’s still a lot of fear about being open publicly because nobody wants to reinforce the stereotype that all female athletes are gay. So there are all these different issues in women’s sports, and in men’s sports, we’ve kind of swung the pendulum to like, “Oh look, Jason Collins came out and Michael Sam. And look how big and tough they are.” And that kind of reinforces this idea of breaking a stereotype, but still there are certain places in men’s sports where somebody who maybe reinforces male stereotypes—are they accepted? So we have like pockets of places around sports where you still don’t know what the reception will be for you and whether you will truly be accepted. We’ve come a long way, but I still think there are sports that still need their first gay athlete to come out. There are administrative positions, ownership positions, positions of power where there still need to be people who identify as LGBTQ before we’ll really feel like it’s a safer environment.
Have you felt that your sexuality in any way has helped or hindered your pursuits, either as an athlete or as a professional writer?
Kate: In a very abstract way, I think it’s helped. I think any writer wants to be able to connect with the human experience and feel empathy for people. And I think that growing up somewhat privileged and being white in our society and growing up in a family that didn’t have a ton of resources but had enough—I certainly had the ability to dream whatever I wanted to dream. Realizing that I’m gay was the first case of being marginalized, and I think in the beginning it can feel like it’s going to hinder you. But I’ve come to a place where I feel like I can relate better to people. I feel like I have a better ability to be vulnerable, I have a better ability to understand when people are hurting. And in that way — I mean, I like being gay — but in addition, I also think it’s kind of helped open my eyes to the human experience and be able to write about it with more empathy. So that’s how it’s helped me. And as far as sports, it never really mattered, just because in that particular arena, it’s kind of like, “Oh, you throw the ball in the air and it doesn’t matter.” But as far as writing, I really genuinely think it’s helped.
Kate Fagan is a columnist and feature writer for espnW, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Previously, Fagan spent three seasons covering the 76ers for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work was cited in the anthology of Best American Sports Writing 2013, and she has also been featured on Longreads, a site that curates the best in long-form journalism and fiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Check out Kate’s book, The Reappearing Act, here!