By: Emma Coolen, player with SC Woeznik, former pro player with K.S.K. Heist, and Athlete Ally Ambassador
Those were the four words I wrote on a white T-shirt with a thick, black permanent marker. I was 15 years old, and after having been madly in love with a teammate of mine for the past two years and coming to the conclusion that I liked girls, I had decided it was time to come out. So I sat up in my bed, in the middle of the night, and wrote those words on a T-shirt. The next day, I would wear the shirt first to school, then to football practice, and it was done. Everybody knew.
Quite often, in the eleven years that have passed since then, people praise me when I share the story of how I came out. ‘That is so brave!’ they tend to say. And while I of course appreciate their support, the decision to come out in the way that I did came from something completely different than bravery. It came from pure laziness.
I’d spent the past two years coming to terms with the fact that I liked girls, and when I was ready to share that with the world, I didn’t feel like having long, difficult conversations with every single person in my life explaining that no, it wasn’t a phase. So I wore the shirt.
The fact that I was able to come out like that, and have received nothing but acceptance and support from my friends, family, and teammates, is of course in large parts due to the country I live in, The Netherlands, and the sport I’m in, women’s football. It’s the one sport where being gay is not only accepted, it’s actually completely normal. In fact, as the stereotype that I like to joke about goes: as a female footballer, being gay is simply what’s expected of you.
As with most stereotypes, the reality is of course a lot more nuanced than that. But I do see myself as extremely lucky in that for me, both in my sport and in my personal life, I’ve never faced any negative consequences from being openly gay. And I am also very aware that this is sadly still quite a unique position to be in, even in 2020.
For quite some time, I struggled with the ‘guilt’ of being in such a privileged position. Why did I, of all people, get so lucky that in the country I live in, the schools I go to, the friends and family that I have, even in the sport I love more than anything else, I could always be myself, openly and proudly so, while there are people in other places in the world that are forced to stay in the closet, or even face terrible consequences if they were to speak up on who they love?
Over the past few years, I’ve realized that feeling guilty about how lucky I got not only doesn’t help me, it also does absolutely nothing for the people who are struggling. That’s why I decided that the least thing I could do is be open. Be myself, proudly so, and share my story. It’s not going to change the world overnight, but it’s a start. Being in women’s football, where being gay is so accepted, even normal, is wonderful. But it’s an experience that I wish many more people, whatever their gender, whatever their sport, could have.
As I tend to say: can women’s football learn a lot from the men, when it comes to technical skills, tactical ability, and physical fitness? Absolutely. But can men’s football learn a lot from us when it comes to the acceptance of LGBTQIA+ players? Absolutely.
When I was 20 years old, I had never played higher than the lowest Dutch amateur level, the 8th tier. One day, when I was in Sweden, I saw my first ever women’s professional football match, a UEFA Women’s Champions League game between Tyresö FF and Danish side Fortuna Hjörring. There, I got so inspired by some of the incredible athletes on the pitch, including USWNT’s Christen Press, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, that I decided I wanted to become a professional footballer myself. Since then, I have changed my life completely, moved up through the ranks of football, have played abroad for four years, including a spell playing in the highest league in Belgium for K.S.K. Heist, and I’m currently at SC Woezik, in the Dutch second tier. My entire life changed on that one day, and I, like no other, have experienced how life-changing it can be to feel truly inspired.
That’s why I couldn’t be more excited to be an Athlete Ally Ambassador and join an amazing group of people who are all fighting for the same goal: a world where one day, everyone can be themselves. A world where anyone can wear a T-shirt to school encouraging people to celebrate their gayness. Because being truly yourself should always be a cause for celebration.
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