By: Genessee Daughetee Puntigam, Athlete Ally Ambassador & pro soccer player
If you asked me 20 years ago what my life would look like today, I would have never imagined I’d be a professional soccer player living in Germany, married to an Austrian woman and living unapologetically as my most authentic self.
From a very young age, I felt like a walking contradiction. Unbeknownst to me at the time, growing up in conservative Orange County, California, I lived a very privileged life. But as I grew older and began to develop my sense of self, I realized I was different in more ways than one. I am a bi-racial woman that identifies as lesbian. My childhood and early adolescence was beautiful in the sense that nothing was missing. I had everything I wanted: a loving family, opportunities to play sports, the ability to travel, and more. But as I grew older and shedded my sense of naïveté and bliss, I became acutely aware of my own behavioral “differences” and the micro-aggressions directed at me. From an outsider’s perspective, my awkward insecurities appeared as normal growing pains. No one imagined the immense struggle and internal war being waged within myself. It started first with my physical appearance of having darker skin and a curlier hair texture, and later developed into the shame and guilt of navigating my sexuality. I always questioned the “normality” of myself, asking, Why did God make me this way?
During high school, I experienced my first relationship with a woman. It was a total secret. For the first time, I felt true contentment. I was excelling in my sport and gained a full scholarship to play D1 soccer at UC Berkeley. During my college freshman year, I had a soft “coming out” to my family and best friend, but at the start of the season, I was still “straight” to everyone else. As the season progressed and I got my bearings as a player, I felt comfortable. Berkeley is a very open environment. I felt freedom participating in Gay Pride, joining allyship clubs and eventually fully coming out to my peers and teammates. All of the fears that festered in me as a child, slowly began to wash away. By graduation, my then-girlfriend and I won “best couple” at the UC Berkeley’s end of year Sports Awards. To this day it is one of my proudest moments. It also gives me joy to know now that UC Berkeley is one of the schools that received a perfect 100 on Athlete Ally’s Athletic Equality Index, a ranking of LGBTQI-inclusive athletic department policies and practices.
A couple months after graduation, I accepted my first pro contract playing in France. I was coming into a new environment, with a new language, and all alone for the first time in my life. I was on a high from my success in college and was hoping to make the same waves in Europe. But, I quickly found out that France would not be as accepting of me. There were a handful of English-speaking players on the team. I quickly grew close with one teammate who is still in my life today and one of my best friends. Our relationship was strictly platonic, but a rumor spread to the president of the club that she and I were dating. I received a very intense phone call from my agent warning me to stay away from my best friend because people believed we were more than friends. He said that people would get the wrong idea and that the club does not want any couples on the team. He also said that we were a distraction and sending the wrong message to the fans.
This was a pivotal moment for me. Everything I previously feared regarding judgements and rumors that could seriously impact my livelihood, was happening. My self confidence plummeted. I obsessed over the thought that I was just a distraction. I got nervous to go to team events and my performance on the team took a nosedive. My play time fell and I didn’t want to go to practice. Soccer was no longer my happy place, it was something I dreaded everyday.
This season, my wife and I will have the same name on the back of our jerseys and an overwhelming sense of pride on our backs.Genessee Daughetee Puntigam
Now, 5 years later, I play for a club that celebrates who I am. I met my wife and we both play for FC Köln in Germany. I had been searching for a place that would only judge me by game performance and not by who I choose to love. This season, my wife and I will have the same name on the back of our jerseys and an overwhelming sense of pride on our backs.
Ask any athlete under what conditions they perform the best, and I can guarantee the answer will always include when they have the most confidence. I’m proud to join Athlete Ally as an Ambassador and spread the message that every athlete should be able to play and live freely, without the heaviness of shame and guilt weighing them down. Life is a tumultuous ride for everyone. For LGBTQI+ athletes, being public about the love of your life shouldn’t be a burden, and sports should be for all!
Photos courtesy of Genessee Daughetee Puntigam.
Learn more about the Athletic Equality Index here.
Want to receive stories like this in your inbox? Sign up here.