At thirty-years-old, I continue to pride myself in the gender work that I do in academia and in the community. I teach two introductory women’s studies courses; one as an assistant instructor at Barnard, and the other at an urban after-school community center. I have a master’s degree in Women’s Studies. I’ve written about gender inequality countless times before. I’ve held my own in discussions about gender discrimination at conferences, dinner tables, and Twitter streams. I do this work everyday. I don’t expect accolades for what I do or for who I am. What I do expect, however, is that after a long day of studying, writing, teaching, and talking about gender discrimination, I can go to a community gym and play ball with guys without my gender being an issue.
So why, on Monday night, was I crying because some skinny ‘white’ guy with a clipboard questioned my ability to play basketball?
I’ve always been that tough girl who stayed on the court after being told “your attitude problem is unbecoming for a girl” or told to “leave that gender equality shit off the court.” I usually respond by trash talking or by scoring multiple jumpers on dudes with sexist commentary. I’ve laughed it off. I’ve also gotten into my share of verbal fights with guys who have disrespected me on the court simply because I have a vagina and wear a sports bra.
Upon approaching the entrance of an NYC public school that hosts a local intramural basketball league, I did not expect that I would be interrogated about why I’m there and patronized because I showed up.
“I’m here to play.” I said.
Hesitant to give me the pen to sign my name, the skinny ‘white’ guy with the clipboard looked at me puzzled and asked, “What is your skill level?” Never mind that I had already filled out this information and paid my registration fee via the league’s website a week ago. I thought I was where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there.
I responded, “Why do you ask?”
“You know there is a co-ed league that plays tomorrow. Were you on that email list? You should be on that email list.”
“Why would I be on a co-ed email list when I signed up to play with my friends in the men’s league tonight?”
This was the first time this young man met me. He had never seen me play. He barely knew my name. Still, he questioned my skill level based on the lone observation that I was female. He looked as uncomfortable as I was annoyed. But that annoyance soon turned into embarrassment as a line of guys in sweat pants and hoodies began to form behind me.
“Are you suggesting that I can’t play tonight because I’m female?” I couldn’t believe I just asked that question out loud. It sounded so bizarre. It was as if I was teleported back to a time before Title IX was enacted. Are these the kinds of questions our mothers and aunts had to ask? When I returned home I checked the league’s website about rules and regulations. According to the site, “Currently all games are for men only. If there is enough demand we will create a Women’s group.” I did not know about this rule upon being invited by my male friends to play. They did not know about this rule either. We just wanted to play together like we always have.
The guy mumbled something that suggested I would be more comfortable playing on the co-ed league. I just wanted to leave after that. Then I remembered what my dad would have said to me, “The hell with him! Go play.” Encouraged by my father’s imaginary words, I proceeded to the gym swallowing the knots of anger and shame that welled up in my throat.
I didn’t realize right away what just happened because I never experienced anything like this before in intramural basketball. Granted, I, along with countless other high school and college female athletes, have endured institutional gender discrimination manifested through pompous athletic directors, arrogant coaches, and opposing fans. And yes, I’ve taken sexist crap from guys on the court, but at least it was left on the court for me to confront directly with my athletic ability and witty comebacks. Yet, it took a skinny ‘white’ guy with a clipboard to take everything out of me.
My entire body deflated as I walked into the gym. I had nothing. No energy. No motivation to play with middle-aged guys wearing knee pads and back braces, all of whom I could have very well taken on according to my skill level, which for the record, is advanced.
I turned around and walked out of the gym. I approached the guy with the clipboard again and asked him for my money back. He apologized and returned my money, and then asked “Did something happen?” Yes, something happened, I thought to myself. I was born with a vagina, assigned a gender, and your organization has no clue about gender equality politics.
“I just want my money back,” I responded.
I felt like I was that twelve-year-old girl again who confronted judgmental stares from adolescent boys, and who was perceived as having an attitude problem because she refused to let other players, coaches, and opposing fans punk her on the court. The only difference was that this time my father was not around to curse out my detractors. He wasn’t there to tell them to go straight to hell. I had to walk away alone with only my imaginations about what my father would have said.
As I walked away, I took to Twitter to rant about what happened in hopes of finding some solace and encouragement from strangers. That was my way of coping.
I did not want to fight anymore. I did not want to explain why I felt I deserve to play with guys. I did not want to prove myself to boys on the court for the two-thousandth time. I did not want to carry the burden of being the only woman on a basketball court full of middle-aged men who probably didn’t want me there anyway. I did not want to explain to my guy friends, who were my allies that night, why I left so abruptly. I simply did not have any more explanations or fight left in me for anyone, not even for myself. I just wanted to go home.
Perhaps my tears came from repressed anger toward a world that has told me all my life that because I am a woman I will never be good enough to play basketball with men who want to play with me, even if my skill level is the same or better than men. Perhaps my tears are direct reflections of me missing my father and wanting so desperately for him to have been there to defend me against other men. Perhaps I just thought that at thirty-years-old, I wouldn’t have to doubt myself and feel ashamed like I was twelve-years-old again. With all of my experience, education, and wisdom, the fact remains is that this shit still hurts.
But it was through the tears, the anger, and the rants that I could better reflect and move beyond that moment. I realized that my strength as a female athlete never came from simply being physically strong, but from being emotionally and mentally sensitive and vulnerable in an environment that tells me that these feminine attributes are not allowed in competitive sports. I realized that even when missing my dad, I can still find strength in knowing that he was, and will always be my #1 fan. Still, there is pain in knowing that when it comes to the way we include girls and young women in traditionally male-dominated environments, we still have a long and agonizing way to go.
Dedicated to my dad whose whispers gave me the courage to write this post. May you continue to whisper to me and rest in power, daddy. (April 6, 1930 – December 17, 2008).