By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
The second annual Lesbian Visibility Week kicks off today, April 26th until May 2nd to celebrate and show solidarity with all LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people. Specifically, to celebrate our community members who identify as lesbian as a voice for unity and uplifting each other. Lesbian Visibility Week originally started as a day in 2008 and has since expanded to the full week by the organization Stonewall to “recognize, celebrate and support lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer women to be their true selves at work, home and socially.”
For the occasion, we would like to recognize different lesbian sports icons throughout the week who have and continue to make an important contribution to the field of sports in numerous ways.
Katie Sowers has made a name for herself, being the second woman in NFL to hold a full-time coaching position in the league with her role as assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers and the first ever woman to coach in a Super Bowl when the 49ers took on the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020. In an interview with Sky Sports, she reflected on some of the biggest moments of her career so far. Most notably when it came time for media night leading up to the 2020 Super Bowl and she found herself in the spotlight, even more so than some of her players.
“I didn’t realize how big it was until that media night,” says Sowers. “I was wondering why everyone was swarming around me and not talking to some of these other guys! But it was that idea of how important it is to be visible.”
One of the people in the crowd trying to ask Sowers questions was Sowers’ own football idol, Deion Sanders. The two time Super Bowl champion was a big inspiration for Sowers, who would often write Sanders fan letters.
“I’d always wear Deion’s jersey when I was younger, in elementary school. So it was almost like these two worlds; the younger self and the dream of what I wanted, came together, when I got to meet him on that stage. It was really cool. That’s going to be a memory that I remember forever.”
However, for Sowers, her journey to the Super Bowl as not only a female coach, but one who is also an out lesbian, hasn’t been without discrimination. When she was in college, playing basketball on scholarship for Goshen College in Indiana, by the time she graduated, she was the forerunner to stay on with the school as a volunteer assistant coach. She had already come out to friends and families, but as the rumors got around, so did some “concerns” from the college community.
“At the time, the school didn’t even allow professors to be openly gay,” she explains. “There was a school in our Conference that we played against regularly. I had a friend on the basketball team, and they got ‘caught being gay’ – that’s how they explained it at the time – and my friend was kicked off the team. That’s what I was used to growing up.”
After speaking with her coach about her future with the team Sowers; decided that it would not be the best for her to stay with Goshen.
“I remember leaving his office and feeling very hurt and angry. I called my mom right away – she’s the most positive person, but she was in tears. She was crying and saying, ‘this is not OK, and I’m so sorry you’re going through this’. “It was a moment where I decided I can either look back and try to open this door that was slammed in my face, or I can view what other opportunities are out there. I believe that led me onto the path to where I am today.
“If that wouldn’t have happened, I might have been coaching the second sport that I love. But instead, that door slamming in my face, I view it as an opportunity where I was able to see much more about life.”
Since that moment, Goshen has since changed their policies and has taken steps to make amends for its past, including offering a formal apology to Sowers and the other LGBTQ+ people who were affected by their policies. Sowers’ responded gracefully and shared her appreciation for the gesture and for her education at Goshen. When that original door was closed, Sowers’ was invited to take charge of a youth girls basketball team, the one whom happened to have NFL executive Scott Pioli’s own daughter on and whom also recognized Sowers’ potential and strength as a coach; leading to a friendship between the two and ultimately, a foot in the door with the Atlanta Falcons and ultimately a full time assistant coach position with the San Francisco 49ers.
Just before the beginning of the 2017 season, Sower’s gave an interview with Outsports where she came out publicly as lesbian and thus, becoming the NFL’s first openly LGBQ+ coach. This was an important moment for Sowers’ because of the visibility and how football became a place where she felt accepted, but knew that others in the sport were uncomfortable.
“I knew that me being gay, that was just part of who I was,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to hide if I was dating somebody. If I did hide that part of me, I would hold myself back from allowing other people to get to know me.
“One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re struggling with being authentically you, you’re not only cutting yourself short, you’re also cutting off this door that allows other people to get to know you.
“As LGBT+ people, we all have to handle whether we come out or how we deal with being authentic in our own way, and when we’re ready. The more that you can strive to get to that point, the better version of yourself that you’ll see.”
Her coming out along with a collaboration with Former and openly gay NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan helped to influence the league to be bolder and more confident in supporting inclusion. As evidenced by the increased representation of NFL teams in Pride events and sponsoring LGBTQ+ sports events such as the annual “Gay Bowl.”
“After my article came out, I had players come by and share about someone in their family that was gay and how much that article had meant to them. These players, they’re more open to this than sometimes we might think or stereotype them.
“We do still have a long way to go – we don’t have a prominent player that’s out right now. But I do see that changing soon and when that happens, we’ll start seeing more active players showing who they are too, and really how their team-mates rally around and support that.”
In her newfound fame and representation as a “trailblazer” sowers has taken it all in stride.
“I never started out because I wanted to be a headline. I always just wanted to be a coach,” she says. “It’s more about this idea that you don’t want to strive to be the first, you just want to make sure you’re not the last. The first is important, but it’s more important that we have a second, third, and fourth.”
Since the 2020 Super Bowl, Sowers’ has since taken a job with Ottawa University to support the women’s flag football program and help the sport grow nationally and internationally. For her future ambitions, she has not ruled out returning to the NFL and potentially looking forward to being the head coach of her own team one day.