After playing basketball at the University of Colorado and then professionally in Ireland, Kate Fagan made the jump to journalism and spent years covering other people’s athletic feats, including three years as a Philadelphia Inquirer writer shadowing the ’76ers. But it wasn’t until she wrote a column for ESPN: The Magazine about growing support for LGBT athletes, especially from straight players (including Out cover boy Chris Kluwe), that she began writing about her own story as a gay athlete.
In a taut, gripping new memoir, The Reappearing Act, Fagan recounts her unusual coming-out experience—in the middle of a team full of aggressively friendly, born-again Christians. “I want this to read like fiction,” she says, and there is a graceful, fast-paced push through the story. But, like Fagan’s deft cover ESPN cover story about WNBA player Brittney Griner, there’s a hard reality check waiting. For female athletes still dogged by stereotypes, the evolution toward full acceptance has been very slow.
We talked to Fagan about the book, growing pressure on right wing team owners, and whether journalists—gay or straight—should be asking athletes if they’re gay.
Out: Your book is truly one of the best memoirs I've ever read. I packed it to flip through during a cross-country flight and didn’t move until I finished reading the whole thing. Tell me about your process.
Kate Fagan: In the fall of 2012, ESPN: The Magazine asked me to write a column, and I pitched an idea about the turning tide in the LGBT movement in sports: Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbedejo were making news. I ended up writing the column in first person, which I try to avoid, and led with a scene from my college years. That was the first time I had really unpacked my college years. From there, my partner, Sue, and I started talking through that year and a half. One night over a drink, she just said, "OK, you have to write a book." So we put together a list of scenes that we thought created a story arc. And I was off and running.
Had you written anything before about your own coming out story?
Nope. That magazine column was the first time I had ever written, in print, that I am gay. I had never considered, before that time, that I would ever share my personal coming-of-age/coming out. I remember sending the PDF of the column, the day before we closed the issue, to my best friend Shawna. And the first line was something like, "When I came out as gay in college." And I said: “Look what I’m about to do!”
Were you, by that point, out at work and in professional circles?
I think most people knew, but I still had a tough time feeling comfortable when I said, "My girlfriend and I." That column was the start of me deciding to step forward and be very vocal about who I am and my experience.
The actual words just poured out of me. I wrote the book over the summer, and I would go out to our balcony and spend the morning writing—like three hours, 2,000 words at a time. I've worked in journalism since I finished playing, so the concept of "writer's block" makes zero sense to me. I'm definitely of the thought just get words down. I don't agonize over each sentence until the editing process. The writing was easy. But I would often be tired the rest of the night and emotional, because I was still stuck in some scene of me when I was 21 and feeling like nobody loved me and I would never feel "normal" again.
Almost all of the book takes place over just a couple years. Was there anything you regret having left out in order to keep it so focused?
I made a pact with myself from the beginning that I would stay disciplined, that I would focus on what I felt was the heart of the story, the scenes with the most tension. It’s easy as a writer to convince yourself that every moment is worthy of a well-crafted scene, but I didn’t want to allow myself to drift into that territory. I didn’t want to waste one minute of the reader’s time. I don't regret leaving anything out. Sometimes I wonder if the length of the book—it's relatively short—will keep people from seeing it as a serious book. But I also hate when writers write just to write.
In the last year or so, as the idea of talking about LGBT issues in sports has hit a real tipping point, most of that has still been focused on major male sports.
Male athletes can stand up and be allies without people going, "Wait, he must be gay." On the women's side, if a female athlete decided to be an ally, many people would be like, "She must be a lesbian." First and foremost, I want people to enjoy the book. Secondary to me—but perhaps first in my heart!—I want this book to help female athletes and female coaches, because people still seem to believe that women's sports is some kind of lesbian paradise, when in reality there is so much closeting and fear. Female athletes have raged against the lesbian stereotype for so long. And female coaches are so scared of what living openly might mean—will they get hired? Will recruits play for them? Because it's women's basketball and there are so few media watchdogs, too few people are working to cast light on this issue.
Do you think right now, post-Donald Sterling—if we can ever be post-Sterling—there's going to be more pressure on owners and GMs to defend homophobic things they've said or done in the past?
I think for the next few months, the media and the NBA fanbase is going to be like hawks looking for forms of racism and homophobia among NBA owners. I think the NBA and Adam Silver came out of this situation looking as good as possible, but I think the vetting process for becoming an NBA owner just got way more intense. And the same for the scrutiny and behavior of current owners. Of course, I'm sure sexist behavior will still be commonplace and mostly overlooked. I think some of the people who make up the NBA ownership group are seriously circling the wagons right now, trying to clean up any messes, because there are some questionable characters in the mix.
We were on a panel together last October about media coverage of LGBT athletes, and we all talked a lot about journalists who were afraid to ask "the question”—even though reporters desperately want to land "the big one.”
I don't think a journalist should ask “the question.” I think a journalist should just develop relationships like all people do in every industry—and develop trust along the way. And if because of that somebody trusts you to tell their story, then that's great.
With your espnW interview with Derrick Gordon about being gay, he became the first Division I men’s basketball player to come out while still in school. As someone who's only recently really started telling your own coming out story, what does it feel like to help be the vehicle for someone else’s?
It honestly felt awesome. Just to be in a room with him and truly feel his excitement. And also to know exactly what to ask him because I had gone through something similar. Honestly, being in a room with Derrick in the days before the announcement, it was like just pent up happiness overflowing. I loved how Derrick was like—"I better move quickly, or else I won't be the first!" I also had some people from the LGBT community suggest it was homophobic to put his story on espnW. Because, of course, nothing is worse in society than being a woman or somehow being connected to women.
You and your partner both work in sports journalism—she co-authored Brittney Griner’s book, In My Skin. I was just curious whether there's any professional jealousy or conflict or it's all nice, very stereotypical lesbian-like collaboration.
Sue started as a writer, but spent the bulk of her career as an editor, so we actually work quite well together on that front. She helped me shape and edit my memoir—we're like a tag team. Just having a safe space where someone you trust can be honest with you about your words. It's invaluable.