In the woods behind my childhood home, there was a tree with a soccer ball nestled in its branches. Those branches had long ago grown in different directions, leaving a crook just perfect for cradling the ball. I was 14 and just about to enter high school when my parents sold the house. On moving day I looked out my back window. Sitting lonely in the backyard was a soccer ball. Holding the weathered, deflated ball in my hands, the memories came rushing back to me. I remembered the ball in the tree. I remembered the fun times just kicking the ball around the backyard. I remembered what had always defined my family.
The ball had landed in the tree thanks to a bit of experimentation on the part of my brother and I. My dad, a high school soccer coach, had access to some fun equipment, including a Jugs machine, which fired off soccer balls in the same manner as a baseball pitching machine. We tested it out by turning it up to 100 mph and firing balls at one another. Then we wanted to see what would happen if we shot it straight up in the air at max speed (beyond the ball going really high and falling? I don’t know, we were kids). But the machine wouldn’t let us shoot the ball straight up – instead the ball soared through the woods, landing in the crook of that tree and giving us a story to tell for years.
That ball lingered, reminding me of my childhood innocence. When I was very young, my brother was the one person I looked up to more than anyone else. Even back then, I knew we were different in so many ways, yet I wanted to be just like him. I’d follow him around like a puppy dog, trying to copy his every move. Our childhood days were spent playing every sort of sport imaginable – wiffle ball, football, even backyard badminton – but we always came back to soccer. We were a family of goalkeepers, though I spent my childhood up very much resisting the family legacy by wanting to be a goal scorer. We’d set up cones for goals and try to score on each other, oftentimes having to chase the ball down the hill into the pricker bushes. Ouch.
Traveling to soccer games was my family’s favorite pastime. My dear mother was always shipping us off to soccer practices. I’m not sure now how she managed all the shuttling, while also working full time, but she never missed a game. Do you remember, mom, the time we were literally run off the road trying to pass a truck on the way to practice at Williams? I do. In that confined space, the car, in the days before cell phones or wireless gadgets, my only options were reading or talking (sometimes sleeping too). In a lot of ways those car rides were the very beginnings of me learning what it meant to be a woman.
How does a child begin to tell her family that she’s transgender? From the time I was eight years old, I knew that I was really a girl. How do you tell your family that when you’re eight years old? I spent much of my childhood alternating between repressing my true self and being scared to say anything about it to anyone.
That active repression involved such deep denial that I’d go long periods of time not even realizing there was an issue with my gender. In the moments when the dysphoria was too overwhelming, I was too scared and distrusting to seek help from anyone, especially my own family. This made moments of closeness few and far between. Don’t get me wrong, my parents were incredibly loving and totally supportive of me, but I found it difficult to return the feeling because I could never fully reveal my true self. Intimacy was awkward (at best) for me.
It’s a paradox, developing relationships while being in the closet as a trans person. Your act is a veneer, a costume. When those around you think they become close to you, they’re really just enjoying your performance. As a trans person, you’re keenly aware of this, and because of how trans people are demonized, you internalize the assumption that everybody who’s grown to like your performance will abandon you when your true self is finally revealed. How do you give yourself fully to even your parents when you’re not allowing yourself to show any truly deep vulnerabilities? The answer is you seek as many other connections as possible that are separate from your identity, connections that are true to yourself.
It also felt like we had few common interests. My dad and brother liked hunting and fishing, while I preferred to quietly play in my room or explore the woods around my house. My brother was always more conservative than I was, a difference I was aware of even as a child. I was closest with my mom, who worked full-time as an elementary school teacher while shuttling us to all of our practices and extracurricular activities. There was one thing though that I knew made me a part of the family, one thing that always connected the four of us. Soccer.
My dad loves to talk, and I used to love to listen to his tales. When I was young, he seemed like the strongest man I’d ever known, so it was easy to imagine him as a lineman, pushing his opponents out of the way. But he’d also hooked on to the club soccer team at Western Washington College in the late 60s. I know more about that old college soccer team than I do about most any other collection of soccer players on this planet. The way my dad told it, they were unstoppable, even going undefeated during one of his seasons there. Considering how his strength later gave me such comfort, allowed me to feel safe in a world I could barely made sense of, it was easy for me to imagine his success.
He used to tell me that he couldn’t remember his best performance. They played the University of Oregon and he suffered a concussion shortly into the first half. Back then there were no protocols to protect players and concussions were passed off as “getting your bell rung” so he played out the rest of the game. He tended goal like a man possessed, preserving a clean sheet against a team that was really applying the pressure. He tried to tell me more, but he simply has no memory of it.
My brother, too, was a goalkeeper, with my dad as his high school coach. My friends and I were the ballboys, trying, once again, to avoid the pricker bushes that lined the field. I spent hours with my family, traveling to and from his practices and games. It was easy to daydream about when it would be my turn to lead the high school soccer team on to the pitch, winning district titles and awards along the way. After all, it ran in the family.
My brother had the more distinguished career. All-section his junior and senior year. Runner up for district goalkeeper of the year, losing out to a current MLS keeper. He went on to play a season of college soccer as well before finding other interests and walking away. When my own soccer career took off, he rarely made a game. When he did show up, I’d work extra hard at turning in a good performance, often watching it backfire. I’d put so much effort into impressing him that the pressure became too much. Miistakes would invariably follow.
Several years later, I realized that my brother and I were two very different people with very little common ground. As I struggled with my gender identity, he became more conservative. Come World Cup time, we traded text messages, even though we rarely spoke. But my transition has strained our relationship to the point where I wonder if we could even have a discussion about soccer. It’s been so long since we talked that I’m starting to wonder if he even follows the sport anymore. Have I lost this connection with my only sibling? I think I have.
On the other hand, it was through soccer that I felt my parents’ love and support. They never missed a game, even throughout the most horrific New England weather – the searing heat of summer ball, the arctic freeze of high school play-off soccer in October. It snowed more often than I’d like to remember now.
My high school soccer career came to an end when I let in an embarrassing rebound goal. Tears streaked my face. I let my emotions show, something I rarely did. Although I knew – just like my brother had, and my father before him – that I’d go on to play college soccer the next fall, I still stood there with my parents, letting them embrace me.
Such moments of intimacy were scarce, too scarce. Growing up trans and too afraid to transition is tremendously stressful. The transness is an internal othering that permeates everything. The existential dread that comes with the expectation that you’d be disowned for admitting the truth makes it difficult to form meaningful connections. For me, soccer was that meaningful connection. Through the gender dysphoria and the growing distance of difference between my family and I, I could always go back to soccer. Soccer was family.
Now, having socially transitioned in adulthood, I have a newfound sense of closeness with my parents, one that comes from truly living authentically. But in retrospect, the ball getting stuck in the tree was the perfect metaphor for my childhood. The same trunk and roots sent out two strong branches, growing in opposite directions, with soccer the entity stuck right in the middle, almost holding the two together. The cool thing about branches is they can grow in unexpected directions. The branches in this particular tree had grown apart for years. They are now growing back towards each other again.