Kate Fagan was recruited to the University of Colorado’s Division 1 women’s basketball team in 1999. A tomboy from New York state, she found herself in the liberal city of Boulder but in a very Christian-based program among staunchly religious teammates, including her best friend Dee. At 19 and struggling with the increasing realization that she was gay, Kate began to try and balance multiple personalities at once: The student, the basketball player, the Christian, the straight daughter, the secret lesbian.
The time Kate spent as a Colorado Buffalo is detailed in her new memoir, The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led By Born-Again Christians, available from Skyhorse Publications. The book follows Kate from her daddy’s girl childhood where her mother becomes upset with her short hair wants up through her tumultuous coming of age at CU. Kate’s closest friends—her teammates—were part of a group called Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which Kate joined to stay close to her peers. But when it became clear that her teammates intended to make their gay coach see the light of God, and that homosexuality was unacceptable in their eyes, Kate dealt with inner-turmoil that led to confusion and depression.
“I was really emotionally a mess,” Kate said of her years prior to coming out at UC, “and I wanted so much comfort and acceptance from places and from people who weren’t prepared to give me that level of comfort and acceptance. I think while I was going through a personal struggle of feeling shame about being gay just because what our society tells us what it means to be gay and obviously that’s evolving now but at the time I felt like it meant that I was going to be an outcast. So I was dealing with that shame apart from religion, and also dealing with people who had latched onto certain bible verses and thought they knew for certainty what God said about homosexuality. I was feeling at the time like I was rejected by society and I was going to be rejected by God, too. And at the same time playing college basketball and make it seem to everybody like I was the same happy focused person that I hoped that they saw.”
Kate, who grew up a non-practicing Catholic, said she entered into the fellowship with little knowledge about Jesus or the Bible, much less what either said about homosexuality.
“And so that was really interesting to me to hear the story of Christianity for the first time and sort of dive into whether or not I thought I was Christian or whether or not I thought I had that kind of faith,” Kate said. “And then also I was 19 and trying to find myself and searching in ways I didn’t quite understand at that time. These teammates who I got along so well with and respected and admired were becoming Christians and really finding their faith and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be around them and if that meant exploring religion then that was what I was going to do.”
When Kate meets a girl she’s interested in, things become more intense and she is forced to confront her feelings. Unfortunately, her coming out to her best friend doesn’t go so well, as she’s at first accepted but later rejected based on what the friend believes the Bible says about homosexuality. Kate is alienated from her original friend group and also hides what’s going on from her family, which she is otherwise close with. The Reappearing Act is a frank retelling of these kinds of painful moments Kate went through while going to practices, suiting up for games and dealing with the highs and lows of wins and losses on a weekly basis.
“It took me about four months to write the book,” said Kate, who also works full-time for ESPN as a columnist and reporter. ” I did it on nights and weekends. It wasn’t hard in terms of writers’ block or sitting in front of the computer for four hours and only getting a couple hundred words—like the words came very quickly. But it was very emotionally draining, certain scenes and emotions I hadn’t really allowed myself to think about—in some cases, 10 years. I’ve been sitting with them for two days, bringing them back to life. When that process was over, I did feel very tired emotionally having revisited that stuff.”
At ESPN, Kate has done several pieces on homophobia in sports, including interviews and profiles of Brittney Griner. When asked about the parallels between Brittney’s time at Baylor University, which has been highly publicized as of late, Kate noted that her school was less religiously-affiliated.
“For me, the main connection … is the issue of being gay and being Christian,” Kate said, “how you really marry those two and, if you can in our society, how much internal turmoil it can cause in people that are religious or interested in religion, getting to know religion. And the message is that often—not always—many Christians have about what it means to be gay and be Christian.”
Unlike Baylor, The University of Colorado is a public school, one that does not have any policies against homosexuality. It was named the number one party school her freshman year, Kate said. But when your teammates are regularly engaging in bible studies and prayers, it’s hard to be outside of the huddle.
Kate said said thinks it’s getting better for female athletes, but where the change needs to happen is for coaches.
“Within college basketball, what they really need are two or three role models; women who have job security, have established themselves, who are older and aren’t still trying to climb some ladder, who step forward and are open and authentic in who they are,” Kate said. “Because that would definitely set an example for a lot of younger coaches who are in their early 30s or maybe late 20s who feel like ‘OK well if so and so can’t be open about who they are and look at the security they have, look at the program they’re running, then how can I do it down here at my lower level school.’ Really there’s not much the media can do or people outside can do. Obviously the way we write about it and the way we talk about it, just the small nuanced things we do can certainly help but what the game really needs is a female role model to show people it’s possible.”
Kate’s coach, Ceal Barry, has since left her position but still works at the athletic director at CU and gay, but did not discuss her private life while Kate was on the team. Currently the only out Division 1 basketball coach is Sherri Murrell at Portland State University.
Kate (second from right) with her teammates in 2003
It’s getting better for players, though, Kate said.
“I don’t think players who identify as gay right now have as many issues or hurdles to clear in gaining acceptance as coaches and assistant coaches do. I think what I really wanted to show in the book was how difficult it still is for female coaches who are in the NCAA, whether it’s basketball or into other sports, how difficult it is for them to be out about their homosexuality,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of people in college basketball that think being open about your sexuality will hurt you in the recruiting game, it will hurt you with athletic directors who are making hires. I think there’s a real fear—there’s a real closeting fear that is in college basketball, to this day. It was more overt when I was playing 10, 11 years ago where people would actively say ‘You don’t want to go to that program. There’s a bunch of dykes there.’ And I think now the language is more coded but the homophobia is still present.”
Kate said she allowed some of her teammates, ex-girlfriends and others she wrote about in The Reappearing Act to read an early version before it went to print, but she only had to change a few names to protect anonymity.
“There are ‘characters’ in the book that I don’t have a relationship with anymore, and I did not have them read the book in advance,” Kate said. “The author’s note does say that certain names have been changed where it seemed relevant to do so and provided a certain level of anonymity and had no impact on the veracity of the story. So for some of those teammates who I haven’t spoken with in 10 years, the fact that I give them a different name, it just protects them from a Google search so people can’t look them up. The people I maintain relationships with, it wasn’t easy because it’s not a recollection of everything that happened and I’m also offering readers my internal monologue and they have so much context about why I do everything I do in the book. And a lot of people who are supporting characters, they don’t know half the things—you’re not listening to their internal monologue. I was concerned about that and still am.”
But Kate is just telling her story, one that is honest about her own thoughts, feelings and struggles during her time spent on and off the court in Boulder. Now living in Brooklyn, New York with her partner, Kate said she is happy and no longer identifies as specifically Christian.
“I don’t practice any sort of organized religion. So the God or the Bible or what Jesus said about homosexuality — that internal turmoil, I let it go,” she said. “I still have feelings of belief in some sort of higher power, but there is no to text which I subscribe or find meaning. For me, it was so poisonous and so painful that I had to let go and move on and grow.”
Kate said she hopes that readers of The Reappearing Act can also see some of the humor in her story, because she looks back at it with that kind of optimistic hindsight.
“It’s such a incongruous and humorous situation to have someone pondering their sexuality while sitting in a bible study. There are moments where you’re like ‘How did I get myself here?’” Kate said. “But my life now, especially the last few years, I started to live 100 percent openly and been able to write on these issues and talk about them in panels and really explore all of what’s at play, especially in the sports world, because that’s where I operate. And to be able to in some small way affect change or get people to think differently is really rewarding.”