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An open letter to Jaelene Hinkle

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Bennett Dewan

Hi, Jaelene.

We don’t know each other, but I was hoping to get the chance to ask you some questions last night. I was disappointed when you walked by as I and the other reporters tried to flag you down in the mixed zone. I would have liked the chance to dig a little deeper into the convictions you expressed in the video profile that came out yesterday.

I get the sense you felt under attack last night, between the banner and the boos every time you went near the ball. I get the sense you have long felt that way as you navigate this sport; a lone island of staunchly archaic religious conviction in a vast sea of queers. Women’s soccer really isn’t for people like you. That’s not to say you can’t play—obviously you can, and quite well—simply that when you expressed, in that video, having often felt a conflict between your faith and the sport you excel at, I think I understand what that feels like.

You and I—you and most of my siblings in the LGBT community, I should say—are alike in that one way. We all know what it’s like to feel that we don’t belong in a world we desperately want to be part of. It’s not a good feeling, is it?

The difference is this: for you, that world is certain corners of the women’s soccer community; for me, that world has often been, well, the world. I want you to know that whatever you felt last night, however unfairly you feel the media and the women’s soccer fandom are treating you, those feelings represent a fraction of what people in my community experience throughout our lives.

I can only speak to my own experience, but I want you to try to put yourself in my shoes. I’ve known I was queer for my entire life. From my very earliest memories, I knew I was different from most of the girls around me in some key way that I couldn’t identify, but knew was at the very core of who I am as a person. As I got older, I quickly learned that whatever that thing was, it wasn’t ok. I wasn’t supposed to be that way.

I don’t think there’s any way for you (and I’m not singling you out here; this one is for all the straights) to really understand what that does to a person. What years and years of constant messages, small and large, direct and indirect, that this truth you know about yourself deep in your guts—not totally unlike how you describe your relationship with God!—is wrong, a mistake, something to hide and to hide from.

These messages come from everywhere. From your parents, your friends, your classmates, the media. You cannot help developing a deep-down self-loathing. At 27, I’m still unpacking the impact of what that process did to me. It’s like cleaning out a refrigerator. Here’s a five-year-old jar of sauerkraut. Here’s an inescapable feeling that I still have to hide parts of myself in order to be safe.

And Jaelene? I had it easy. I grew up in a liberal community with parents who were tolerant, if clueless. I still learned to hate myself, and spent years afterwards learning to love myself. I’m still learning, in fact. There are many, many people in my community, even today, even here, who literally do not survive this. That’s not to even get into what religious bigotry does to LGBT people around the world.

I don’t know any of your teammates, but if I imagine myself playing alongside you at 21 or 22, still trying to figure out how to be comfortable in my own skin, knowing that you chose to pass up the career opportunity of a lifetime rather than wear a symbol that represents me could only make me feel it wasn’t safe to be who I am.

It doesn’t matter how nice you are in person to the gay people in your life. What matters is that you’ve chosen to stand so staunchly to the conviction that there’s something wrong with them, with this thing that they cannot change about themselves, that you’d pass up the chance to play for your country for it. You cannot hide from the fact that this conviction you have is ultimately a conviction against many of your teammates. You cannot hate the sin but love the sinner when the “sin” is an integral part of a person’s being.

So here’s what I found perplexing last night. You feel strongly enough about this that you were willing to dispel all the speculation and publicly confirm—two days before Pride Month, and the same day you were to play a game in Portland, Oregon, no less—that refusing that call-up was about not wanting to support the LGBT community even passively. Why, then, were you unwilling to answer questions about it? If this is your stance, why won’t you defend it to members of the media?

I don’t know you, but I believe people can change and grow, and I want to have hope that you can too, Jaelene. I want to believe that open, honest conversation with people from my community—especially with the people from my community who also have strong Christian faith—could soften your heart. I want to believe that this all might be a learning experience for you.

I understand this whole thing is uncomfortable for you, but please remember you made the choices that brought you to this point—and that your discomfort is nothing compared to the suffering of gay teens forced into conversion therapy, the very real threats to the lives of LGBT people in places like Chechnya and Jamaica, or the lifelong emotional trauma that’s so widespread among queer people everywhere. You had a choice to refuse that call-up, and to then speak publicly about why you did so. I hope, now, you’ll make the choice to listen.