The cost of being a girl

Ken Coughlin

Denice Frohman huddles with teammates during a tournament in New York City.

In June, espnW's weekly essay series will honor LGBT Pride Month.

I grew up in New York City -- the Mecca of street basketball. The first time I was called "Lady Jordan" was by a boy named Danny. A short, wiry, Puerto Rican kid with a deep "A.I" crossover; we all admired and feared his handle. He was, after all, one of the nastiest ballers on the court -- his opinion of me mattered.

The basketball court was the first place I learned about the cost of being a girl.

If you're a girl or woman athlete you know the story: a boy from a different neighborhood who barely knows the rules of the game can show up and get picked before you. I needed at least one of the "regular" boys to vouch for me, and Danny became my "co-sign." That's why he was important.

When I wasn't in school, I was at the playground downstairs from my mother's fifth floor apartment with Danny and the rest of the neighborhood boys until the streetlights went out. My goal was to be picked to play 3-on-3, and to be taken seriously when I asked, "Who got next?"

It was no secret that I had to earn what all boys inherited.

It took years to gain his respect and to be included in those pick-up games -- long hours of practicing outside during the suffocating heat of summer, dribbling in the rain, or shooting when the concrete was covered with ice during those unforgivable New York winters. I remember the boys who never cared to learn my name, the ones who called me "the girl" and laughed when I crossed up one of their friends. I remember pretending I didn't care, but I was aware they were evaluating me. The boys set the rules and they picked the teams. It wasn't that I needed them to tell me I was good -- I knew that -- it was that I needed them to count me as the sixth player for that pick-up game.

I remember how long it took to build my reputation so that I could be included without Danny's help. Being a girl on the basketball court was treated as something I had to overcome, rather than something I was attempting to re-define.

Off-the-court, my kind of girlhood didn't hold much currency either.

I was considered a "tomboy" (however antiquated that term feels now): I disliked dresses, not dirt or mud. I played with Barbie dolls and action figures. I wrestled with my dad.

In grade school, I was left feeling like I was never the "right" kind of girl. I saw how Rebecca -- the blonde-haired, blue-eyed jewel of the 5th grade -- so easily received free Cheese Doodles from Ian, the cutest boy in class, whose commercial-ready smile made every girl want to be his reading buddy. And there I was, a mixed girl with hairy arms, who wore traditional forms of femininity like an unconvincing costume.

Kids called me a "boy" as an insult. I didn't want to be a boy -- I knew that -- but I was failing in many ways at being the girl others expected. I was more interested in boys as competitors than as potential crushes. I wanted to know how my body could serve me, not others. But I never told anybody that, not even myself.

I was interested in a different way of playing the game.

The athletic strength and skill I worked so hard to build on the court, the kind that invited praise from the neighborhood boys and coaches, did not help me fit in off the court.

Sports helped me to escape the jaws of narrow gender norms well enough to see myself on my own terms, more than other girls I knew who seemed largely defined by them. But I held the tension in my throat for years and lugged the shame around until I learned how to name it.

My sexuality -- something I wouldn't explore until college -- eventually made the male gaze largely irrelevant, but that didn't happen overnight. It's hard to shake something our culture suffocates you with. Discovering my love of women was not some response to patriarchy, but I would be lying if I said it did not change my relationship to parts of it in adulthood.

I wish someone had assured me that I wasn't doing "it" wrong. I wish I had known that girls, like me, were no less magical -- that every girl has a right to create herself.

I realize now how much of my adolescence I spent trying to prove my worth to boys and how much time we spend, as girls, hoping to be "picked." As part of the pilgrimage to womanhood we assume this to be true, and some might suggest, unavoidable. Movies and television shows even romanticize this dynamic as a sort of rites of passage: the cute boy finally notices you and asks you out to the dance.

Yes, I wanted to be picked, but for different reasons: to be on their team.

And then, I wanted to do the picking.

Denice Frohman is an award-winning poet and educator, whose work explores the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and the "in-betweeness" that exists in us all. She is the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, 2014 CantoMundo Fellow, 2013 Hispanic Choice Award, and 2012 Leeway Transformation Award recipient. Her poem "Dear Straight People" went viral with over 1.5 million YouTube views. 

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