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When basketball became a stranger

Writer Katie Barnes played at Culver Community High School in Culver, Indiana. Jan Garrison/Culver Academies

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

My first memory of basketball is shooting a pink rubber ball through the beat-up net in my Indiana driveway. Basketball is woven into my being, stitched there through years of dedication, hard work and obsessive consumption. Sinking temperatures brought a smile to my lips because I knew the season was just around the corner.

Growing up in small-town Indiana, the lifeblood of Hoosiers, basketball was just as much my home as the cornfields lining the chipped asphalt of country roads. My heart beat to the drum of a ball bouncing on the blacktop. Then, in a moment, it became unfamiliar.

I will never forget. I was 16, playing on the court at Culver Community, my former school. His face contorted in disgust, eyes wide with prejudice and rage. His words sliced across my face, peeling away the fa├žade I spent the better part of a decade perfecting.

"Dyke! You're so ugly. We all know you're a man," Adam, someone I once considered a friend, shouted from the stands.

The squeaking shoes against the hardwood became blurred noise. My fingers throbbed against the ball in my hands. Everything shifted out of focus except for the pain radiating in my chest and the feeling of my temple walls collapsing on top of me. I felt the truth smack me across my face, the truth I had been running from for years.

I was 14 when I realized I wasn't straight. It was over dinner with a few members of my AAU team. I don't remember where, some Italian place in South Bend, home of Notre Dame and most of my Catholic teammates. Sometime between salad and pasta, Erin, a teammate and frenemy, casually mentioned that she "would never hug a lesbian."

I scrunched up my nose at her comment. "Why not?"

She stared at me as if the answer was obvious. "Because they like girls, and that's gross."

"But you hug boys all the time," I countered, shuffling my hands in my lap.

"Yeah, but they're boys, not lesbians."

I did not understand her logic at all, and somewhere within myself, I knew she was talking about me. She probably did, too. "Yes but, boys could always have a crush on you."

She glared at me. "The boys I hug are my friends."

I arched my eyebrows. "And you're not friends with lesbians?"

She looked like she might be ill.

Shaking my head, my eyes searched for Brittany, my only friend on the team. She gave me a thin, reassuring smile.

I ignored the other eyes peering at me through the caked-on eye shadow and dark eyeliner. It was just another reminder of how different we were from one another.

I was a gender-bending child. Often young girls doing masculine things is chalked up to being a tomboy, but in the pit of my stomach I knew this was different. I refused to wear anything feminine (except on Easter), and eagerly led my parents by the hand into the boys' section to pick out my next red-and-black muscle shirt. I really liked red and black. And muscle shirts. To my parents' credit, they only asked if I would consider different colors.

But around fifth grade, things changed. It became clear to me that in order to fit in, I needed to shave my legs and attempt to look pretty, whatever that meant. I wanted to go to the birthday parties and get invited to houses after school. The color of my skin already made me stand out, so the baggy clothes had to go. My pants got a little tighter, my shirts a little smaller, and my hair a little longer.

When it came time to dress up, I borrowed my mother's sleeveless turtlenecks instead of going shopping for my own clothes. I hated shopping. I hated the way feminine clothing clung to me; I hated how it looked; and I hated how it felt. I wanted to wear jeans slung low on my hips with the extra material pooling at my ankles, a jersey, a silver necklace with my number and my hair in a messy bun.

The basketball court, however, became my refuge. As an athlete, I created a sliver of space for myself to exist as I truly wanted. My masculinity morphed into athletic performance, ghettoizing a portion of my soul to the baggy shorts I gently sagged, cut-off tees, and cocksure court swagger. I was Peter Pan and masculinity my shadow, and the only time I could sew myself together was when my shoes burned over hardwood.

Basketball gave me a breath of life when the rest of the world ripped me apart.

High school was different. Whereas just a couple of years prior, it wasn't strange to not wear makeup while playing, all of a sudden it was. Teammates and opponents spent time on their game day hairstyles, and they carefully applied their eyeliner. They rolled their shorts and stylized their pre-wrap headbands. The emphasis of femininity on the court came out of nowhere for me, and I was left standing alone with my brown skin, unpainted nails and my makeup-free face.

All of those feelings hit me full force when I heard those words hurled at me from the hostile student section of my old school. I stopped, but only just for a moment. My eyes bore into his, as I steeled myself for the next play.

I would do what I always did: set my jaw and pretend not to care, hoping no one noticed the truth. It was like sitting on an accelerating train speeding toward the end of the track. I could see the disaster waiting for me, but I wasn't ready to jump. Not yet.