I have a story to tell you.

By Kellie Koester

I have a story to tell you. This story is about men and people who are not men. It is about being included and excluded. It is about speaking up, and about being quiet. This is a story with one “bad” guy, and many “good” guys. Mostly, this is a story about frustration.

Telling a story about frustration is difficult. It’s difficult because frustration is often born from years of small moments. I could tell you about the one recent moment that made me feel frustrated, but would you understand? No, if I only told you about one small moment, you would think that I was overreacting, maybe even say that I was being emotional or hysterical. Then maybe I could tell you about one big moment. But, no, if I only tell you about one big moment, you wouldn’t see how all the small moments contribute to the big moment. I would tell you everything, but that would be too long of a story. Do you see how impossible this task is? There’s not one story that I can tell to show you how my frustration has been built and manifested. I will do my best to balance the big moments and the small moments, and to show you how this frustration bleeds into everything I see and do and say. My best will not be enough, however. After this article, and the article after it, and the book after that, and the next podcast, after all of these stories, you will need to keep reading and listening and speaking. You will need to take this frustration on as your own.

Should I start at the beginning? I was born in the middle of a snowstorm, to parents who loved me but wouldn’t keep loving each other for very long. We lived in a rural community where the only thing that distinguished us from everyone else was our religion. My sister was born, and the first time I saw her she had two purple bows on her peach-fuzz head, stuck there with corn syrup. My next memory is of not being able to sleep because I could hear my parents screaming at each other in the kitchen. I got out of bed, and in a small, tearful voice asked them to be quiet so that I could sleep. My mom picked me up and took me back to bed saying “I’m so sorry,” and, “It’ll be ok.”. Then they were screaming again.

Do you need to know this, though? I’ll start in the middle then. I was in high school when I first realized that if boys knew how smart I was, that they wouldn’t like me. I knew better than to sabotage my education, but I didn’t talk about homework, show my test grades, or answer questions in class for a long time. My softball team shared a bus with the baseball team to go to away games, but we had to sit separately so that everyone could focus before our games. After games we sat separately too, but no one explained why. When people -coworkers, boys, my step-dad, girls- joked about softball players all being lesbians I got defensive. “You don’t have to be a lesbian to play softball!” I said. Who taught me that “lesbian” or “athlete” was the opposite of “feminine”? Who taught me to be ashamed and defensive of being anything other than heterosexual? I don’t know, I can’t pinpoint a moment.   

But all of this was before I had ever touched a disc. At the second ultimate tournament I attended, one man “joked” to his friend, “If you get her drunk enough she’ll do whatever you want.” They weren’t talking about me, but I told him it wasn’t funny, and he rolled his eyes. That fall, I spent evenings learning to throw a flick with frozen fingers. I became a handler, because someone had to do it. In the finals of a for-fun beach tournament, a teammate cut break side, the sideline called for a hammer, and I wobbily obliged. It was a turnover, just out of reach of the receiver. Two of my male teammates yelled at me, asked what I was thinking. No one chastised  them for their turnovers.  

At summer pick up in Small Town, USA, there were only two women. We guarded each other. It was hot, and I was lazy, and wasn’t playing defense. The men weren’t throwing to either of us anyway. At one point I shouted from 30 yards away from my mark to the man with the disc, “What, is she TOO open to throw to?” After the point he screamed at me on the sideline for calling him out in front of everyone. To him, being called out by a girl was more offensive than him ignoring women on the field for an entire game. He was over 6’ tall - towering and screaming and angry. I remembered tall, angry men from my past, and I shrunk. No one told him to calm down; no one said anything at all.   

Another tournament weekend I was out with my teammates getting food in the too-early morning. We had been drinking. Under the table, my boyfriend pinched me when I spoke to someone he perceived as a rival. We argued about it, and later I told myself that it only happened because he was drunk. The pinch hurt.

My skills grew, and I took on more leadership roles. I spent a winter talking about women in ultimate, and in the spring realized that in all of my conversations about equity, I hadn’t talked about racial justice. I didn’t know what to say, and saying nothing seemed better than saying the wrong thing. Saying nothing was the wrong thing. So I learned more, read more, asked more, listened more, and now that I know more, I will speak more. I know that I will say the wrong thing sometimes. When that happens I will listen more and read more and apologize, and then say the right thing.    

A few weeks ago I played ultimate with an open team that I trust. An open team from Canada came down to play a friendly scrimmage. There was one woman traveling with them, and she seemed excited that I was there. She brought her cleats in case there were any other women playing, she said. I was going to play regardless, but I was glad that my presence made her feel comfortable playing. I wondered why she didn’t feel comfortable playing with her friends. As we’re playing, one Canadian player gets more and more drunk on cheap whiskey. He comes to the line and says things like, “Ok boys, here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s the plan.” He’s being funny, I guess. I don’t say anything. More points, more “boys” and “guys” and “find a man”. I get an apologetic glance from some teammates, but nobody says anything. Then I look across the field, and he’s naked. A pink little dick in a thick brown blob of hair. I look away. A few more points, and I get the disc on a swing. Canadian man, with his pants back on, bumps me on the mark, I dump the disc, and move to clear up the sideline. But he steps in my way with no way for me to avoid him, and I bounce off his stomach. This man who has spent all day making it clear that I am intruding on space meant for “boys” and “guys” and “men,” and flashing his version of manhood in public, is now physically stopping me. He is not playing defense, he is not between me and the disc. He feels justified in taking away my space, and justified in making me touch him. I do not want to be touched.

After that point, I hyperventilate and cry and calm down, and leave. I tell Canadian man that I do not want to speak to him. He keeps trying to speak. I tell him no.

I think about my male teammates and friends often. I feel comfortable playing mini and pick up with them, and they welcome me on the field. They say “person defense,” and sometimes like articles I post about gender equity. They don’t correct other men when they say, “Ok boys, here’s the plan.” They don’t tell Canadian man to keep his clothes on. They don’t ask me if I’m ok, or why I left early. They don’t make my frustration their frustration. Even if they are good men, they are quiet.