My mother coached my middle school basketball team because
she liked to empower kids. I remember the desperation that crept in on the court
as I’d watch girls stare suspiciously
at the woman on the bleachers who
smelled like endless cigarettes and wore the print
of my mom’s lipstick on her mouth.
I could smell their judgment over their
sweaty pinnies. I didn’t know then,
what homophobia was. I just knew what it felt like.
put me on point guard every scrimmage, she knew
I would never be the fastest, and she’d probably
be the only one to cheer my name, she taught me
I would always be on defense,
that’s how we lived our lives together, never scoring
any baskets, too busy defending our own. I swear
I was born with a pivot foot because I’m always
turning my cheek. What do you do
with a game like that? You’re always staying in the same place.
But you don’t have to be running to feel out of breath.
I was sitting in the passenger seat when she first said it: Homophobia–
Darling you will spend the rest of your life trying to swallow those five syllables,
running against it’s etymology like it’s a buzzer that you just can’t beat,
I could tell, she already felt suffocated just thinking
about all the people like her
who live with eyes in the backs of their heads, wearing the Bible Belt like
nooses around their necks,
and Matthew Shepard was one more notch in the belt that
in 1998 swung up to Wyoming, I
had only lived five years then, but each were long enough
to round out every syllable of that word,
he was really just a boy when his head
was beaten in by knuckles of discrimination, she said he died
tied to a fence and all I could picture in my head,
was Jesus, saw his wingspan, his arms spread open, dying,
for loving a man that much.
Hate does not know state lines,
I rode the school bus, and counted the number of fences I saw.
By the time I was in high school, the basketball program was
over and everyone knew who the woman on the bench was
and how that lipstick got on her face. The girls
traded in their pinnies for popularity, saw
how I was so much like my mother, the way we both
wore loneliness like numbers on our backs, so
I walked around the hallways with adrenaline in my throat like
I had the ball for the first time and I
knew I wasn’t fast enough to outrun an insult.
When I told my mom that we played for the same team,
she bowed her head, said she wished we didn’t, said
life is easier
when you’re not playing on a losing team.
But if I learned one thing, it’s that people should love
the way that my mother coached, like
even though you know
every damn person in the stadium is
rooting for the other team, love–
is sticking up your middle finger and saying:
I will always cheer your name.