Lisa Howe has been the women’s soccer coach at Belmont University in Tennessee for the past five years. She’s also a lesbian.
Last week she officially “acknowledged that I am a lesbian and that my partner and I are expecting a baby.”
And, as of last week, she’s also newly unemployed.
Howe frames the issue as discrimination versus pride: “I am proud of who I am and my family and our future.” She called for changes in Belmont’s “policies and attitudes” so that “my family would be safe and welcome.”
The university tiptoed carefully, saying that, “sexual orientation has not been considered in making hiring, promotion, salary, or dismissal decisions,” although Tennessee does not outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Last year, the school refused to recognize a student LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) group, holding instead a series of campus “conversations” about gays, lesbians, and Christianity.
It’s a crucial conversation, especially in light of the school’s explicitly Christian identity: “Belmont University is a Christian community. The University faculty, administration and staff uphold Jesus as the Christ and as the measure of all things.”
No doubt religious freedom lawyers and employment experts will take up the fight on behalf of Belmont, in the red corner, and Lisa Howe, in the blue corner. Already LGBT groups are filling the bleachers with hecklers who’ve lashed out at the university president for “being a hater” by “remov(ing) employees because they want to start a family with someone of the same gender.” It may take years before courts decide the legal issues.
But parents of athletic children are facing the question already: Does it matter that the coach is gay or lesbian?
Yes, in my view. A coach’s sexual orientation matters because of the nature of coaching itself. Parents who sidestep the issue, politely demurring comment in the name of “tolerance,” risk sending their children confusing and contradictory messages.
Consider the recent situation of one Northeast girls’ soccer team, the “Comets.” Their end of season party capped an exciting weekend of travel soccer. They won on penalty kicks, celebrated in the hotel’s indoor pool and hot tub, and took over the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. Everyone gathered for dinner: players, parents, siblings, coach, and – traveling with the team for the first time – the coach’s lesbian partner.
The coach’s emails during the season about her “family” and “daughter” (her partner’s child from a previous heterosexual relationship) suddenly acquired new meaning.
Perhaps a younger team would have remained clueless about the coach’s sexual orientation and her now open relationship with another woman. There’s not a chance in the world that a team of 14-year-old girls would miss this news. Certainly the parents noticed. But no one said anything, of course. Conversation centered on pizza, “What are you having, cheese or pepperoni?”
And that’s the problem. The coach’s sexual preference seemed of no greater consequence than the girls’ choice of pizza. To each her own. We all have our own tastes and who’s to say one’s better than another? Perhaps later, in private, some parents discussed the situation with their daughters. I would hope so. But the prevailing parent sentiment seemed quietly eager for a congratulatory pat on the back, kudos for tolerance. Some, I suppose, openly celebrated the news, winning a personal credential certifying their open-mindedness. (“Did I tell you my daughter’s coach is a lesbian?”)
Athletes, especially adolescents, tend to idealize their coaches, seeking their approval, encouragement and mentoring. And good coaches connect deeply with their athletes, helping them draw the best out of themselves in demanding situations. Inevitably, coaches mentor their athletes in life, not simply sports.
But when an impressionable athlete admires and seeks the approval of a coach whose lifestyle embraces “intrinsically disordered” sexual behavior, it’s a confusing situation, at best. The situation becomes even more confusing when parents say nothing negative – perhaps nothing at all – about a coach’s open homosexual relationships.
The message shouting across the silence is that homosexual behavior is moral, even normal. When a coach says, as Howe did, that she and her partner are expecting “their” baby (a bit of biological fiction, by the way, that LGBT advocates conveniently gloss over), parents who remain silent legitimize the claim that gay/lesbian partnerships, plus children, are the equivalent of heterosexual married family units.
According to Church teaching, that’s not OK. Putting homosexual relationships “on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values … of humanity.”
How parents should handle specific situations will depend on factors like their child’s age, impressionability, and level of “obliviousness,” plus the coach’s own demeanor and degree of public disclosure of homosexual behavior.
Years back, one of my children played for a coach who had marital problems. One tournament weekend, he left his wife at home and brought his “girlfriend” along instead. Parental reaction was swift and uniform. Within hours, the coach was told he could send the girlfriend packing or find a new coaching position. Parents challenged his moral misbehavior because they knew it would have an impact on their daughters. They knew, too, that if they acquiesced silently to his actions, their silence would speak volumes to their daughters.
On homosexuality, however, Christian parents should anticipate standing alone. As the Belmont University case underscores, public consensus about the immorality of a coach’s openly homosexual relationships is fast eroding.
What’s not clear, however, is whether LGBT activists will succeed in bullying parents – and religious institutions – into silence.
For our children’s sakes, I hope not.