Episode 22: Visiting with Kelly Hill and her story, “Title IX Gave Me My Wings”
ANNOUNCER: Raising women’s voices—one story at a time. Welcome to The She Said Project Podcast.
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JENETTE: Well, it’s another fun day here on The She Said Project Podcast! I am your host, Jenette Jurczyk, National director of The She Said Project and with me in the studio:
KERRY: Kerry Rossow, Founder and… (pause)
JENETTE: You’re ready to introduce our guest, you’re not even gonna…
KERRY: I know, I’m sorry! I’m just so excited!
JENETTE: It’s really fun to talk to someone who is from the very last live show that we had before the world went upside down. We’re so lucky that we were able to get one last live show in the Champaign community back in February of 2020.
Joining us today is none other than Kelly Hill to talk about her story in that show. Kelly, welcome! Welcome!
KELLY: Hi, ladies. How are you? I really hate seeing you as Zoom. I really like seeing you in person and in the flesh, but uh, this’ll work. This’ll work.
JENETTE: Yes, to our audience: we enjoy having our guests come into the recording studio, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, we’ve not been able to get back into the studio. So we have decided, like many others, to pivot and record our podcast via Zoom, so it’s so good to get to see your face. But yes, I wish it was in person instead.
KERRY: I wish it was in person. Remember, Kelly, our first meeting? We sort of ambushed you in a coffee shop?
KELLY: You tricked me (laughing) you tricked me. Jenette said, “You wanna have coffee?” I’m like, “I love coffee!” Anybody asks me to go to coffee, I’m in.
JENETTE: Hey! (laughing) It was a whole set up.
KELLY: ...and then Kerry shows up.
KERRY: You were like, “Hey, what are you doing here?”
KELLY: I was clueless. You definitely got me, definitely got me.
KERRY: I remember Kelly saying, “I don’t talk. I’m not funny. I don’t know if you need funny. I’m not funny and I don’t really talk about being gay,” and, and she was hilarious and totally talked about being gay.
JENETTE: There is something so powerful about when we give women seven minutes and a microphone and we say, you know, this is your chance to, to share with the world a piece of your journey that can open minds and open hearts and, Kelly, that is exactly what you did. So, can you tell us a little bit about your story and why that was important for you to share on stage?
KELLY: Oh, wow…
JENETTE: … right in front of a thousand of your closest friends?
KELLY: I was very reluctant—and I’m sure many people are when they first get tapped by you two dynamic duo girls. First of all, I had never talked about it publicly. I mean, it was just—I was not an out person per se, I just—that was not a part of the conversation that I had when I met people… and so I was very reluctant to get in front of a large crowd in a public setting and tell the story but as Jenette and I worked together, it was amazing and very cathartic for me, to be able to say the things and tell the story about things that I had never said before—except to, you know, a few of my closer friends and family. So yeah, it was scary. It was difficult. I sweated a lot. But because we kind of made it funny, that helped. It helped to have some humor in it because I think that the thing about this whole show is being considered an outsider or ‘an other’ in any kind of category, whether it’s race or gender or disability—people that feel ‘other’ need a place to talk about how that feels and sometimes how other people make us feel. So for me, was it was really an opportunity kind of talked about that for the first time
JENETTE: And you did it in a way where you compared it to a lot of your sports background and that became a really good metaphor for you to express what you were going through. So let’s go ahead and listen to the performance and then we can talk about it some more so that we can clue everybody in on all the goodness. Let’s take a listen. This is Kelly Hill, on stage, live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois for the 2020 production of That’s What She Said sharing her story, “Title IX Gave Me My Wings.”
KELLY: In the summer of 1974, who knew the battle for girls and women in sports was just heating up? (audience cheering) Title IX had been passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon stating that no person regardless of gender could be discriminated against in any educational institution which received federal funds and so the battle began for girls to play sports for real. (cheering and applause)
I was a high school sophomore looking for an opportunity to play the sports that I loved, just like my male friends. Not too complicated. (audience laughter) But not everybody thought that girls competing in sports was a great idea. It took money to have teams and coaches and uniforms and bus trips and why would taxpayers want to spend money on girls’ sports which had no future or cultural relevance at the time?
And so I played with the guys. In elementary school recess I got picked first cuz I was pretty good. In middle school our games continue during lunch time on the playground and I was always the only girl. And every day I made sure to have my shorts on under my skirt, so I could jump into the game and not be called out for ‘she was changing.’
With no middle school sports teams, I knew my chance to play on a real team was going to have to wait until high school when the athletic directors had promised they would finally have a girl’s basketball and volleyball team. The opportunity to be a part of a team, to be a leader, made me feel whole and alive. I loved the exhilaration of a great pass on a fast-break. I loved the thrill of swishing the nets on a long shot from the baseline. I loved wearing a real uniform even though the inseam had three inches on it. And we all wore the original Chuck Taylors before they were even a fashion statement. (cheering)
This probably does not seem very remarkable to those you in the audience but in the mid-70s, women were not championed in team sports. There were figure skaters and gymnasts, but even tennis players like Billie Jean King didn’t get much respect. And those of us who love the camaraderie and messy but magical chemistry of team sports, we were on the outside. Too aggressive, too masculine. Certainly misguided in knowing what our future place in the world was going to be.
But when Title IX opened the door, I suddenly had opportunities to experience the world in a whole new way. Excelling on a team and developing my leadership abilities led to varsity letters and athletic scholarship, coaching jobs, and now I do college officiating. The self-confidence that grew with my commitment to this sport set the bar for everything that was to come of my future. What I didn’t know was how homophobia would affect every single one of those experiences.
After high school I left home with a basketball scholarship to play at the University of Southern California and I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about how I was expected to behave on a college women’s basketball team. On our first road trip, we were issued Bobbie Brooks seafoam green blazers, polyester button-up blouses, knee-length wool skirts, hosiery and two-inch heels. Our coach passed it off as department policy for team travel. But we all knew why: the University coaches and athletic department wanted us to look feminine, ladylike, but most of all—straight. What we looked like was a gaggle of flight attendants every time we had to put on those costumes. (laughter and applause)
Our team of mostly straight women had larger and taller bodies than the normal Bobbie Brooks model, so the outfits were ill-fitting, uncomfortable and most of all, humiliating. This was the first time I experienced the realities of being a woman athlete and how serious the world was in wanting to control us. Somehow it seemed to matter who we loved—and after being told that we would be wearing these ridiculous outfits, I knew there was a deliberate effort to keep us all in check. And it made me wonder how I would ever find a partner who might want to raise a family with me in this absurd reality. In May of my senior year I was offered a basketball coaching job at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and I quickly learned that with this role came even more scrutiny.
As a college coach, I worked to knit together the unique personalities of fifteen young women into a cohesive unit. But I never expected to have a parent of a recruit question my sexuality or the methods of managing a team of young women.
It was in the mid-1980s. I was sitting face-to-face at the kitchen table of the North Dakota player of the year. And I spent the nine-hour drive to her home thinking about how important this player was for us. And although I had watched her play and talked to her many times on the phone, this was my first time to meet with her face-to-face with her family. So I launched into how much I admired her competitiveness and I described how she would fit into the style of play that we played. I shared my commitment to helping her adjust to being nine hours from home and helping her find an academic interest that would serve her beyond her playing days. After about forty-five minutes of laying out my case, her father began by noting that I didn’t have a wedding ring and asked if I was married. I simply said “no” then stumbled into some apology of sorts for not having found the right man. (laughter) (more laughter and cheers)
His next question completely threw me off. “So how many girls in your team are lesbians?” He then made special mention that the other college coaches who had visited shared their ‘no lesbian policy’ and what were my thoughts on this? Incredulous, I simply said I had no idea how many lesbians might be on my team and I didn’t make it my business to really ask those kinds of questions, but I really wanted to ask why this mattered. And he quickly added, “Oh, my daughter won’t fit in with a team of lesbians.”
My anger rose and my heart sank. I thought how do you know and why are you deciding this for her? Anyway, I managed to return the conversation to scholarship dollars and housing allowances. But felt completely flattened and numb and on the drive home I realized that I had no power to change this type of prejudice, and I decided I couldn’t stay in coaching to fight this fight. I knew that ignorance and fear would continue to be used against me in recruiting because it worked. This long-standing prejudice was not going to go away easily and it would take brave and matter-of-fact men and women to choose to live honestly, and unfortunately, the sports world was not ready for this truth.
In the eighties and nineties the fear of losing recruits and coaching jobs was real and yet I persisted and to coach and dodge questions and situations for nearly twelve years. After motivating and supporting young women into adulthood at both Nebraska and at Western Illinois. I finally left a career that I really loved. I moved to Champaign-Urbana to consider how my partner and I might start to live honestly and begin a family. (applause)
We knew we needed to live in a larger more diverse city and more open culture was schools that we could trust to protect our children from the homophobia that would be directed at us. We were determined to stand up to the fears and innuendo that had shackled our previous careers and coaching and raise children in a supportive and accepting community. But to walk away and abandon our coaching careers had seemed unimaginable we both loved coaching and connecting are athletes to their strengths while building affirmations for their success in sports and in life. But we had been so absorbed in dodging the cruel humiliation of strangers who weighed in with their unsolicited judgments, that we had no idea how it might feel to live without the fear of losing our jobs and it was terrifying to take the next step toward parenthood when nobody like us was talking about this.
So once outside of coaching we decided to be upfront about our desire to raise a family. We started saying out loud to our health care providers that we were partners and we wanted to have children and we would be raising them as co-parents and my partner was not a roommate or an aunt or a friend. The nurse mentioned at one of our early visits that the medical staff had had a discussion about “our case.” And had determined which doctors would be willing to deliver our baby in “this case.” Incredulous that some doctors would not be willing to deliver a baby, we decided all we needed was one doctor and convincing the rest of them would be somebody else’s fight.
And so now looking back at the realities of coming of age in the 1970s. We live a very different life in a very different time. Our two daughters are grown and making their way through the ups and downs of peer pressure, social acceptance and self-affirmation. Now 24 and 19, they have their own stories about being raised by two moms. That’s a whole other show. (laughter) But Champaign-Urbana, they have thrived in this community that has embraced our family. (loud cheering and applause) They have thrived in this community that has embraced our family and supported the love we all share for one another and someday they may raise daughters of their own and they’re going to face new challenges, but thankfully they can talk about what their mothers did to pave the way for them to be accepted and celebrated no matter who they might choose to love. (cheering and applause)
KERRY: Okay, so I get goosebumps every time I hear that or I think about Kelly telling her story; one, for what it took for her to do it, and two, you know, being that I was born the year of Title IX and seeing the difference between the experience my mom had and then in just one generation, the experience that my daughters have and have had, and what sports meant in my life and I sort of think sometimes that She Said show was just my way of creating another team as a grownup. You know, you, you graduate and you don’t have teammates any more and you don’t have practices everyday and you don’t have that built-in camaraderie and I think Kelly’s piece reminded me how much I love that and how much I miss it and because of things like Title IX, that’s now available, nobody… nobody just gave it, we… you know, women before us fought for us to have that.
JENETTE: Kelly, how’s that experience for you?
KELLY: Well, the interesting thing is, you know, if you’re 30 or up, that you understand this, you understand what I talked about. If you’re under 30 have no clue, just like Kerry said, my daughters had no idea that it was kind of taboo for girls to participate in sports—much less gay girls to participate in sports—and in our world today it’s a much different landscape because others have stepped forward and said, hey, “This is who I am. This is what I do. It really doesn’t matter.” I think that’s helped other people. I think this the ‘other’ that I referred to before is, is really when we meet somebody that’s different than us and they expose us to their realities and we learn about them. We realize that we are all so much more alike, than we’re different. If we would just take the time to get out of our little silos and allow ourselves to interact and engage with people that are different than us, however, that might be. I think for me, the follow-up after the show was people saying wow and number one, that was brave—and I’m like no kidding—(laugh) and number two, I didn’t know it was that big of a deal and I’m like—it still is a big deal. I will carry this with me to my grave. It will never be completely open and okay because I’ve lived sixty-plus years trying to keep this, keep this information from affecting how people perceive me because it was a negative perception.
The lesson for me is that ‘other’ of any kind changes when that person has an actual personal relationship with or understands what it’s like to walk in that person’s shoes. So it was really… it was very transformative for me too. And I feel like a huge ton of bricks was off my back and I shared it with my college friends, my college coaches and they were just like—wow, you told that story. I’m like, yeah, I did in front of a lot of people and I’m still alive. (laugh) Yeah, I was scared. I was scared how I would be perceived and, you know, it is what it is.
JENETTE: I have no doubt that by you being brave there are at least one, if not many, young girls out there who are right now facing something similar or they don’t know what they’re allowed to say or what they’re allowed to be—they, they want to get into sports. It’s, it’s different now, but still there is layers and layers of insecurity and fear and by you being brave you’re giving them permission to, to stand up for themselves and be who they want to be, and so for that I thank you and that I could not ask for more from you sharing your story on this platform and that’s why we do what we do.
I can’t get the image out of my head of the gaggle of flight attendants (laughing) walking through the airport. (laugh) like what they, what you were put through to try to fit into a box that was not you, I mean it breaks my heart, but it is because of you that, that woman today, girls today can, you know, can be more open and more comfortable in their own skin.
KERRY: I sent it to a lot of my old teammates and, and old pals and one of the things that several people said was, they felt like they were in the same boat that I’m in—like, we had that and then now our girls are growing up in this reality where it—it isn’t ‘other’ anymore and it’s just expected. And what’s, what’s sports are just readily available and they said they were so touched that somebody, you know, it’s been such a sprint and a whirlwind, that it was touching to them to hear somebody say but wait, (exasperation) you know, this is what it was and if you don’t remember that and acknowledge that then, you know, this next generation won’t know those stories and what was the price that was paid for them to have this as casual reality.
JENETTE: What was your daughters’ reaction? How are they handling it?
KELLY: You know, for them it’s not a big deal—like, “Mom…” Yeah, first of all, they have two moms, so they’ve grown up since age zero to have two parents that are females which, you know, when people would say, “which…” they would ask my, my youngest daughter in kindergarten, “Which one is the fake mom?” and, “FAKE MOM?!?!” They thought one was a fake mom and one was a real mom. So we were, we had the fake mom and the real mom, but they, they’ve navigated their lives completely separate from this. Neither of them are really sports girls—they’re musical theater girls and other, other activities that they, that they enjoy, so sports is not something it’s a big deal to them.
JENETTE: How did you let that happen?
KELLY: We tried. We tried! (laughing)
JENETTE: I’m the musical theatre girl, I’m not the sports girl. So they’re my…
KELLY: We tried to play catch. We tried to do little league. We try to play softball. We try to play soccer. It would… they were not having it! They like the snacks a lot and the outfits a lot but not so much the sports. So, anyway, we were parent fails at that— the fake mom and the real mom—could not get our act together to make that a, happen for our girls, but they were really proud. I think they were just really proud and—talking about them and what this kind of experience opens them up to recognizing that it, that it was harder. It was tougher. It was a different world. And I’m hopeful that this opening the door to this particular area will open the door to the other issues we have—of race and class and disability—that we still all make an awful lot of judgments about people before really knowing who they are and what they stand for. And so when you meet somebody and you really get to know their heart, it’s a very different thing than what you see sitting on a bus or going into the grocery store or picking up their kid from school. And, and we all do it. We judge people on how they look and what they drive and where they live and who they hang out with and those are not the things to judge people on it. And, and so being able to share my heart was really emotional, very powerful. I hope it gave a few young girls sitting there listening some insight into, you know, really being who they are—being proud of who they are no matter what that is and doing what they do and finding a love for something that will make them be able to get back to the world in a cool way.
JENETTE: Kelly, I am so honored that I got to share this experience with you and get to know your heart because it is incredible and powerful and warm and loving and giving and you gave so much, and I love that statement is, “When you get to know someone, you know, at their, at their heart that’s, that’s when you get to know the person and then you lose all of those layers of judgment.” And so by sharing your story, not just on stage in your town but now on The She Said Project Podcast, our goal is to enable even more women, even a larger audience to hear what you have to say and to hopefully open their minds and hearts a little bit bigger and so thank you for being part of our journey and our mission. Thank you for sharing your heart. This is Jenette Jurczyk and Kerry Rossow with The She Said Project Podcast and it is our honor and our pleasure to raise women’s voices and give them a microphone.
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ANNOUNCER: Thank you for listening to The She Said Project Podcast, in partnership with Illinois Public Media.
All materials contained in the podcast are the exclusive property of the The She Said Project and That’s What She Said, LLC. For more information on our live shows, go to shesaidproject dot com.
This podcast was made possible with support from Carle and Health Alliance and presented by Sterling Wealth Management. Empowering women to live their best lives.
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Kelly Hill visits with hosts Jenette and Kerry to talk about her appearance in the 2020 live That's What She Said show in Champaign, IL. In her story, "Title IX Gave Me My Wings," Kelly shares her passion for team sports and coaching as well as the struggles she had to overcome to have both a career and a family.
The She Said Project Podcast is recorded in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in this podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That's What She Said, LLC. Learn more at shesaidproject.com.