Moment transgender football coach comes out to team goes viral

A screen capture from the video posted on Facebook by Portland Community Football Club.
A screen capture from the video posted on Facebook by Portland Community Football Club.

“I haven’t shared with you something about myself that is important”. This is how Kaig Lightner began his speech to the young members of his football club in Portland, Oregon, on May 1, going on to come out to them as a transgender man. The video -- complete with foot shuffling and some awkward laughter from the players -- went viral, and has been watched over 100,000 times on YouTube.

"I'm still me. I'm still the same person I was five minutes before you all knew this," Lightner tells his players.

“I thought it was the right time for them to know this about me”

Kaig Lightner coaches players from the ages of six to 18. He spoke to FRANCE 24 about the video and the impact it had. He says that he planned the speech in advance, and all of his colleagues at the club were in the loop.

Beforehand, I handed my phone over to one of my coaches – I just wanted to document something that is pretty unusual, and marks the first group of kids I have ever come out to.

I was nervous. But as soon as I started talking and said the word ‘transgender’ and I saw their reactions – a bit of giggling and shuffling of feet, which is totally understandable – it was then just a conversation like any other. Yes, it’s a little awkward and strange for them but it became just another conversation that we were having.

Kaig Lightner (third from left), with some of the young people he coaches. Photo from our Observer.

Being transgender isn’t relevant to coaching, but when you start to feel connected to kids and to feel close to them, you don’t want to feel like you’re hiding something. I thought it was the right time for them to know this about me. I also thought it was a good opportunity for them to learn about something that they may not know about – and to learn it from someone that they respect and know and have a relationship with.

This was a pretty important moment. In all other aspects of my life I’m pretty open: I have done workshops and conferences on my experience of being a transgender person. So I had this whole other part of my life where I was an open book, and then there was the coaching/sports world, where I was kind of hiding. I just wanted to be fully out across all platforms.

Kaig Lightner with some of his young players. Photo from Portland Community Football Club website.

Lightner has been coaching football for 22 years. He founded Portland Community Football Club, envisaging a club where there were no barriers to entry for kids from low income communities. He wanted a space that was affordable (members get their own brand new uniform, spikes, and shin guards), accessible, and high quality.

I did consider the parents’ reactions. But I thought that these parents already trust me and know me. If we lose parents and players because of this, that’s what happens. But it really hasn’t changed that much. We haven’t lost anybody; nobody has dropped out. We’re still training and kids are still playing games.

It did start a conversation with some of the kids who weren’t there at the time. One six year old came up to me and asked me why I wanted to be a boy, and we had a conversation about how she feels as a girl. At the end of the conversation, she just said, “I just feel like me. I’m me,” and I said that was great. It was a really honest six-year-old answer.

He says that sport was very important for him growing up.

Kaig Lightner playing softball at age 8. Credit: Kaig Lightner

"Sport helped me forget that I didn't fit into gender norms"

I was seen as the really aggressive girl, or the girl who played like a boy. All of the messages from the media and from society said that girls aren’t as good at sport as boys. Ultimately sport for me is what allowed me to feel confident in myself, to have a purpose and to feel productive. My identity as an athlete was really important to me. Sport was a way for me to forget that I didn’t really fit into gender norms.

Kaig Lightner at three years old. Credit: Kaig Lightner

Lightner started adopting male pronouns in his 20s, and changed his first name to Kaig (pronounced 'cage') in 2005. A year after that, he began taking testosterone (for people who are biologically female at birth, hormone replacement therapy such as testosterone injections can help the person to develop secondary sexual characteristics: things like facial hair, a deeper voice, and periods stopping).

Lightner does training and educational workshops on transgender rights, and also teaches in the social work department of Portland State University. He wants to work towards LGBTQ rights through education and dialogue – and the video was a part of that worldview.

Kaig Lightner in his first head coach role, aged 17, still pre-transition. Credit: Kaig Lightner

I fit into the gender norm of masculinity, based on just how I look. I’ve been put in a spot where I’m not visible [as transgender] unless I talk about my identity. I’m one sort of trans person, and there are all sorts of trans and gender non-conforming people. We all have a gender, we all have an expression, and we need to break down and break apart the gender binary.

In the US I have to be marked as female in my records to get female-related healthcare. There are a lot of systemic issues that need to be addressed, and they all come back round to this gender binary and how strongly we, like many cultures, hold on to that.