By NANCY DEVILLE
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Soccer coach Lisa Howe was in an eight-year relationship with a former player and assistant. They made vows to each other during a commitment ceremony in Texas. They wanted a baby, but months of fertility treatments yielded no success.
But nobody at work knew any of that.
It all came tumbling out one day last November when she told her Belmont University women’s team the most joyous news of her life. Her partner was pregnant, and the baby was due in May. Players applauded and looked forward to a “team baby.” Others in the Belmont community were stunned.
Today, it’s all in the open. Howe parted ways with the Christian university shortly after her revelation, with neither side citing her sexual orientation as the cause. But the news prompted a rush of on-campus protests, and national headlines and television appearances soon followed.
Howe, 42, has become an accidental activist, lobbying for legal protections for gays and lesbians. She’s a diversity consultant and motivational speaker. Strangers ask her to help them come out to family and friends.
In a June Glamour magazine article, she recalled seeing her picture in The Tennessean with the phrase “gay coach” in the headline.
“It was a game changer,” she said last week. “There’s a difference between coming out with people you work with every day and coming out on the front page of the newspaper. It was a whole new level for me, and probably the only time I almost passed out.
“I’m totally redefining myself. Being out makes life easier. It’s just really more comfortable.”
Her biggest feat is living in the open with partner Wendy Holleman and 4-month-old daughter Hope. For months after leaving Belmont, Howe kept her partner’s name out of the news for fear the attention would upset her and affect the pregnancy.
Holleman, 33, was always more open about her orientation, and now, she says, they’re able to be equally honest about themselves.
“I always wanted to be myself no matter what,” Holleman said. “Lisa was the shy one. It’s good to see her now open and honest, and we’re able to be ourselves as a family.”
Holleman said most of her colleagues at University School of Nashville, where she is a physical education teacher and soccer coach, knew she was a lesbian, but it wasn’t an issue. After the news about Howe broke, several families told Holleman they had dinner table conversations about same-sex couples and difficulties some encounter in society.
“When I told my team I was pregnant, I said, `My partner and are having a baby,’ ” Holleman said. “They were extremely happy and excited to have a baby on the team.”
Policy meets politics
After Howe’s departure, Belmont expanded its faculty and student nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation. Her experience was the impetus for Metro to update its nondiscrimination policy for city contractors, insisting they protect gay, lesbian and transgender employees.
Metro Councilman Mike Jameson said Howe’s experience highlighted inequalities some face for their sexual orientation, prompting him to co-sponsor the proposal. It passed April 5 on a narrow vote.
But state Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, filed a bill blocking Metro Council’s ordinance. He said it would have created inconsistent regulations across the state.
“Cities just need to abide by the state law when it comes to discrimination,” he said. “We don’t want the government telling every business what they can and cannot do. We want a uniform set of rules, and that’s what this law is attempting to do.”
Jameson said the state’s interference was hypocritical.
“The council was attempting to address a broader problem,” he said. “The state legislation is forever bemoaning the interference of federal government; you think they would share sympathies with city councils. I think it’s important for local governments to jealously protect their ability to govern according to local needs.”
Jameson, Howe, and several other individuals and groups are parties to a lawsuit against the state, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court in July. It claims the new state law “was founded in prejudice and motivated by certain legislators’ desire to punish the city of Nashville for enacting an ordinance extending existing local protections to gay and transgender Tennesseans.”
It claims the measure unconstitutionally violates equal-protection standards.
“I feel it was wrong, and it was done out of animosity for a group of people,” Howe said. “I certainly hope the law is found unconstitutional. It wasn’t done to help businesses not be confused. Businesses are smart.”
A difficult decision
Howe still describes walking away from coaching as one of the toughest things she’s ever done.
She compiled a 52-48-16 record at Belmont, and her team participated in the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and won the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season championship in 2009. She’s been named conference Coach of the Year three times.
Before Belmont, she coached at Alabama’s Jacksonville State University, where Holleman was a member of the team and later one of her assistant coaches. It was as co-workers, they say, that a spark ignited and they became a couple- Howe’s first same-sex relationship.
When Howe got a coaching job at Belmont, Holleman followed as her assistant there before taking the job at University School of Nashville. Nobody at Belmont ever asked Howe about Holleman or anything else about her romantic life. But after the news was out, the couple decided Howe needed to leave quietly.
She describes the ordeal as similar to the death of a sick, elderly relative. She cried. Grieved the lost. Was devastated, yet relieved. And sometimes even managed to laugh.
There was an outcry of support from complete strangers. Church leaders invited the couple to join their congregations. Others used Howe’s courage to muster strength to come out themselves.
When soccer practice started up this month, it was the first time in 18 years Howe wasn’t on the field. And that was emotional because soccer was her life.
She was considered a demanding coach, one who set high expectations for her players, one who was often animated in practice and at games. Howe stressed teamwork and wasn’t afraid to take on off-the-field problems with school or jobs.
Different, but better
While life is far different now than that of a NCAA soccer coach, Howe and Holleman say it’s better.
Howe learned to change diapers and decipher cries. She takes long walks on their quiet East Nashville street, pushing Hope in her stroller.
She can’t help but smile when she talks or stares at Hope. The baby’s name is a tribute to Holleman’s mother, who died of breast cancer when her daughter was 9. There are signs of hope at breast cancer walks, both written and living.
But Howe’s life isn’t all about motherhood. She recently built her first website- for her consulting business, Howe About LLC- and collected a Justice Award from the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“Some days I’m scared about being self-employed and just not knowing what could happen,” she said. “I now represent a whole class of people. I started coaching myself to make sure I’m saying the right things.”
The two plan to marry one day. They’re talking about having another baby.
Hope will have quite a story to tell. Before she was even born, she was a catalyst for gay rights in Tennessee, Howe says. The former coach will decide later when it’s the right time to tell her daughter- and maybe, by then, there will be no discrimination in Tennessee over sexual orientation.
“It’s sometimes hard being gay in Nashville,” Howe said. “It’s not easy because you live in fear of losing something you love- your family, job or friends. You don’t quite have the freedom to live without a little bit of fear.
“Wendy and my family are not that much different than the one next door. The more awareness we build and create, the more acceptance there will be.”