- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - Just putting those words in her coaching biography, Ball State University women’s golf coach Katherine Mowat stood across worlds both utterly mundane in one light, yet brave and radical in another.

Look at any college athletic department’s website and any coach’s page, and you’ll find a rundown of personal information: spouse, children, often even a posed photo of a family together. In 2011, Mowat wanted the same.

Only while most of those spots list a husband, she was going to have her then-partner, now-wife Mandy Harrison, listed. The couple were having their first child, and if everyone else had their family displayed proudly, why shouldn’t she?

As she broached the topic with her sports supervisor, Joe Hernandez, she was taking the step of becoming one of the few openly gay coaches in college sports.

“I said, ‘Hey, can we put this in about Mandy?’ ” Mowat said. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’ I walked out of his office, and it was like, wow, that was easy. But yet so significant because I realized that I have so many friends and colleagues who perhaps, for whatever reasons, have not felt comfortable asking that question at their respective institutions or have not even wanted to go there. For me, it was a big deal.”

That Mowat is gay was not exactly a secret to those who knew her. She’d been in a relationship with Harrison for nearly her entire tenure at Ball State (seven years at that point, 11 now).

But how out someone is remains a personal decision, and Mowat found herself having to come out to a multitude of people, having to declare her sexual orientation. Putting it out there publicly is a wider-reaching choice, but it brought her a kind of normalcy.

She was like any other coach at the school, so why should she hold back in a way anyone else wouldn’t have to?

“You just want to be who you are,” Mowat said. “I just want to be a working mother and a spouse, just be who I am without having that stressful declaration, so to speak, every time.”

Mowat grew up in and around Burlington, Ontario, not far from Toronto. Brad Mowat, the youngest of her three older brothers, said the family moved around a lot, as her father, Bill, worked in home renovations. They’d move to a place, he’d fix it up and sell it and they’d move on.

He remembered his sister as similar to the person, and especially coach, you’d meet today.

“She’s definitely a little bit reserved, but she’s still quite outgoing and engaging,” Brad Mowat said. “She won’t be the loudest person in the room, but certainly one of the friendliest and most approachable.”

The family was always on the go, an approach fully extending to the world of sports. Weekends were spent at a range of tournaments, often hockey, the sport Katherine Mowat first fell for. But at age 12, golf grew into the family habit. Her father already played, and mother, brothers and Katherine all found it at the same time (especially as finding girls hockey teams for older players grew more difficult).

The course was where Katherine Mowat spent her summers, working to earn credit for range balls and rounds.

“I was dropped off in the morning and would get picked up in the evenings,” she said. “I’d ride my bike to the course with my clubs on my back and I was so happy in that environment.”

Brad Mowat still remembers starting into the game and watching his little sister’s skill level quickly rise well past his. Age 15 was a bit late to realize she had next-level talent, but Katherine Mowat took advantage of the few (three) major amateur tournaments Canada had to offer.

It was enough to realize the dream of playing golf in college, first at Iowa, where she got her first taste of the overwhelming and particularly American spectacle of a Big Ten town on football game day, and later at Louisville. She transferred because her academic program was discontinued, and the Cardinals allowed for the chance to join a first-year program with an experienced eye.

As an all-conference career gave way to a job as an assistant coach at Ole Miss, Mowat worked through a personal journey that was far from easy.

Looking back, Mowat was in no way prepared for the feelings she had or what she experienced. Coming out is a different experience for each person who goes through it, and hers lasted a long time.

She took until age 25, when she was an assistant coach in Oxford, Mississippi, to finally come to terms with who she was, to look back and see things had happened the way they did.

“There was a lot of piecing together of thoughts that I had,” Mowat said. “All the while navigating this world that was very real of, wow, I think I’m gay, but I don’t think I can be. As far as, if I am gay, then I’m going to have to hide it. So all that coming together was a storm of emotional distress, to say the least.”

This was the world she’d seen as a student-athlete. In college sports, there was a lot of fear. A coach she might look up to was most likely closeted. Players tried to guess about someone’s sexuality, but little was revealed or talked about.

But at some point, that broke for Mowat. She called her mother, Sue, and dropped the news. The way she described the conversation: wonderful.

“She said, ‘Well what did you think I was going to say?’” Katherine Mowat said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I asked myself, where did that fear come from? It didn’t really make sense because my mom, she’s the most non-judgmental. She would love me with all of her being no matter what. I guess that just kind of paints the picture of what it’s like for a young person to have all these doubts and the stigmas that surround it.”

Sue Mowat was tasked with telling the rest of the family, and Brad Mowat guessed his sister was still unsure about how the rest of them would react.

“It didn’t really faze me at all,” Brad Mowat said. “I more just wanted to immediately reach out to her to make sure that she knew I was totally comfortable with it and she didn’t have to feel nervous about it and to let her know that I was very supportive of her.

“She’s my sister and that’s it.”

As she wrestled with who she was, Katherine Mowat went through the process feeling so alone. It turned out, she was never alone at all.

Mandy Harrison saw a familiar face as she traversed Ball State’s athletic facilities that evening. At the time, 11 years ago, she was still a graduate student interning in the school’s weight room. The alum of DePauw had met Mowat not long before through some mutual friends.

“It was like, a week or two later,” Harrison said. “I was leaving night class and she was making calls in her office, ‘And I was like, hey, I know you.’ We just started hanging out.”

Hanging out developed into something more.

Harrison’s own coming out process was somewhat less fraught than Mowat’s. Harrison had been dating a man before she met Mowat. Initially Harrison wondered what she was doing, but she found it was a relationship that made her happy, and that took paramount importance.

She finished up her master’s degree in 2007, spent two years coaching basketball and teaching at nearby Anderson University and was then called back to the Ball State weight room as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Their relationship came through it all, through deciding to become mothers, through the legalization of their marriage and the eventual state-recognized union that followed. Now the pair has almost every trapping of a model family: two kids, a dog, a cat, a house, all the errands and chores that come along.

On an afternoon trip to the park, their two daughters scamper over the play structure, ask for a boost to reach the next bar or another push on the swing. Katy, just shy of a year old, looks for the family dog that just took a plunge into a nearby river.

Mowat looked back, reminded their relationship and marriage were never secrets from those around them, and while to her revealing it publicly wasn’t much of an announcement, it put her in exceedingly rare company.

It’s important to point out one won’t find many out coaches across the landscape of college coaching. There are few hard numbers on the subject, but Cyd Zeigler, one of the founders of Outsports.com, a website focusing on LGBT issues in sports, laid out the reality.

“Suffice it to say, very few are PUBLICLY out,” Zeigler wrote in an email.

“Very few. None in Div. 1 college basketball (men or women) or football.”

That wasn’t the case until this February, when Portland State women’s basketball coach Sherri Murrell was let go after eight seasons leading the Vikings. She came out publicly in 2009, and her decision inspired Mowat’s.

That’s not to say there aren’t other gay or lesbian coaches in college sports. Some are out to those close to them, some are still closeted.

Many of the stories on OutSports tell of coaches worried an outing will cost them a career. We’re not more than a decade removed from the tenure of Penn State’s Rene Portland, who proudly declared she would not stand for lesbians on her team.

Coaching is a cutthroat business, and outlets such as the Miami Herald have reported stories of coaches using another coach’s sexual orientation against them, appealing to that factor with families of particularly religious recruits.

And that reality makes the response from Ball State all the more notable.

By all accounts, it wasn’t a big deal. Bosses, coworkers, players treated Mowat and Harrison the same as any other couple with a spouse in the department.

Mowat has probably worked as closely with men’s golf coach Mike Fleck as anyone at Ball State, as his tenure predates even hers. He laid out the way they communicate, with him, admittedly short and stubby, staring up at his tall and skinny female counterpart.

On the topic of her sexual orientation, he said there was never any grand conversation or declaration.

“It was not a big deal to me, nor did I give it any attention,” Fleck said.

And that mirrored the general response from the other coaches and staff.

People around the athletic department were aware of the couple long before anything found its way onto the school website. Mowat has been a longstanding-enough fixture of the department, lasting through four athletic directors. Harrison said her boss in strength and conditioning had referred to Mowat as her wife long before they ever signed their marriage license.

Even with attitudes changing, that’s not a given, but in some small way, it reflects Mowat’s own experience. Sometimes there’s fear about revealing one’s self, and sometimes it doesn’t change much at all.

“It’s cool to be able to see her do the things that she wants to do, do the things that she believes in and live the life that she wants to live,” Fleck said.

When Mowat stops to consider her approach to the world of LGBT politics in the U.S., she settles on calling herself aware but not active.

Sure, she and Harrison went down to Indianapolis for a protest against one of several anti-gay marriage laws, but for the most part the family isn’t putting itself out on the front lines.

But being gay in America means these issues are something you run into in a myriad of ways, none more so than when starting a family.

When Harrison gave birth to the couple’s first daughter, Myla, in 2011, it opened up the convoluted laws surrounding this situation. Even at the sperm bank, Harrison has to say she was receiving as a single parent. The institution didn’t care, but it was legally mandated.

Once the child was born, Mowat had to go through to process of legally adopting her, which started with an attorney and required so much more.

“You have to go through and fill out all this paperwork and have a home study,” Harrison said. “Like you’re adopting a child. Even though that child is coming to the house regardless because it’s my child biologically. The kid is going to come live with me.”

There were background checks, in-depth questionnaires and looks at the upbringing of both mothers.

“In the end, I’d do it all again if I had to,” Mowat said.

She was careful with her words as she sized up the situation in the state she’s worked in for more than a decade. Earlier this year, Indiana came under fire for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that in many readings opened the door for discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The outcry was fierce from almost all sides, and Mowat called it a tough pill to swallow. Yet, she also pointed out this is a state that allowed her to adopt her kids (Ohio won’t) and now recognizes her marriage.

Mowat and Harrison’s second daughter, Katy, was born the day before the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the United States Supreme Court, sending Indiana down its own rocky path of coming to terms with gay marriage.

Mowat and Harrison were given the advice to marry quickly. On their annual trip to see Mowat’s family in Canada, they got everything squared away without much fanfare, no large ceremony but just getting things signed and in order.

“Every legal bond that we have, with adoption and with a marriage, I know what it feels like to not be able to have a secure tie,” said Mowat, conscious many grew up without such rights.

The marriage meant Harrison could sponsor her wife for a green card, so they didn’t have to rely on an institution such as Ball State to sponsor her visa. They still have to bring the documents on trips, in case they find themselves in a state with different laws and something happens to one of them.

They even have to look at little things. When friends recommended a daycare at a church, they had to make sure it would accept them.

They’ve come through a few extra steps to start a family and find the security a straight family wouldn’t have to worry about, and kids have brought the usual sort of joys and trials. Fleck watches her come through the same things his own family went through, a child in diapers and making arrangements when both parents work, the sort of things you’d see in any other household.

“It’s kind of funny,” Harrison said. “We have colleagues that, ‘They’re like, oh, she’s left-handed like you Katherine.’ And then they’re like, wait a minute …’

“It’s great because it makes it seem like you’re really comparing our kid, who is not biologically Katherine’s, to her as if it is because you feel like we’re normal. …”

When Mowat put her family status out in public, one might guess a little blowback could come on the recruiting trail. Indiana is a conservative state, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for someone to find issue.

But Mowat has never had one. She puts herself out front and center. If you are looking at becoming part of the Ball State women’s golf program and did your research, you’ll know who she is.

“If you come on a visit to my campus and meet me and hang out with my team, you’re probably going to come to my house and we’re going to feed you a meal and most parents of recruits end up holding one of our children,” Mowat said. “It’s part of what happens. It’s part of my program from the get go. I’m a pretty open person about who I am.”


Source: The (Muncie) Star-Press, https://tspne.ws/1JE9nwq


Information from: The Star Press, https://www.thestarpress.com

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