When KC Cross heard what their role at the Univ. of Arkansas athletics department would be, it sounded too good to be true. Now they are living out their dream, helping people achieve their highest potential while bringing together the LGBTQ community and people in sports.
The mental health and performance clinician is one of the few but growing number of out LGBTQ people with the Razorbacks, and Cross realizes more and more each day, they are not alone.
The former college basketball player, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, has found a solid group of people in Fayetteville — some who are LGBTQ, and some who are straight and cisgender — who see eye-to-eye with them and are on board with their mission of diversity and inclusion. It is becoming part of the mission of the athletics department itself.
This has come as a bit of a surprise to Cross, who is well aware of the conservative Christian community surrounding the school, which often seems to have a disconnect with the LGBTQ community. Familiarity, Cross has found, is helping to change minds.
Having worked in the Arkansas athletics dept. previously as a graduate assistant before taking this new role has helped people understand who they are and where they want to take the Razorbacks. They feel that the more people “get to know you for you” can only help as you come out as LGBTQ to your co-workers and friends.
“The more they know you, the easier it makes understanding identities,” Cross told Outsports from self-quarantine, away from campus in Austin. “So coming back as a full-time staff member four years later, my time there as a graduate assistant has made this easier.”
That doesn’t mean being an out queer non-binary person with the Razorbacks is always easy. There has been an incredible amount of support, maybe even more than they could have realized. Yet every day there’s more education that needs to be done. And yes, Cross thinks there are probably people in the department who aren’t big fans of the LGBTQ community.
That represents an opportunity for Cross.
“I’ve definitely continued to get misgendered. However, in the six to seven months I’ve been back here, it seems to be decreasing. If someone does misgender me in front of a lot of people, I won’t embarrass them. But we’ll definitely have a conversation afterward.”
They said those conversations are often full of education and interest, as well as understanding.
It seems Cross’s whole life has been leading up to this role at this moment at this school.
They grew up in an Arkansas town of “six to seven thousand people,” in the heart of the Bible Belt. As a teenager they played every sport they could, settling on basketball when they attended Moberly Area Community College, ultimately landing on the basketball team at Columbia College, an NAIA school in Missouri.
It was in college that they set their sights on working in the specific space they’ve landed their career.
“I knew when I was an undergrad I wanted to do something in the sports world, but I also wanted to move into the counseling field.”
They got a masters degree in counseling and soon headed to the Univ. of Wisconsin as an associate counselor, focused on the LGBTQ community. Working specifically with their own community has been an important focus of their career.
So when they got an out-of-the-blue call from Dr. Chris Bader, assistant athletic director at the Univ. of Arkansas, talking about a job with the athletics department, they weren’t too interested. They couldn’t imagine that a focus on helping the LGBTQ community within the Razorbacks family would be a part of the job.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
“My initial thought was to meet with him and tell him I wasn’t interested in the job,” Cross said. “I didn’t think it would be the right fit. But once we met and he talked to me about the advocacy he wanted to do with the LGBTQ community, I jumped right on board.
“Being able to bring that part of me into the sports world, I didn’t think I could miss out on that opportunity.”
Now Cross works daily to build bridges between the LGBTQ community and the athletics department. While there are various resources on campus to help anyone in the community work through their sexual orientation and gender identity, Cross has found these resources are completely unknown to athletes and coaches.
There is at Arkansas, like at so many schools, a powerful disconnect between the LGBTQ community on campus and the athletes in that very community.
Still, Cross has found a commitment by the athletics department to help build those bridges. While there’s a competition for resources on campus, they’ve found that broadening the concept of LGBTQ programs beyond just the community helps people understand the importance of those very programs.
“These things are going to help LGBTQ students, but it’s also going to expand the minds of their straight counterparts to stop bullying and discrimination,” Cross said. “Not everyone you work with after leaving school is going to be straight or cisgender. You have to be able to recognizing differences and interact with people who don’t look and think and act like you.”
Cross is excited for the future. After their first year back at Arkansas, they feel momentum for some of the change they want to bring. They feel a strong professional support network, with Bader and others at Arkansas.
Cross also has strong personal support with their partner, Megan Pearson, who played softball at the Univ. of Arkansas and who now lives in Austin. It’s a long-distance relationship that has been thrust into close quarters, with the couple living together in Austin during the coronavirus crisis. Being together at this time is wonderful, Cross said, though they know it’s temporary.
“Long-distance definitely sucks,” Cross said, “but it’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in. We both feel it’s important to build our careers right now. We give one another support. It’s incredible.”
Even from afar, Cross is still mapping out how they can help the student-athletes and coaches they work with in Fayetteville. The one thing they try to encourage people is to explore who they are sooner than later. Cross spent many years identifying as a woman before ultimately realizing they are nonbinary. That self-realization has freed their mind and empowered them in ways they wish everyone could experience.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s now or 10 years from now, start to get to know who you are. Because if you don’t explore that, then you’re left to be what other people say you are. I always identified as a woman, but one day I sat down and said, ‘this doesn’t feel like who I am.’ And it took months to have conversations and asking people to use other pronouns for me, and after about three months I realized it was right.
“It has opened up a whole new world for me.”
KC Cross is a mental health and performance clinician at the Univ. of Arkansas athletics department. You can follow them on Instagram @kcross3, and you can follow Cross and Pearson’s joint account on Instagram and YouTube. You can also email them at [email protected]
On April 7, Cross will be part of an Outsports webinar about building and maintaining mental health during times of isolation, and when sports are suddenly taken away from you. It’s a powerful opportunity to interact with a mental-health expert who works with people across sports on a daily basis. You can register here.
If you are an LGBTQ person in sports administration, be sure to join the growing group of LGBTQ coaches and administrators at Equality Coaching Alliance.