Outsports’ continuing feature, Out in the World: dives into our deep archive of Coming Out stories to update the stories of out athletes, coaches and other sports personnel who continue to prove, everyday, that Courage Is Contagious.
“That’s what’s going to really get me through, the support network and the people willing to engage in dialogue that’s healthy and isn’t judgmental. That dialogue is what is divinity.”— Stephen Alexander to Outsports, November 12, 2013
This quote was a piece of a watershed article in Outsports, the story of Stephen Alexander. A profile of high school coach in Rhode Island who was a small-town wonder as a young athlete, and their journey to finding their truth, fully embracing it, and proudly coaching next generation as a transgender man. The first publicly out transgender high school coach in the United States.
Eight years later, some things haven’t changed about him. Even at age 42, Alexander still exudes the youthful confidence and hope that leaped from Cyd Zeigler’s profile of him and his journey in 2013.
Underneath, much as changed. Coach’s whistles have been replaced, at least temporarily, by teaching whiteboards. These days, the small-town wonder is a professor at a small college in Rhode Island’s largest city, Providence.
And as Outsports reported in October 2019, Stephen Alexander is also a husband.
To Alexander, these bookends — from the end of his coaching days to his wedding, from his days before transition to now — are the result of lot of wise reflection, but not dwelling on what was.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” he said when asked about what he’d tell his younger self if he could. “But I was stubborn and ignorant, but that was also what created my survival. It has really been a ride.”
That wisdom gained helped cushion what was at times a rough ride. When we met him in 2013, then-coach Stephen Alexander had gained experience with 5 different teams over more than 3 years at Ponaganset High School near his hometown of Glocester, R.I.
He was also struggling in a tug-of-war with the future and the past. The future being the student-athletes who rallied around their coach and older townspeople still clinging to the person they knew in the past.
“There have been a lot of ups and a lot of downs, but I’ve moved on from Ponaganset.”
A big part of that moving on involved a different reconnection with his past.
The year was 2001. Stephen Alexander was a graduate student-intern at Youth Pride, and there was a volunteer working with him named Kate Sahler. The two became friends, but then lost touch as each followed their own path.
At the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference in 2015, their paths crossed again. “It was last day of the conference and I was helping to promote a documentary,” Alexander recalled. “Kate just tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Stephen?’ I turned around and I was just really excited to see her. We exchanged numbers and struck up a friendship again.”
The reconnection followed a number of life changes for each of them. Alexander had spent a great deal of time in self-examination since his days as a grad student. He moved away from Rhode Island to New York City, continued his transition, traveled the world, and eventually moved home. Sahler graduated and built a career as a nurse.
Together they rebuilt a friendship. Both slowly saw it morph into a new direction together.
“Stephen was really sweet, kind and understanding and took me as who I was and where I was at the time,” Sahler told Outsports.
When they reconnected, Alexander was pondering the next move beyond being a coach. “There was a switch in me that was about me wanting to live life and it just fell into place.” he said. “I did not think that would be possible, but just as coming out was sending a signal out in term of confidence. You love yourself, you find your passions in life, you meet people through your passions.”
She was drawn to his passion to serve his community, but that passion ran into the roadblock of a hard reality. Part of that was trying to move forward as a man in the world, whose hometown clinged to the memory of “their girl”. A visible reminder underscores this conflict: It’s a banner still hanging in the Ponaganset gym celebrating 1,000 points scored. It’s emblazoned with a name Stephen Alexander would rather forget.
The other part was attitudes. His vision of an inclusive tomorrow clashed with the conservative community’s firm grip on yesterday. His weariness with those attitudes led Alexander to leave Glocester in 2017. By that time, he had built a reputation as a speaker and a consultant on equity issues as well.
He moved to Providence and reset his life. Eventually, Sahler joined him there. Their friendship evolved, and on October 5, 2019, Stephen Alexander and Kate Sahler were wed.
Alexander sent Outsports this account of the special day:
The wedding was held at Roger Williams Park and included a whimsical Merry Go Round first look, fall flowers and foliage, a pre-ceremony dance in the sunlight at the Temple of Music, hot cider and popcorn, a stroll down Lovers Bridge, biodegradable confetti cannons, dinner and dancing at the Casino and a drag queen story time with the fabulous Naomi Chomsky reading ‘A Day in the Life Of Marlon Bundo.’
Alexander credits his wife on how fabulous the day turned out. “It was the best day and she did most of the work,” he beamed. “She has that weird quirky art sense and she had everything set up.”
It’s a beautiful memory, but Alexander doesn’t dwell too long on memories; He finds new goals to chase. He began his teaching stint at RIC in 2019, in addition to working as a consultant. And he’s planning to umpire softball this spring and summer.
Alexander engages in trans advocacy locally, but he is careful about being in the spotlight or being centered. That said, he does not hold back his opinion on the current anti-trans legislative onslaught nationwide. “There’s no debate,” he said. “Our bodies are not up for debate. Trans kids need access to sports.”
Both Alexander and Sahler said kids are high on the list of future goals for their family. “We find a lot of hope and support and joy in both our immediates families and our queer family,” Sahler said. “We want to add into that family and really show some little humans what being kind and good and taking care of each other looks like.”
Alexander agreed, adding that parenthood is the next natural step in his own continuing evolution. “I’m hopeful about the future and I’m looking forward to being a parent,” he said, a growing grin on his face. “What excites me is all the possibilities.”
“Kate asked me, ‘What if our kid doesn’t like sports?’” And Alexander said he pondered that question before responding: “I said, ‘I’m fine with that’. I’m going to be fascinated with whatever they pick up and to see them grow and develop.”
From the reporter’s notebook: How Coach Alexander coached this writer
I met Stephen Alexander in 2016. He was giving a presentation on his story, his journey, and his love of coach at the True Colors Conference at the University of Connecticut. He was one of headliners of the annual gathering of LGBTQ and ally high school and middle school students.
I was volunteering in an information booth for one of the sponsoring organizations for the conference, but I was particularly drawn to attending the session featuring this dynamo from Rhode Island. I had heard of his story and being a person looking at their own gender identity, what direction to go next, and how sports can fit in, I wanted to hear this story and maybe gain some inspiration.
After the session, I made it a point to talk to this person. That led to a conversation and an invitation to have lunch with him and others afterward.
It was during that lunch intermission where I got a piece of locker room wisdom that made a great deal of difference in my life going forward. I had expressed a worry that transition would mean I wouldn’t be accepted in the sports world. as a competitor or journalist.
He looked me in the eye and said with that intense smile, “You can transition and you can play, too! That door is not closed to you at all.”
When I interviewed him last week, I recalled this story to him. There was something deep in his memory. He looked at me via the video conference link, and the recognition fell into place.
In many ways that one moment propelled a lot of success and victory for myself after that. No surprise. It’s what good coaches do. — Karleigh Webb
Outsports welcomes suggestions for our Out In the World series. Who would you like to hear from again? Also, please reach out if you yourself would like to update us on what you’ve been doing since coming out in Outsports.
Check out our archive of coming out stories.
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])
If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.