‘Everybody Is Welcome Here.’
PORTLAND, Ore. — The soccer coach looked out at two dozen or so of his players and felt nervousness course through him like a rip current. His heart pounded, and his voice felt unsteady.
Kaig Lightner (pronounced “Cage,” a phonetic shortening of his initials — K and J) had been thinking of this moment since the summer of 2013 when he founded the Portland Community Football Club, a program for teaching soccer to mostly first- and second-generation immigrant youth who lived in his city’s most distressed neighborhoods.
In the four years since, Coach Kaig had become a friend, an ally and even, to some of his players, a father figure.
How would they react once he told them he had been raised as a girl?
He had always asked his players to be open and honest about their lives. That he had not modeled such deep honesty filled him with remorse.
The election of Donald Trump — who had promised to appoint conservative judges and whose vice president, Mike Pence, had opposed gay rights and was seen as supporting conversion therapy — had ignited a sense of foreboding and uncertainty within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Lightner certainly felt it. He worried that the players — tweens and teens on this afternoon — would leave his club. Or that their families would cut ties, no matter how good the program had been at mentoring and providing a safe space to grow up in.
Lightner considered all of this, took a deep breath and knew he needed to speak up.
“I haven’t totally shared with you something about myself.”
“It’s an important thing for me to share with you because we all should be who we are.”
“I am transgender.”
One player chuckled nervously but walked to Lightner for a hug. Most looked straight at their coach in a kind of wonder and awe.
Born Katherine Jean Lightner and raised in a comfortable suburb east of Seattle, nothing about Lightner’s adolescence was easy. Lightner, who consented to the use of his former name and gender identity throughout this article, recalls a paralyzing fear that began around age 4 that he was a boy stuck in a girl’s body. When his family called him Katie, he protested. It sounded too feminine. Kate was better by a shade. He refused ballet lessons. His mother bought him a tailored dress. He wore it once, then vowed to never wear it again.
As the years went on, Kate favored baggy pants, sweats, billowing T-shirts and baseball caps turned backward. A favorite birthday gift was a bright red Michael Jordan baseball jersey.
“The way she presented, she did not look like a typical girl,” recalled Leslie Ridge, a friend who attended high school with Lightner in the 1990s. “And because of that, she was made fun of constantly, especially by boys. It was brutal to see how painful that was for her.”
The bullying taunts and sense of unease ignited a terrible internal storm. “I began to think of myself as a freak,” recalls Lightner. “The feeling was that I don’t belong here. I don’t belong in any space.”
Sports became a refuge.
An excellent softball, basketball and soccer athlete, Lightner found that on fields and courts he could be judged solely based on performance.
“Sports kept me alive.”
After rowing crew at the University of Washington, Lightner moved to Portland after graduation in the early 2000s. There he coached soccer for kids between 8 and 14 on a team that initially looked much the same as the white, affluent ones on which Lightner had grown up playing.
After changing his name to Kaig, Lightner approached a fellow soccer coach he regarded as a trustworthy friend and explained that this was a first step toward becoming a man.
The reaction was laughter.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that coaching as an out trans person at that time, in the years around 2005, ’06, ’07, was just not going to work,” Lightner said. “I was not going to be safe.”
Lightner left coaching for a while. He flew to Baltimore for breast removal surgery and began weekly sessions of hormone replacement therapy. His voice deepened. New layers of muscle wrapped around his shoulders. His jaw grew square, and his face sprouted the beginnings of a beard.
Eventually, he took a job as an instructor for after-school programs in the working-class outskirts of Portland, home to the city’s population of immigrants from Africa, Mexico, Central and South America, and Asia.
Lightner quickly saw that the abundant sports opportunities in the city’s wealthier communities barely existed for the kids he was now working with. He had always felt like an outsider and now saw that the players he coached — the children of working-class immigrants in one of America’s whitest cities — thought of themselves in much the same way. Considering how he could best help, Lightner focused on what had kept him going through all those years of adolescent anguish.
“Soccer had been my main way of finding healing and connection, and I wanted that for these kids, too,” he said.
After a year of cobbling together seed money, Lightner formed the Portland Community Football Club in 2013 with grant funding and donated equipment from Nike. The club was a rarity because everybody had a place. Nobody got cut. Lightner emphasized developing skilled players more than turning out stars. Families paid $50 to join, but less than that was OK. Not paying a dime was fine, too.
At his first practice, held in a worn corner of a public park, 50 kids showed up. Soon it was 75. Then 100. The club played during the winter, spring, summer and fall.
“Coach Kaig became a constant in our lives,” says Shema Jacques, one of the program’s early stalwarts. Jacques, now a 22-year-old Marine, first picked up the basics of soccer in a Rwandan refugee camp but honed his game at P.C.F.C. “From the start, I could tell he believed in us. He would be there for us for anything we needed. I had never experienced someone being like that before.”
Lightner was open about being a transgender man to everyone in his life except the players and families of P.C.F.C., and the dissonance ate at him. So on that rain-swept day in 2017, he gathered every player who had shown up for a chat before practice.
“I want you guys to know about me, and I also want you guys to know that I’m still me,” he said. “I’m still the same person I was five minutes before you all knew this, right? I’m still the same guy who comes out here, gets you guys to be better soccer players, gets on you when you’re not playing hard, loves you no matter what.”
He saw nothing but acceptance as he looked into his players’ eyes. One of them was Jacques.
“Suddenly, hearing that, it all made sense,” Jacques said. “This is why he knows what it is like for so many of us — not being accepted, trying hard to fit in. I actually felt more connected to him as he spoke, and I am not alone. He was still the person I looked up to and wanted to be like.”
Six years later, the only thing that has changed about P.C.F.C. is its growth. There are more coaches and a small administrative staff. The roster of registered players has swelled to 165. It is also about more than just soccer now. During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Lightner received a grant that allowed P.C.F.C. to provide its families with fresh groceries, rental assistance and help tapping into social services.
“None of the families abandoned Kaig once he spoke his truth,” says Carolina Morales Hernandez, whose young son and daughter have grown up in the program.
“Sometimes people join, and they will call me and say, ‘We heard this and that about Kaig,’” she adds. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s true, yep. The head of the P.C.F.C. is a transgender person, but that changes nothing. Everybody is welcome here.’”