PORTLAND, Oregon — The soccer coach saw the 20 or so players and felt the tension rip through him. His heart was pounding and his voice was unsteady.
Kaig Leitner (pronounced “cage,” the phonetic contraction of his initials K and J) has been thinking about this moment since he founded the Portland Community Football Club in the summer of 2013. A generation of immigrant youth who lived in the most miserable part of his city.
Over the next four years, Kaig was a friend, ally, and even a father figure to some players.
How would they react if he said he was raised as a girl?
He always asked his players to be open and honest about their lives.
The election of Donald Trump, who has promised to appoint conservative judges and has been seen to oppose gay rights and support conversion therapy, Vice President Mike Pence’s election to the , ignited feelings of suspicion and insecurity among bisexual and transgender communities. Lightner certainly felt it. He worried that this afternoon’s tween and teen players would leave his club. , families will cut ties.
With all this in mind, Lightner took a deep breath and knew he needed to speak up.
“I haven’t fully shared anything about myself with you.”
“It’s important to me to share with you because we should all be ourselves.”
“I am transgender.”
One player chuckled nervously, then walked over to Lightner for a hug. Most people looked straight at the coach in some kind of amazement and awe.
Born Katherine Jean Leitner and growing up in a comfortable suburb east of Seattle, Leitner’s adolescence wasn’t easy. Lightner, who agreed to use her former name and gender identity throughout this article, said that she was a boy trapped in a girl’s body, starting when she was four years old. I remember a paralyzing fear. He protested when his family called him Katie. It sounded too feminine. Kate was a little better. He refused ballet lessons. His mother bought him a tailored dress, which he wore once and vowed never to wear again.
Over the years, Kate has grown fond of backwards baggy pants, sweatshirts, billowing t-shirts and baseball caps. My favorite birthday present was a bright red Michael He Jordan baseball jersey.
Leslie Ridge, a friend who went to high school with Lightner in the 1990s, said, “The way she showed herself didn’t look like a typical girl. It was cruel to see how painful it was for her.”
The mockery and insecurities of bullying ignited a terrible internal storm. “I came to think of myself as a weirdo,” recalls Leitner. “I had this feeling that I don’t belong here. I don’t belong in any space.”
Sports became a refuge.
A good athlete in softball, basketball, and soccer, Leitner realized that on the field or court you could be judged on performance alone.
“Sports kept me alive.”
After serving as a boat crew at the University of Washington, Lightner moved to Portland after graduating in the early 2000s. There he coached soccer for children aged 8 to his 14, on a team that initially looked much like the white, wealthy team Leitner had grown up on.
After changing his name to Kaigu, Lightner approached a fellow soccer coach whom he considered a trusted friend, explaining that this was the first step to becoming a man.
The reaction was laughter.
“It didn’t take me long to realize back then, circa 2005, 2006, 2007, that coaching as an outtrans person wasn’t going to work,” Leitner said. “
Leitner left coaching for a while. He flew to Baltimore for a mastectomy and started weekly hormone replacement therapy. his voice deepened. A new layer of muscle wrapped around his shoulder. His chin became square and a beard began to grow on his face.
Eventually, he landed a job as an after-school program instructor in a working-class suburb of Portland, home to immigrants from Africa, Mexico, Latin America, and Asia.
Leitner soon realized that the abundance of sporting opportunities in the city’s wealthier communities was almost non-existent for the children he now works with. He always felt like an outsider, but the players he coached—children of working-class immigrants living in his one of America’s most white cities—felt themselves. I found myself thinking in much the same way. Thinking about how best to help, Leitner focused on what had driven his adolescent woes over the years.
“Football has been my primary way to find healing and connection, and I wanted that for these kids, too,” he said.
After a year of seed funding, Lightner formed the Portland Community Football Club in 2013 using grants and donated equipment from Nike. The club was unusual because everyone had a place. no one was cut. Leitner emphasized developing skilled players rather than producing stars. The family paid him $50 to attend, but less was fine. It’s okay if you don’t pay a dime.
Fifty children showed up for his first practice, held in a corner of a public park. Soon he was 75, then 100. The club played in winter, spring, summer and fall.
“Coach Kaig has become an integral part of our lives,” says Shema Jack, one of the program’s early heavyweights. Now a 22-year-old Marine, Jack first learned the basics of football in a refugee camp in Rwanda, but honed his game at PCFC. He will be there for us for whatever we need. ”
Leitner has been open about being a transgender man to everyone in his life, except PCFC players and family, and the cacophony has eaten him up. gathered all the players who participated in the chat before practice.
“I want people to know me and I want them to know that I am still me,” he said. “I’m the same person I was five minutes ago when you all knew this, right? They are the same people who stand by your side and love you no matter what.
When he looked into the eyes of his players, he saw nothing but acceptance. One of them was Jack.
“Suddenly you hear it and it all makes sense,” Jack said. I’m trying to blend in. I actually felt more connected to him while he was talking and I’m not alone.He’s still the person I admired and wanted to be was.”
Six years later, the only thing that has changed at PCFC is its growth. We have more coaches and a smaller administrative staff. The roster ballooned to his 165. This goes beyond just soccer. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Lightner received a grant that enabled his PCFC to help families access fresh groceries, rental assistance and social services.
“No family abandoned Kaig after he told the truth,” says Carolina Morales Hernandez. Carolina Morales Hernandez’s young son and daughter grew up in this program.
“Sometimes people come in and call me and say, ‘Hey, I heard something about Kaig,'” she adds. “I was like, ‘Oh, yes, yes. The head of the PCFC is transgender, but that doesn’t change anything. Everyone is welcome.'”