Michelle Tumolo Holds Nothing Back at Army

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER


Until 2011, a gay person could be in the military, but they couldn’t be out. Cadets at the United States Military Academy were expected to abide by this policy, which enacted by the Clinton administration and called, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The policy ended in 2011 after the Senate and House of Representatives voted to repeal it, and President Barrack Obama signed legislation to end it.

That same year, Michelle Tumolo led Syracuse with 66 points. Her coaches and teammates knew she was gay — she’d been out since high school. She was never one not to tell people who she was and who she loved. So, when Army Executive Associate Athletics Director Kristine Fowler shot her an email to gauge her interest in the women’s lacrosse head coaching job last summer, Tumolo didn’t ask for permission to be herself. Instead, she told Fowler who she was in the first few minutes of the call.

“I am an openly gay female, and I have been for years,” Tumolo recalled saying. “She was quick to assure me that things were not like the past.”

Tumolo did some more research on Army and read up on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Her family remembered the policy, too, and talked to her about it. Tumolo was thriving in her first head coaching job at Wagner and wasn’t even looking to leave. Was she sure she wanted to entertain coaching at Army?

“They know how important it is for me to be supported and celebrated for who I am,” Tumolo said.

Ultimately, what Tumolo learned only made her want the job more.

“[I wanted] to have representation and be who I am at this academy,” Tumolo said. “You don’t need to be put in a box to be somewhere.”

Tumolo traveled from Staten Island to West Point for an interview. Lara Bennett, at the time her fiancé, came, too — the athletics department invited her, a sign maybe things really had changed.

As Tumolo spoke with administrators and coaches and learned more about the department, she also made sure they learned about her.

“As a coach, I am exactly who I am,” Tumolo said. “I am Michelle Tumolo through and through. Something I am so excited and grateful for is the person who I married, who is a woman. I brought that up a lot.”

Of course, Tumolo talked lacrosse, too. And there’s arguably no one better to talk about the game with than Tumolo. An All-American and Tewaaraton finalist at Syracuse, Tumolo had most recently led Wagner to a 29-13 mark and one NEC tournament championship in three seasons.

Who Tumolo was — as a coach and person — was more than OK. It was the perfect fit. She got the job.

It’s one thing to say you’re accepting and even butter up a top candidate during the interview process. It’s another thing to practice it day in and day out. West Point has. Tumolo’s players threw her a bridal shower. She and her wife live on-post at West Point, which is United States Military Academy housing, and feel welcome.







Tumolo knows it wasn’t always this accepting at West Point. Kaitlyn Kelly, the assistant women’s rugby coach, was a cadet during “don’t ask, don’t tell” and has lent valuable perspective on how far the academy has come. Tumolo appreciates the people who have paved the way for her, and she hopes that she and her assistant, Katrina Dowd, who is also openly gay, can do the same for others.

“I don’t feel alone at all at this place,” Tumolo said. “It really is amazing to be a part of this and to make a change. We need to be visible. For me to be able to be myself and a coach here is a win in that book.”

Tumolo has always been herself. As a player, her creative footwork was legendary. Ask college players today who they looked up to as kids, and most will tell you about how they stayed up late searching “Michelle Tumolo” on YouTube.

But when people think about Army, their minds may not shift to someone who stands out. Instead, they may think of everyone in one uniform with the same straight-faced expression, even in the most dangerous situations.  

And many of Tumolo’s players will go on to fulfill that idea as members of the military. But under the surface, they are still human — and so is Tumolo. She isn’t afraid to show that, and she did during a nationally televised game against Navy. The Black Knights had never beaten the Mids in the Gold Star game, the name for the clash between the two service academies. But that changed on April 23, when Army took down its rival 14-9. Tumolo didn’t bother with a straight-faced façade. She cried.

“You want to be able to feel like your complete self and express every emotion,” Tumolo said. “I love this team, and [the staff] wanted this so bad for the players. The service academies aren’t like any civilian school, so for them to be able to be a part of the game is incredible.”

Tumolo wants her players to know it’s OK to show emotion. As a gay woman, she’s acutely aware of studies that show LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to struggle with their mental health. She also knows how important support is and how lucky she is to have received it, not only at Army but throughout her life.

“My family, my wife’s family, my coaches, everyone around me [have supported me],” Tumolo said. “I can’t really pinpoint much negative. I try to express that to people, but I also know that there is not that everywhere. That’s something I’ve [posted] on my Instagram. ‘Hey, if you’re an LGBTQ+ youth struggling to come out, and don’t have that acceptance, reach out to me.’”

Tumolo tells her players the same about mental health, regardless of sexual orientation. As a former Division I lacrosse player and coach, she knows student-athletes are struggling. It’s a topic that’s been thrust into the spotlight lately among a string of student-athlete who have died by suicide this spring. She wants her student-athletes to feel comfortable talking about their issues, even though they are athletes — even though they are cadets.

“I want them to feel so supported and loved that even on their worst day, they can contact me and say, ‘Hey coach, I am just not having a good day. I’m not able to come to practice,’” Tumolo said. “That shows me they are taking care of their mental health … I am happy to receive text messages like that because it shows they feel comfortable.”

And she hopes that being comfortable in her own skin — by being Michelle Tumolo through and through — is contagious.

“I know life isn’t easy,” Tumolo said. “Same with Katrina Dowd. We help our kids by being very confident, out women, even if they are not LGBTQ+. It’s [about] being themselves, whoever they are, being authentic.”

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