With all the hoopla over basketball player Jason Collins becoming the first man in one of the top American pro sports leagues to come out as gay, and then with more hoopla over newly out pro soccer player Robbie Rogers becoming the first openly gay man to actually compete on the field (Collins won’t play as an “out” man until next season), the story of Brittney Griner seems to have been largely ignored.
Griner, the 6′ 8″ superstar from Baylor University who’s now playing professionally for the Phoenix Mercury, did get a lot of ink this week for being the first pro woman hoopster to dunk twice in a game. And ESPN has been outstanding in its coverage of her.
But there was much more of a ho-hum response to her revealing at the very outset of her pro career that she’s a lesbian. After all, we expect women athletes to be gay, right? And especially someone like Griner, who rides a skateboard, dresses comfortably in pants and suits (rather than apologetically) and has a deep voice. So who cares? But a man coming out–that’s such a taboo in sports! How brave he must be! Look at the risk he’s taking with his teammates!
Think about it: When gay men come out, the first questions are usually Will their teammates accept them? Will they make their teammates uncomfortable in the locker room? There’s that endless homophobic fear that gay athletes in locker rooms just want to check out their teammates’ bods–the same sort of fear that led to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the military (remember the tour that Sen. Sam Nunn led of the cramped quarters of a submarine?)
When a gay woman comes out in sports, a very different Pandora’s Box opens. There’s far less fear of acceptance by teammates or competitors, but more pressure to act “in the best interest of the sport.” The owners and leaders of women’s professional sports have long worried about the public image the players put forth–it had better be a straight one! Otherwise we can’t attract a broad audience to the sport! So emphasize how pretty players dress up after a game! Show them with their husband and kids! Have them make statements like, “You can be tough in a game, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be feminine, too!” Male athletes prove their masculinity on the court or field; women often have to prove their femininity after the final whistle blows.
The Brittney Griner story turned out to be not just about women in professional sports, though: Griner revealed to ESPN just how much policing of lesbian athletes went on when she was still in college. We’ve heard the horror stories of how former hyper-homophobic Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene (pronounced “Ree-Knee”) Portland refused to accept athletes on her team who were gay, or who even seemed gay. Finally, one of those non-gay athletes who Portland had belittled and harrassed successfully sued, and in 2007 Portland was finally sent packing. Outsports ranked the long-hoped-for ousting of Portland as #47 on its list of the 100 most important moments in gay sports history.
Turned out that Griner faced homophobia at Baylor, too, but of a much subtler variety. She was always out, but it was indicated to her by Coach Kim Mulkey and others that she should keep her lesbianism on the down low. As Griner told ESPN The Magazine and espnW,
It was a recruiting thing. The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.
Baylor, being a private Baptist University, actually enshrines homophobia in its student handbook. Located under “sexual misconduct” in its “statement on human sexuality,” it says that
Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm. Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. …
The university encourages students “struggling with these issues” to consult the Spiritual Life Office or university counseling.
The point is that Griner’s coming out is not something to be quickly forgotten: It’s a big deal. She’s still one of the few out women athletes currently playing in U.S. professional sports, but she’s one of the most famous. And she’s telling some truths that need to be heard and addressed. Consider that it wasn’t long ago that another Baylor player, Emily Nkosi (formerly Niemann), a member of Baylor’s 2005 championship team, left the school because, she says, was so afraid of what would happen (would she lose her scholarship) if it were revealed she was a lesbian and in a relationship with a fellow student (to whom she’s now married). And in coaching, Sherrie Murrell is the only openly gay women’s basketball coach in the top ranks of the college game, Division I. Even so, her school bio mentions her children but not her life partner.
Lesbian and bisexual women in college and professional sports are still hesitant to come out because of possible repercussions. (Trans women and trans men in women’s college sports is a whole other important discussion to have.) Some coaches probably still use a subtle homophobia in their recruiting (“our players are straight”), and administrators don’t create a non-discriminatory, welcoming environment for LGBT athletes. Change is gradual, but at least there’s progress. We cheer the few, such as Griner or Seimone Augustus, who have the confidence and chutzpah to be out. And we hope that others follow in their large footsteps, free of fear.
Photo of Brittney Griner accepting the Wade Trophy in 2012 as the best player in women’s college basketball, from Wikimedia Commons