Sexuality, Pride and women’s basketball

This week I’m devoting several posts stemming from Monday’s 42nd Title IX anniversary, with an emphasis on cultural issues relating to gender and sports. Here are previous posts on “Title IX, sports and the culture of grievance,” and “Pop feminism hits the sports pages.”

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The latest development on the gays-in-sports front is a league-wide initiative by the Women’s National Basketball Association to market to the LGBT community. While this news wasn’t exactly earth-shattering — several WNBA teams undertook similar, more modest efforts years ago — what’s notable about the WNBA Pride campaign is how straight and gay players alike are stepping forward in a visible, unified way.

Some out WNBA players continue to appear in various Pride parades in their cities, most recently Layshia Clarendon of the Indiana Fever. Her coach, Lin Dunn, also has been outspoken on the topic, expanding the message of inclusion that’s coming from the 12-team league, its players, coaches and personnel.

InMySkinThis is a significant step, not just for the movement of gays in sports, but also as it relates to women’s basketball, which has had a difficult history with the issue.

There are those who are skeptical of the WNBA campaign, which is admittedly a business decision. Given the comings-out of Jason Collins and Michael Sam, male athletes in team sports, along with the the expansion of marriage equality how gay and lesbian consumers have long been the target of an array of marketing drives, this one might seem behind the curve.

That’s what Juliet Macur of The New York Times argued in taking a bit of a shot at the WNBA, mentioning fans of the Washington Mystics who demonstrated their Pride at games in the late 1990s, before the franchise, and the league, was ready for them.

In 2009 the managing partner for the Mystics explained that there wasn’t a “kiss cam” because it wasn’t appropriate for kids who may see two people of the same sex smooching.

Longtime WNBA writer Jayda Evans of The Seattle Times, an open lesbian, blasted the WNBA Pride initiative as disingenous and behind the times.

Two lesbian San Antonio fans recently told MeChelle Voepel of that they still don’t detect a true comfort level from the Stars franchise, in spite of WNBA Pride. Voepel also noted that last year, Stars player Sophia Young spoke out strongly against same-sex marriage, and that this was discussed with her teammates. They didn’t disclose how the conversation went.

But they are part of a wave of players who have had enough of the concealment that’s rampant in the college game. Most notable among them is former Baylor All-American and NCAA champion Brittney Griner, who came out weeks after her college career ended last year. Before she had been drafted by the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, she posed for a profile piece in ESPN The Magazine with a snake coiled around her tattooed, 6-foot-8 body, and talked openly about being a closeted collegiate player.

In “In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court,” published this spring, Griner writes about feeling the pain of her father’s rejection of her sexuality when she was in high school, then accommodating her college coach’s request not to reveal her sexuality. Kim Mulkey, according to Griner, had no problem with gay players, but having them out on a strict Baptist campus posed some problems:

“Big girl, I don’t care what you are. You can be black, white, blue, purple, whatever. As long as you come here and do what you need to do and hoop, I don’t care.”

As long as it was “behind closed doors.” Griner comes off a bit churlish denouncing Baylor’s anti-gay campus policies, saying she only learned about them from other gay students, with whom she met secretly. She never mentions if she considered transferring from the private institution because of this.

In her book, written with former ESPN The Magazine editor Sue Hovey, Griner also expressed contempt for the “paranoid” world of women’s college basketball, in which only one NCAA Division I coach — Sherri Murrell of Portland State — is an open lesbian.

Few players also come out while they are in college, and many endure what espnW columnist Kate Fagan experienced while playing basketball at Colorado more than a decade ago. In her memoir, “The Reappearing Act,” Fagan writes movingly (excerpt here) about coming to terms with her own sexuality while playing on a team with several “born again” Christians, including a roommate who could not accept her admission.


Unlike Baylor, Colorado is a public university, and one with a liberal student reputation. Fagan, who came from New York state to play for the nationally prominent Buffaloes, found a different environment within her own locker room.

Complicating her struggles was the fact that some of Fagan’s most zealously religious teammates were also “praying” that Ceal Barry, their closeted coach, would turn away from a “sinful” lifestyle.

Fagan — who wrote some of the Griner pieces for ESPN The Magazine and is Hovey’s domestic partner — recalls being rocked by a conversation with the mother of a Colorado high school recruit who said she didn’t “want my daughter coming to a school run by dykes.”

This is the still-untouchable third rail of women’s hoops, the most common reason cited for why lesbian coaches stay hidden: So they can persuade the parents of teenage girls to sign scholarship offers, and to prevent rival coaches from using the issue on the recruiting trail.

Fagan’s complex relationship with Barry reaches a climax near the end of the book, when she meets privately with her coach. After Barry explains why she operates the way she does, Fagan writes that she asked “Who gets to know all of you?” Barry replied:

” ‘You’ll find these people, and when you do, keep them close to you. . . . I tell only a select few. I tell only people I absolutely trust. That’s it. I’m too worried about the impact on my career.’ “

Fagan, who returned to Boulder for a book appearance in May that included Barry, now a senior associate athletics director at Colorado, recently toldThe Awlthat “there really is a myth out there that women’s sports is some sort of lesbian paradise.” This week, she reiterated that despite gay-friendly initiatives — including a video from the NCAA champion UConn women’s hoops team — it’s hard to regard the sport as “an open and inclusive environment.”

I’m not a fan of Fagan’s journalism at espnW — she plays a heavy-handed gender-and-culture card that is all too familiar in the mainstream media — but to her credit she didn’t get into this in her book. Her painful, but hopeful personal story is an honest and bracing primer for anyone trying to understand what she, and many other athletes, have gone through, and still do.

It’s been only seven years since Rene Portland — a former coach at Colorado — was forced to resign at Penn State after a former player filed suit, claiming she was dismissed for being gay. Portland, who had a history of booting lesbians from her Lady Lions teams — see the excellent documentary, “Training Rules” — was long backed by Penn State officials and the late Joe Paterno, who hired her.

I’ve understood for years that many of the kids playing women’s hoops — and this is at the high school level — don’t care who’s gay, if they’re not. Some parents still do, and I don’t know how the college scene becomes more welcoming for coaches and players who want to be out. Fagan’s pessimism is understandable to a degree.

Perhaps the WNBA Pride campaign will eventually soften some of the hardened ground that exists in the college game. I hate to trot out the cliché that it might be only a matter of time for more openness to exist.

Criticisms of WNBA league management aside, I’d like to think that what we’re seeing from WNBA players is the emergence of a younger generation of female athletes who are taking some encouraging steps in a more inclusive time.

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