What Baylor University And Brittney Griner Tell Us About What It Means To Be “Out Of The Closet”

Brittney Griner, the Baylor University basketball star who made headlines this spring both when Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban offered her a tryout to see if she’d be able to play competitively in the National Basketball Association rather than the WNBA—she ultimately signed with the Phoenix Mercury, a women’s team—and then when she confirmed that she’d always been open about her sexual orientation—she is gay—with people who knew her in person, even in Baylor’s observantly Christian environment. Now, in an a pair of interviews with ESPN, Griner explains that even though she was able to be personally out of the closet, the women’s basketball team encouraged her to keep the story from going national during her career:

In a series of interviews — including one on camera Friday — for an ESPN The Magazine and story set to hit newsstands later this month, Griner said her silence during college was because Mulkey and her staff were concerned about the program’s image.

“It was more of a unwritten law [to not discuss your sexuality] … it was just kind of, like, one of those things, you know, just don’t do it,” Griner said Friday. “They kind of tried to make it, like, ‘Why put your business out on the street like that?'”

But Griner reiterated on Friday that her sexuality was an open secret at Baylor.

“I told Coach [Mulkey] when she was recruiting me. I was like, ‘I’m gay. I hope that’s not a problem,’ and she told me that it wasn’t,” Griner said. “I mean, my teammates knew, obviously they all knew. Everybody knew about it.”

It’s unfortunate that Baylor basically told Griner that her sexual orientation was no big deal—as long as, by their definition, she didn’t make it that way. And her experience raises interesting questions about what it means for a person to be out of the closet, particularly if their lives are bifurcated between their personal social experiences and a national role.

Baylor’s question, as Griner phrased it, “Why put your business out on the street like that?” speaks to the difference beween so-called tolerance and actual acceptance of LGBTQ people. In the absence of confirmation that someone is gay, they’re assumed to be straight, in part because that’s an assumption that makes people who have little experience with gay people more comfortable. Heterosexuality isn’t “business” that makes anti-gay people uncomfortable to encounter. It’s a neutral default. And because of that assumed neutrality, heterosexuality isn’t something that it’s possible to be “out” about. It’s presumed to be visible even if a theoretically heterosexual person isn’t actually dating someone in a way that publicly confirms their sexual orientation. Heterosexuality can only be disproved. Homosexuality or bisexuality, by contrast, aren’t necessarily visible to a casual observer who chooses not to see the possibility that a figure like Griner could be gay. But that LGBTQ people have to confirm their sexual orientations, at this point, says as much about outsiders who assume they must be straight as it does about LGBTQ people themselves.

And it’s that dynamic that upsets the long-established narrative of coming out particularly for public figures. If Griner was out to her friends, family, and potential partners at Baylor, is the fact that a national audience didn’t know or think that she might be gay on her, or on that audience? Coming out has been framed as a triumphal process, both for the person who finally gets to acknowledge their true identity in public after suffering under pressure to hide, and for people who benefit from the knowledge that there are happy gay people in, say, college sports. But conversely, there’s something frustrating about the idea that Griner, who was out to people who know her in real life already, has to inform a national audience who assumed she was straight by lazy default that, no, actually, she’s gay. It’s great that Griner’s willing to use her experience to educate a national audience about what it’s like for a talented gay woman to coexist with an institution that has openly homophobic statements of principals on its books. But that her experience still seems novel enough to merit news coverage says less about her courage, and more about the lack of imagination of viewers at home who hadn’t bothered to think about Baylor’s treatment of gay and potentially gay players until Griner stepped forward.