Last week, the City Council in San Antonio passed a non-discrimination ordinance that adds gender identity, sexual orientation, and veteran status to race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age and disability as characteristics that businesses cannot use to discriminate against patrons or employees. The seventh most-populous city in the United States, San Antonio has the highest percentage of gay and lesbian couples who are raising kids. The ordinance gained steam after “the Human Rights Campaign released a dismal San Antonio score on their annual Municipal Equality Index, (48 out of 100, four points behind Houston, the second-lowest ranked Texas city).” San Antonio joins other Texas cities like Austin, El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Waco with the passage of this ordinance, as well as nearly 180 other cities around the country.
Coverage of the ordinance hit sports sections when on August 28, the WNBA San Antonio Silver Stars forward, Sophia Young, tweeted “Should San Antonio be a city that allows same sex marriage?? I vote NO.” She followed up that tweet with another that included an image of her wearing blue (the color of those opposing the ordinance), holding a sign that read “VOTE NO,” while attending what looks like one of the public forums about the ordinance. Again, she mentioned same-sex marriage in her tweet, not the non-discrimination ordinance. It’s clear that Young was confused about the particulars of what she was protesting but she did take a firm, public stance against civil rights for gay people.
Young’s stance drew shock and surprise from many corners, in part because of her confused tweets but also because of the economic reality of the league she plays in. The WNBA has a large LGBT fan base to which it directly markets its game.
Today that marketing centers on Brittney Griner, a unique talent and an openly gay player. The league has pinned its hopes on her as a cross-over star who can spread its popularity among all fans, and it hasn’t shied away from her sexuality in doing so. Kate Fagan’s recent cover story on Griner for ESPN Magazine highlighted how WNBA executives recognize the potential of Griner to appeal to their fan base and expand their market: “People who support the WNBA have progressive views on gender. They share the ultimate goal of living in a world where gender equality exists in all its forms,” league president Laurel Richie said. The WNBA has been building toward the emergence of a player who can embody this philosophy, and now here she is with her size 17 sneakers and 88-inch wingspan. “This feels like a magical moment,” Richie said. “I think years from now, we’ll look back on 2013 as the pivotal year for this league.”
When Young tweeted that she was against same sex marriage, she did not fit into either the idea of the openness of the WNBA (and other women’s sports) to gay players or into the WNBA’s own marketing plan to place Griner at the forefront of their league. In a short statement to the Huffington Post, Richie wrote, “Sophia has the right to express her point of view, however, I do not share her view. The WNBA supports diversity and we are committed to the equal and fair treatment of all people.”
Some surprise at Young’s tweets was also a product of the narrative that women’s sports are much better than men’s when it comes to being a safe space for gay athletes. The Atlantic described the WNBA as being “light years ahead of any other professional American sports league when it comes to progress for gay players and gay fans” because of the number of publicly out gay players.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, though, by Young’s tweets. “Even though women’s sports have a reputation for being somewhat of a haven for non-heterosexual women, the reality is that many women’s sports teams, including athletes, coaches, and administrators, are homophobic,” Fannie Wolfe, a lesbian blogger, said. “I know many lesbian coaches at the high school and college level, for instance, but only a fraction of them feel that they can talk openly about their partners or acknowledge that they are gay.” That sentiment is echoed by people like Dr. Pat Griffin, a professor and advocate for LGBT rights in sports, who has said that there still exists “an amazing division between lesbians and straight women in sports.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, there is evidence to suggest that even if coming out may be easier for female athletes than it is for men, that doesn’t mean it is easy. Only 6 years ago, Penn State forced the resignation of their women’s basketball coach, Rene Portland, because of her known “no-lesbians” policy. Three years before Griner arrived at Baylor, Sophia Young was the star of that team. Young led her squad to the national championship in 2005. Unlike the WNBA, Young’s position on gay rights put her in a clear majority at Baylor, where Griner also won a national title but did it while living a less open life than she does now. Openly gay women’s college basketball coaches have said that homophobia hurts their recruiting. Sue Wicks, a former player, said she was asked to deny interview requests to lesbian publications while serving as an assistant coach. Others have identified a “homonegative environment” as one factor in the decline of female coaches in women’s collegiate sports.
In her profile of Griner, Fagan wrote about what it was like for Griner to be openly gay at Baylor University, a private Baptist university in Waco, Texas: “She and her parents say they knew nothing of the school’s policy against homosexuality or of coach Kim Mulkey’s code of silence on the matter. Griner says she came out to Mulkey during the recruiting process: “I was like, ‘I’m gay; I hope that’s not a problem.’ And she told me that it wasn’t.” But within her first few weeks at Baylor, Griner was asked by a school official to delete a tweet to an ex-girlfriend. Soon enough, she found herself living in a glass closet.” Griner told Fagan that the code of silence was “a recruiting thing. The coaches thought if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids play for Baylor.”
The idea that everything is getting better for LGBT people is a popular refrain, including when we talk about athletes, but Young’s tweets are an indication of how far we have to go, even in spaces like the WNBA that are often considered safe for LGBT people. Kye Allums, the first openly black trans man in sports history and former Division I basketball player at George Washington, said, “Yes, things are moving forward. We have players who are coming out. We have college players, we have high school, we have professional players. That’s amazing. Does that mean that everyone feels that way? Not at all.” For Allums, this is about how those who do come out are so much easier to focus on and so eclipse the many more athletes who do not feel safe coming out: “Does having high-profile players come out, does it make seem like things are OK and everything is all peachy? Of course. Those are the people we are focusing on. They are the people that have the highest platform. But the reality is it is still difficult for many women, for a lot of men to come out. It’s just difficult period.”
Perhaps the prevalence of the refrain that “everything is getting better” is why Sophia Young’s tweets can seem so surprising to many when, in fact, they more accurately reflect the truth about at least a lingering segment of sports culture (and our culture writ large). Still, there are glimmers of hope, and they are becoming more common by the day. That the WNBA and Nike have embraced Griner and made her the face of women’s basketball and, to an extent, women’s sports, is a testament to that. Still, 11 days before Young wrote her tweets and took a stand against the San Antonio ordinance, she and Griner met on the court for the first time as professionals. One was already symbol of how much progress the WNBA and women’s sports have made. The other would soon become a testament to how far they still have to go.