A gender nonconforming WNBA star is pushing the league forward on LGBTQ inclusion

“People are threatened when we don’t fit into the boxes.”

Atlanta Dream guard Layshia Clarendon (23) gestures toward the bench in the first half of an WNBA basketball game against the New York Liberty in New York, Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Atlanta Dream guard Layshia Clarendon (23) gestures toward the bench in the first half of an WNBA basketball game against the New York Liberty in New York, Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

In 2014, the WNBA became the first professional sports league to openly embrace its LGBTQ fans by launching a league-wide LGBTQ Pride campaign during Pride month in June.

This was seen as a big step forward for a league that kept its public relationship with the LGBTQ community at arms length since its launch in 1996, presumably out of fear of losing sponsors or alienating more mainstream, conservative markets.

But Layshia Clarendon, an outspoken LGBTQ activist and point guard for the Atlanta Dream, saw firsthand that not everyone in the league embraced the WNBA’s new, more inclusive direction.

At the time, Clarendon was in her second year in the league, playing for the Indiana Fever. The Fever held an event during Pride month, but they called it Diversity Night — language Clarendon felt was purposefully coded, a way to tiptoe around the true purpose of recognizing Pride month. Still, she was excited to wear WNBA-branded Pride shirts on court with her teammates.

“I think the league has in some ways done the best they can in trying survive.”

Hours before the game, though, she found out that the Pride t-shirts would no longer be provided because some players objected to wearing the shirts, insisting it went against their moral beliefs. Clarendon, who is also a devout Christian, still doesn’t know who exactly had a problem with the shirts, but she does remember how it made her feel.

“It was difficult. A little bit heartbreaking, definitely very upsetting,” she told ThinkProgress on the Burn It All Down podcast this weekend.

“You show up and you either play with or against these players every single night, and you just start looking around — like a lot of us started doing after the Trump election — who didn’t want to wear the shirts? There’s that looking over your shoulder, like, ‘wow, I show up every day and there is someone out there that doesn’t believe that my life matters, or that I should be able to get married.’”

Thankfully, Clarendon has watched progress unfold in the past few years. Today, the WNBA has a float in the New York City Pride Parade (along with the NBA) and is pushing the envelope on progressive issues across the political landscape, including Black Lives Matter.

Clarendon, who is third in the WNBA in assists this season, was traded from the Fever to the Dream last year. She has been heartened by the diverse LGBTQ community in Atlanta, where the Dream’s Pride night last Friday was packed with rainbow-covered towels and multiple players on the court sporting Pride-themed sneakers.

Even Indiana has gotten better — this year, their Pride event was actually called Pride Night. But she still sees room for improvement. The league, which is 70 percent black, struggles with figuring out how to market its stars in a world where white, thin, and feminine is still the ideal standard for beauty — and therefore, marketability. Reporters tend to devote more ink to the ways the league is “struggling for relevance” rather than actually covering its games and athletes, and even those close with the league are sending mixed messages.

In 2015, Hall-of-Famer Sheryl Swoopes, who was the first prominent WNBA star to come out of the closet back in 2005, made waves when she said (both herself, and through a spokesperson) that the league needed to do a better job promoting its “pretty” players, and showing a softer side of its athletes. Swoopes, who is currently married to a man, also said the perception that most of the league is gay is hurting its ability to sell tickets. Then last year, retired WNBA star Candace Wiggins made headlines when she said—falsely—that 98 percent of the league is lesbian, and that she was bullied during her time in the league because she was straight.

“We live in a world that is divided male, female, the binaries really don’t give people any space to be in between.”

While many current stars in the league — including Clarendon — have pushed back on the comments by Swoopes and Wiggins, they do highlight the trouble many have accepting the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality that the WNBA finds itself dealing with daily.

“In some ways, I’m like, ‘how do we fault the league [for its marketing struggles]?’” Clarendon said. “I think the league has in some ways done the best they can in trying survive, and I think we’re doing a good job of pushing forward, but we have so many things to take in account.”

One of those “things” the league has to take into account is its gender nonconforming athletes, like Clarendon, who is non-cisgender.

“We live in a world that is divided male, female, the binaries really don’t give people any space to be in between, and people are threatened when we don’t fit into the boxes,” she said.

Earlier this month, Clarendon used the WNBA Player’s Association Twitter account to send a supportive message to Mili Hernandez, the eight-year-old soccer player banned from a tournament in part because her short haircut made someone think she looked like a boy.

“A big part of my fight is breaking down those binaries and showing people what is beautiful, what is female, what is woman can look different in so many ways. That is very threatening to a lot of people,” she said.

Clarendon feels the stigma of gender policing on a daily basis, whether it’s her teammates giving her a hard time about some of the clothes she chooses to wear, or strangers telling her she’s not welcome in the women’s bathroom.

“I dress a certain way, but I still identify as she/her, so that’s hard for people to wrap their mind around,” she told ThinkProgress earlier this month after the Dream fell to the Washington Mystics.

“I’m four years out of college now, and I am learning. I went extremely boyish, and now I’m like, oh I can wear some girly things. I’m finding my voice within all of that to say, however I express my gender is totally okay,. It’s finding my truth in all of that,” she said.

Education is everything for Clarendon — she spends time educating her teammates and friends about gender fluidity, and has spent time over the past couple of years educating herself about transgender issues. Because of her gender expression and the difficulty it causes her in public bathrooms, she feels a lot of empathy for her trans brothers and sisters. But she recognizes that she still is speaking from a platform of privilege — and she wishes many more athletes would speak up on behalf of the transgender community.

“I want to use my platform to highlight those people who are the most marginalized within our already most marginalized groups,” she said. “It’s all just kind of checking our privilege.”

While many athletes feel a tension between speaking out about social and political issues and playing the sport they love, Clarendon’s activism isn’t optional — it’s a core part of who she is. Speaking up and being true about her own identity makes her a much better basketball player, because she feels more free and comfortable. Plus, slow as change might be, she can see that it’s making a difference — in the locker room, and in society as a whole.

The fight is far from over. But today, it’s an honor to take the court every day in a league that finally seems to accept her for who she is.

“It’s great to work for an employer that celebrates diversity and includes everyone,” she said. “Knowing they care about our rights and want to celebrate who we are I think is awesome.”