The WNBA Can Teach Male Athletes About Coming Out and Being Allies

But it is a myth that being a lesbian in the sports world is necessarily easy. There are often backlashes within women's sports to the stereotypes that all female athletes are gay. Only six years ago, Rene Portland, the then-head coach of Penn State's women's basketball team resigned after it came to light that she had a strict "no lesbians" policy for her team. Lauren Lappin, a gold medalist softball player for the US, has talked candidly for years about her fears of coming out because of the negative stereotyping around gay people generally and her fears of feeding the idea that all women who play sports are necessarily lesbians. Often, teams or leagues retreat to what Hamilton has described as "an almost hypersexualized version of feminity" in order to "derail homophobic assumptions" by glomming onto sexist ones. This was evident in 2009, when the Florida State women's basketball team created a media campaign that featured their athletes in fancy dresses, heels, and makeup (since being seen as "butch" by playing sports feeds stereotypical ideas about gay women in our society). Or more recently when the Women's Tennis Association's "Strong is Beautiful" campaign used similar techniques to draw attention to their players. The desire to combat the idea that all female athletes are gay is an attempt to lessen the stereotypes that feed the belief that women's sports are lesser versions of men's sports. This stereotype of all female athletes as gay, which is homophobic at its core, is held up as yet another reason to denigrate women's sports, which face constant misogyny in the battle to justify their existence and importance.

All of this tension around women's sexuality in women's sports and the fear of being stereotyped as "gay" in a homophobic society means that we see far fewer heterosexual female athletes who are willing to speak up as allies. Patrick Burke, president of You Can Play, an organization that is attempting to end homophobia in sports, recently told the New York Times, "we've had tremendous success in getting straight male players to speak to the issue; we're having a tougher time finding straight female athletes speaking on this issue because they've spent their entire careers fighting the perception that they're a lesbian." There are no high-profile Chris Kluwes or Brendon Ayanbadejos in women's sports.

And yet, when Elena Delle Donne was asked by Sports Illustrated to speak about this, she saw it as no big deal to be an ally. Her position as an ally was as much "utterly whatever" as Griner's own admission. Despite all of the homophobia and misogyny that someone like Brittney Griner faces when being a gay professional basketball player, perhaps it is easier for her to do so than it is for Jason Collins because her teammates and colleagues view being an ally in the same way Delle Donne appears to: as the norm. Unlike Kluwe or Ayanbadejo, who are swimming against the tide and so must fight louder and harder, we can look at the casual acceptance of Griner and her sexuality by Donne, Diggins, and other members of the WNBA as the future when men's sports will no longer need Kluwes or Ayanbadejos because being an ally will be a given.

What Jason Collins has chosen to do by going public as a gay professional male athlete in one of the four major sports in the U. S. is historic. As Jon Wertheim wrote, "Tens of thousands of men have played in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball. Until today none had expressed his homosexuality before retirement." In 2010, Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, called the men's locker room "the final frontier of homophobia in our society." Collins was so nervous about coming out publicly that he did not tell anyone in the NBA about his SI cover story beforehand. In his piece, Collins makes sure to note that he goes "against the gay stereotype" because he's "always been an aggressive player." He is not soft. His team comes first. Winning is everything, stats are not. As Travis Waldron wrote at Think Progress yesterday, when athletes "no longer feel the need to preemptively convince teammates that they won't stare or coaches that they won't distract, sports will have truly changed."

That change has not yet come to the NBA or men's professional sports in the United States. Despite the complicated reasons that Griner's response was met with a shrug, there is something breathtaking about her anti-announcement. In comparing Griner's discussion of her sexuality and Collins' "coming out," the lesson may well be that the WNBA (which is under the NBA's umbrella) can serve as a model for its parent league and for men's sports more generally. As Delle Donne said, "hopefully the men can one day adopt that same attitude that we have": utter whateverness.

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Jessica Luther is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a PhD candidate in the History department at University of Texas. She writes about sports and culture at Power Forward.

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