Brittney Griner, the 2013 WNBA #1 draft pick is an amazing athlete. Her accomplishments are too many to list here, but they include being the first NCAA player to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots. She also has recored of amazing plays like this:
It was no surprise when she was went #1 in this year’s draft- going from being a Baylor Bear to being part of the Phoenix Mercury club. As part of her press junket, she acknowledged she is a lesbian. The world did not stop at the news that the #1 WNBA draft pick came out, in fact it the article was not even prominently featured on the NBCnews website- it was on the front page, but not highlighted. This is news, as an athlete who is able to openly name their identity, she said, “Don’t hide who you really are.” She tells how she has been out, but this is the first time she has talked about it publicly. Kudos to Brittney. She is already a role model and superheroine to young basketball players and now her story may resonate with other youth that are playing sports while gay.
The article does ponder the difference between women’s and men’s sports where Brittney can come out to little fanfare, but there has been speculation of an NFL player coming out. That story would undoubtedly spend days, weeks, and months in the headlines. It would be a huge deal, where Brittney is able to casually mention she is gay in an interview. In this way, there is much to digest about the nature of sport in the maintenance of gender/sexuality binaries, what it means to be an athlete in the patriarchal culture that values agressive, individual achievement, the use of homophobic slurs to “motivate” players to work harder and be better- and it goes on.
In her coming out, Brittney comments that she is unable to “give an answer on why [men and women’s sports are] so different.” That is fair. Just because one claims an identity, it does not make you expert on all aspects of what that identity means to others or an expert in anyone’s experience except for your own.
While I a make no claims on anyone else’s experience, with a Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and a love for college basketball, I feel able to ask us to think about the ways that sports is implicated in our hegemonic understanding of masculinity and femininity. We, as a society, draw harsh and unforgiving lines around what is “male” and what is “female.” In this constructed grouping, it is often easier for a woman to navigate masculine territory then for a man to navigate feminine ones. This is not absolute, but it tends to maintain the gender hierarchy that is present in all aspects of our lives and foregrounds the masculine experience. As an athlete, Brittney had access to the label “tomboy” (whether or not she was called that I do not know), but it is a socially acceptable way to talk about girls and women who want to be associated with “boy” things- often including sports. For example, I don’t like ribbons and frills, I play ball like a tomboy. But there is no congruent term for men who embrace feminine traits. (Not saying embracing feminine traits is a 1:1 equivalent to knowing someone’s sexuality because gender and sexuality are different- if intertwined- concepts.) Even if they were the best ball player in the land, “momma’s boy” or “sissy” is not something embraced or praised as a way of being. Being female and a badass athlete is easier for our collective social mind to imagine than a gay, male athlete playing professional football because we often reduce the questions we ask to, “what goes on in the locker room?”
Brittney might not have an answer to the question of LGBTQ, gender, and coming out in professional sports- But I want to be part of that conversation!
**Update- A great friend of mine reminded me that Brittney Griner played for Baylor University– (I knew that)- a private Christian university supported by the Baptist church. This is another place to continue this conversation. In an uncritical way, we often think that there is one religious voice around issues of sex, gender, and sexuality and there is not. I would be interested in talking to Brittney about being out and at Baylor- what was her experience? Where can we find other religious voices to balance the sound bites that privilege hate over love?