Today, the WNBA is one of the most diverse and progressive professional sports leagues. A large number of its fanbase and players are out and proud members of the LGBTQ+ community. The Connecticut Sun's Jasmine Thomas and Natisha Hiedeman, and Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are two of the league's three pairs of teammates publicly in a relationship. The third pair, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, won the 2021 championship together with the Chicago Sky. Before this, though, came a time of players hiding their sexuality in fear of driving away fans and the league working to keep their largely queer fanbase under wraps.
In 1988, a protest group by the name of "Lesbian Avengers" staged a "visibility action" at a Washington Mystics game where they purchased a block of 60 tickets, wore the group's shirts, and held up a banner. "They have extreme lesbian support and yet there's such an effort to heterosexualize the sport and cover up the gay fan base," said a member of the group Jessica Brown in an interview with the Washington Post.
In 2002, six seasons into the WNBAs existence, New York Liberty forward Sue Wicks became the first active player to come out as gay. In a 2020 interview with Natalie Weiner, Wicks talked about how in these years there was a need to market players as traditionally feminine, and that even after her coming out, sexuality and identity were still not talked about amongst players in the league.
It was also a topic that the league and teams themselves continued to shy away from. In the same year as Wicks’ coming out, an organization called “Lesbians for Liberty” organized a kiss-in protest at Liberty games after feeling that they had been snubbed and ignored by the team organization and Madison Square Garden. One member of the organization, Robyn Overstreet, told the New York Times that Madison Square Garden officials threatened to throw out fans if they displayed a small “Lesbians for Liberty” sign and that the cameraman broadcasting the game told fans that they were not allowed to film lesbian couples. “They felt that the cameras were trying to paint a different picture of who was in attendance at that game, rather than acknowledging that lesbians made up a big part of the fan base. Even if they had just made up a fraction of the fan base, you want to represent your fans and show them all. I heard many times that they felt the camera avoided them, so much so that it seemed intentional,” said Wicks. Throughout the years that followed were many more transformational moments:
2005 - Sheryl Swoopes became the first high-profile Black basketball player to come out.
2012 - Seimone Augustus spoke out against a proposed anti-LGBTQ marriage amendment in Minnesota during the WNBA Finals.
2013 - After being encouraged to hide her sexuality in college, Brittney Griner came out just a few days after being drafted into the WNBA. It was huge for a player to be open about their identity and make it clear that they would be an advocate for the community before even playing a minute in the league. This same year, Griner became the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike and modeled their mens clothing. Veteran guard Sue Bird has since credited Griner for paving the way and helping her with her decision to come out.
2014 - This was the year that the league as a whole took a big step and became the first professional sports league to establish a Pride campaign. This included team and player participation in Pride events, pride T-shirts, and a number of Pride games, including one that would be nationally televised.
Twenty-six seasons later, there has clearly been a huge shift in culture in the W. When asked about Pride and the importance of the representation in the W, Chelsea Gray of the Las Vegas Aces acknowledged that there were many times women who came before couldn't even discuss the topic or being part of the community."I always say me just being who I am, being married to a woman, being out about it, talking about it is part of the resistance in itself," she said.
"My favorite part of the WNBA is that we don't shy away from what matters," said Sami Witchomb of the New York Liberty. "For Sue Wicks to have the courage to say this is who I am and I'm proud of it, it just opened the door to so many others."
Queer and more masculine presenting rookies like Kierstan Bell and Destanni Henderson can now attend the WNBA draft in a suit and come into the league immediately being who they are, without the need for a breaking coming out story or expectations to be traditionally feminine weighing on them.
Additionally, the league has now had two players going beyond the gender binary. Current free agent Layshia Clarendon, who uses she/her, they/them, and he/him pronouns interchangeably, was the league's first non-binary and transgender player. They had identified themself as non-cisgender in 2015, and in January of 2021 revealed on Instagram that he had undergone top surgery. "I'm usually not scared to share news publicly but the amount of hate, myths & ignorance surrounding Trans and Non Binary people's existence actually had me debating sharing this joy. I want Trans people to know and see that we've always existed & no one can erase us," he said. Clarendon has since started The Layshia Clarendon Foundation, which "grants access to life affirming healthcare and wellness services for the trans community through education, advocacy, and direct financial assistance."
Though they don't identify as non-binary or transgender, Atlanta Dream guard AD Durr (they/them) is the league's second player to publicly go by pronouns other than she/her. AD was the second pick in the 2019 draft but missed the following two seasons dealing with Covid-19 complications. This time away from basketball allowed them to reflect upon themself and work through trauma over feeling misgendered, they shared with Sports Illustrated. "I just view myself as AD," they said.
Not only has this evolution of the league granted players the freedom they deserve, but it has given LGBTQ+ fans vital representation. Women's Sports Exchange asked some fans about this:
Q: How has seeing the LGBTQ+ representation in the league impacted/inspired you?
Avery: As a nonbinary person who really does want to go into sports, and the WNBA in particular, seeing people like Layshia Clarendon and AD being able to live out their dreams as well while also being able to have their identities validated and celebrated feels amazing. Same goes for the queer players. Seeing them live authentically themselves with so much support makes me feel like my sexuality is valid and I just feel really safe being queer and nonbinary and playing basketball. It has made me feel so much more comfortable and without the WNBA I don’t know how I would feel about my identity.
Jacqui: It’s just one more space that we need for ourselves and for us to feel seen, safe and respected. It’s one avenue for representation and that’s so important, no matter how old we are.
Anonymous: It's been very inspiring to see how wide the variety of LGBTQ experiences in the league is, there's so many different ways to be queer, to express yourself, etc, and especially when I was younger and figuring myself out, it was great to see all those different expressions of black queer women.
Anonymous: It means a lot to see representation in sports. I’ve seen gay women in several sports but the activism that comes with it and the (slow) inclusion of non-binary people is really special in WNBA.
Anonymous: In all honesty, I stopped playing sports as a kid because I felt unsafe being on a team. Seeing representation has helped me fall in love with sports again.
Q: Is there a specific LGBTQ+ player who has had an impact on you? How?
Avery: As I said before, having the representation of Layshia Clarendon and AD is amazing because it provides an opportunity for me to have dreams of playing professional basketball with the identity I have. Sue Bird has also been huge, because seeing her be seen as celebrated as she is without people focusing on her sexuality is incredible. This goes for all out LGBTQ+ players, but seeing as she has always been my favorite has really shown me that I can be gay and play basketball without it being about my gayness.
Jacqui: EDD and Natasha Cloud. Both are remarkable people and showing other sports leagues that this is what it means to be out and proud and be successful.
Anonymous: Not necessarily anyone specific, but I find it inspiring how there's so many women who never explicitly "came out", who are just living their lives with their partners. Like Candace Parker or Breanna Stewart, and many others. I think it shows how far we've come and shows an important example of how you don't need to make an announcement about your identity, you can just be.
Anonymous: Layshia Clarendon! Being open and kind and normalizing non-binary/trans people and varying pronouns. Broadcasters using ‘they’ pronouns really warmed my heart.
Anonymous: Dewanna Bonner was the first player I remember how vocal she was in her relationship. I remember when she stepped away to have her twins and how excited the league and teams were invested in her journey. I think more players feel comfortable standing in their truth when there is an outpour of positivity from the W community.
In celebrating Pride and how far the W has come, it's crucial that we also acknowledge the improvements that still need to be made. Whiteness and femininity are still largely centered, with players who fit in those categories receiving more coverage and sponsorships. One fan said to Women's Sports Exchange " I don't think it's a coincidence that broadcasts will talk super openly about the Vanderquigs or Sue Bird and her partner, but it's much more rare to have any acknowledgement of the more masculine-presenting women and their relationships. Not that that needs to be a focus anyway, and not that it's those players' fault, but there's definitely a discrepancy. Sometimes it almost feels like there's this hesitation of "let us not be too gay or too Black, because we're still trying to be as palatable as we can to the straight white guy viewers." Which just kind of seems like the wrong priority. Like I said in one of the previous answers, there are so many different ways of being queer that are present and represented in the league, but it feels like sometimes it's only a very specific way of being queer that gets amplified in media." Fans have also called for more partnerships with LGBTQ+ organizations. "Rainbow capitalism is a huge issue and the teams are not immune to it. Reaping the rewards of Pride merch is not at all inclusive and just takes money away from queer people, so they should give money to the organizations that really do help with the LGBTQ+ community other than just making posts and selling shirts," said Avery. Broadcasters also need to be held accountable for using players correct pronouns, and the league needs to be aware of using inclusive language when making statements and talking about their players, who do not all identify as women.