UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Brittney Griner will always remember her first experience at a WNBA game.
She went to watch her hometown Houston Comets play when she was a kid and when the kiss cam turned to a lesbian couple, the fans started booing. The game operations people quickly took the camera off the couple.
As society has changed, so has the WNBA.
Many of the league’s top players, including several who will be playing in this weekend’s All-Star game in Minnesota, have come out over the past few years – and it has not generated the headlines it once did. The players see themselves not as just basketball role models for young women, but hope they are also making it easier for younger players who may be struggling with their sexuality.
WNBA players’ sexual orientation was rarely publicly discussed when the league first started, but now it is embraced and topics like same-sex marriage and child care are commonplace.
“It helps so much when you have players on our level come out and tell our story,” said the 6-foot-8 Griner, who came out when she turned pro. “I’ve had young girls who look up to us that haven’t told anyone about their sexuality tell me it’s made them feel more comfortable.”
Elena Delle Donne, a captain one of the All-Star teams, revealed before the 2016 Rio Olympics that she is gay. It was just one line in a story that mentioned her then-fiancee Amanda, who Delle Donne has since married.
“It’s our times, the 2000s. It’s great to see,” she said. “I’ve been gay my whole life and was fighting it, but it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Love is love. It’s so great to see the change over the years of people being more comfortable with it.”
Diana Taurasi married former teammate Penny Taylor in 2017. They have a baby now and Taurasi has joked that each fine she gets for technical fouls is taking away from her son’s diaper fund. She also has talked about how important the league’s health insurance is for her family.
Taurasi’s Phoenix teammate DeWanna Bonner has twins and is married to Indiana’s Candice Dupree.
Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, a record 11-time All-Star, decided this past season to publicly reveal she is dating soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Bird, who is the WNBA’s leader in career assists and games played, credits Griner for helping pave the way.
“I saw the reaction (Griner) got and it helped me with my decision,” said Bird, who entered the WNBA at a time when the league did not openly support gay players. “I think the higher profile somebody is the more normal it becomes for other people who aren’t comfortable with the idea themselves or are familiar with it. It just normalizes it.”
Bird believes that she can help others by just sharing openly what her family and friends have known for years.
“That’s what makes it so important to come out. I didn’t see it that way at first,” Bird said. “Again as my story goes, I felt like I was open. Everyone in my life knew. I just hadn’t had this conversation with a reporter. I understand now by saying it publicly you can have an impact. That’s what we’re talking about right now.”
Delle Donne said that one of the big reasons she’s been writing her books is to help young girls.
“My character is going through that and if they can read about it and I can help them that’s great,” she said.
Members of the LGBT community have noticed the increased support from the WNBA and its star players.
“Lesbian and bi women are too often invisible in our culture, so the out and proud WNBA players send invaluable messages to young women that achieving your dreams is possible regardless of who you are and who you love,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said. “I love attending WNBA games with my wife and our children because the WNBA and its teams have created an accepting environment for all families to cheer for the talented athletes.”
Connecticut coach Curt Miller, who is the only openly gay male coach in the WNBA, wishes he had been more vocal when he was younger coaching in college about his sexuality. He feels that he could have helped mentor other gay coaches.
“I want to try and be that person. I missed two decades where I had a platform to be that person. I missed two decades because I wasn’t always comfortable with myself because I knew everything wasn’t perfect in my life,” Miller said. “I was insecure about letting down the LGBT community because could I be a role model to other people.
“To these young men out there who maybe wanted to chase a dream in athletics because I knew I wasn’t perfect behind the scenes. I realize now that if I can help a few people realize that gay men can chase a career and chase their dreams in coaching, in playing and in front office professions there’s more out there than you realize.”
After not actively reaching out to their LGBT fan base for years, the WNBA started a league-wide pride initiative in 2014 – Griner’s second year as a pro. The WNBA was the first pro league to specifically market to the LGBT community as society has become more accepting.
“As a child of the Civil Rights era who helped integrate a school in Atlanta, I know the importance of having leaders step forward to embrace diversity and inclusion,” WNBA President Lisa Borders said. “Our players are amazing athletes, but they’re also multidimensional women who follow their passions and support causes that resonate with them.”
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