Two weeks after the insanity that is March Madness, something amazing happened: The top women's college basketball player of 2013, and No. 1 WNBA draft pick, Brittney Griner, came out as a lesbian.
Let me repeat that again. The No. 1 draft pick for the Women’s National Basketball Association came out. Though she stated that she had been out as gay while on her college team, this Wednesday was the first time she came out publicly while doing a Sports Illustrated interview with two other WNBA draft picks, Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne.
Although Brittney was humble and comfortable while talking about being out, what she did is no small feat and neither are her athletic achievements. For those who don’t know much about her, while playing NCAA Division I basketball for Baylor, she was a three-time All-American, AP Player of the Year, and named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. She is not only regarded as the top shot blocker in the NCAA, she is one of seven women to ever dunk during a college basketball game. One sports commentator even claims that, "Brittney Griner is going to change not only basketball but female sport in general."
Undoubtedly, Brittney is a basketball legend-in-the-making, and the fact that people aren’t making a big deal out of her coming out is both shocking and disappointing. Imagine if this happened with the same caliber athlete on a men’s team. (Let’s say the male equivalent as a young LeBron James.) I assure you, my Facebook page would be exploding with friends and family saying, "Did you see this? It’s all over the news!" I’d no doubt receive text messages and voice mails from well-intentioned friends about how sports culture has "finally changed."
With all the recent media frenzy over pro male athletes coming out or not coming out, we lose our focus on the incredible female athletes who have come out. Here are a few recent headlines regarding coming out in sports from this month: "Leagues prepare for day when gay athlete comes out"; "Professional athletes coming out would be biggest step yet for gay rights"; "Major Sports Leagues Prepare for the ‘I’m Gay’ Disclosure." The list goes on.
I hate to break it to them, but there are already out pro athletes. They are women.
Women are (and have been) dominating the coming-out "game" if we can call it that. Like Brittney, many female athletes have done so in a way that is both courageous and humble. Within the WNBA alone, there are out professional athletes that should also be making headlines: for instance on the Minnesota Lynx, Amber Harris, Jessica Adair, and Seimone Augustus (a 2012 Olympian) are all out as gay. Former players such as Chamique Holdsclaw, a 2000 Olympic Gold medalist, and Sheryl Swoops, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time MVP for the WNBA, have helped pave the way for our younger generations to come out as gay or bisexual.
Even outside of professional basketball, female sports icons like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Laura Lappin, Fallon Fox, and Megan Rapinoe have bravely come out despite fear of negative feedback from fans or sponsors. We also see that younger generations like Brittney's are becoming even more confident and even more outspoken about being exactly who they are. During the 2012 Summer Olympics, there were 21 out athletes, yet we can expect that number to be much higher in 2016 as more and more young athletes are coming out on their sports teams.
Homophobia, transphobia, and sexism exist in both women’s and men’s sports but they display themselves in different ways. For instance, the stereotype that many female athletes are lesbians may make someone who wants to come out feel like she can’t for fearing of playing into that stereotype. Even a straight ally may fear she will perceived as gay if she plays a certain sport or even if she wears her hair a certain way. Female athletes, even though they aren’t in the spotlight as much as men, still suffer from unspoken, less obvious forms of homophobia and pressure to conform within their teams.
By not paying attention to women’s sports, both in regards to our coming out stories and our struggles to overcome bigotry, we send a strong message to young women that our sports teams and our athletic pursuits are still far less important than our male counterparts.
Brittney shows that she gets it. In an interview following with USA Today, she commented on the importance for LGBT athletes to not hide who they really are: "I can't help but cry when I talk about bullying, just thinking about the suicide rate. I know what those kids are going through."
What our younger generations of athletes need to hear is advice from superstar athletes Brittney Griner: "Be true to yourself, let that shine through. Don't hide who you really are." As part of the movement of GO! Athletes (Generation Out Athletes), we believe that sharing stories of role models like Brittney is crucial to helping younger generations of high schools and college athletes know that there are others out there "like them" who are athletes and out as LGBT.
For young kids wondering if they could be out as LGBT and be the top pick in a sports league, Brittney Griner is proof that this is possible and dreams do come true.
Anna Aagenes is Executive Director of GO! Athletes.