(This story was published in 2005).
Three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes came out of the closet to much fanfare on October 26. We got a chance to chat with Sheryl two days later.
Cyd Zeigler: You must be exhausted. When are you going on your cruise with Olivia?
Sheryl Swoopes: Not soon enough. Tomorrow. I have not slept in two days. I haven’t eaten. But, it’s all been worth it.
CZ: Why has it been worth it?
SS: Because I feel very free. I’m sitting outside doing this interview. I’m looking up into the sky. I’m watching birds fly. And that’s what I feel like right now. I feel like a beautiful black bird that’s just soaring across the sky. Just very free. Very happy. And the fact of me not having to lie anymore is so refreshing and so relaxing.
CZ: You said a “beautiful black bird.” You're the first African-American professional athlete to publicly declare, and embrace, that you're gay. What is the significance of that to you and to the public?
SS: Well, unfortunately, the African-American community is not as open to the issue as a lot of other races are. And I think that goes back to our childhood and the way we were brought up and what our beliefs were. Not to say that other people didn’t have those things, but it was just different for us. Going through slavery, we’ve always had struggles and battles and things we’ve had to overcome. And the way we overcame those things were family and falling back on the Bible. That’s why I think it’s really hard for the African-American community to accept it. And I know I’m going to have some battles, not only in the African-American community but also the world. But, the possibility of me opening up doors, not just for African-American men and women, but for all people, is a great feeling to me. When I did it, I didn’t think about what this would possibly mean in the African-American community, I just thought about Sheryl and me being able to be happy.
I was telling my partner the other day, when I look at TV, I see Rosie and everyone knows, and Rosie is Rosie, and it’s not an issue anymore. And I look at Ellen Degeneres and her partner, and see Ellen hosting the Emmys, and they’re on the red carpet, and it’s like, “oh, there’s Ellen and her partner.” It’s not like, “oh, there’s Ellen, she’s gay.” It’s not that anymore. I see that and I want to do that. I want to be able to go to the ESPYs with my partner and walk down the red carpet and have people say, “oh, there’s Sheryl and her partner,” and be okay with it, instead of me having to pretend. I’ve taken friends and brothers to different events because I couldn’t take my partner with me. Those types of things are so important to me.
CZ: Some people have asked, “Well, she was married. Is she bisexual?”
SS: Nope, I’m not bisexual.
CZ: How have you reconciled that with the fact that you were married?
SS: Well, I don’t think I was born that way. Again, it was a choice. As I got older, once I got divorced, it wasn’t like I was looking for another relationship, man or woman. I just got feelings for another woman. I didn’t understand it at the time, because I had never had those feelings before. Initially, I didn’t react on them. Maybe it’s because I had just gotten divorced.
CZ: At what point did you start calling yourself “gay”?
SS: After being together for three to four years and not having feelings for another man is when I understood who I really was.
CZ: After you gave ESPN the Magazine the interview but before the magazine came out, in those days or weeks when it was in motion but hadn't happened, what were you thinking and feeling?
SS: Thinking I’ll be glad when this is over. Feeling anxious, nervous, excited. Not fear. That’s the one emotion I did not have. And maybe curious. I didn’t know what was going to happen, how the reaction was going to be. But, I never had second thoughts. There was a point in time when I could have called it off. I did have restless nights, when I didn’t get much sleep. But I was so looking forward to it.
CZ: You said other players knew. Did you get advice from them?
SS: No. It wasn’t something we talked about. I didn’t talk about it with my teammates or other people in the league. But players knew. Just like your friends know things about you and you don’t talk about it. I have friends on other teams and, when we go play, we go hang out. It wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t something that we talked about.
CZ: Some people have said that your relationship with Scottie (Alisa Scott, her partner) while she was your coach was improper.
SS: I feel the same way, just like I feel like a principal shouldn’t date a teacher. Because I think that could cause lots of problems. It wasn’t something I was proud of. But, that’s why, for so many years, we had to hide it. You can’t help who you fall in love with, man or woman. You can’t help those feelings you have. We both knew that it wasn’t right, the fact that I was a player and she was a coach. What were other players going to think? What was the organization going to think? It was a difficult time for both of us because we loved each other. We tried to do both, we tried to be with each other and still go to work and be professional. I think we handled the situation as professionally as possible. That’s why she made the decision that she wasn’t going to coach anymore last year. It had gotten to the point where it was just difficult, having to pretend and hide. People knew, but they also didn’t knew. But, it got to the point where I didn’t want to continue to hide this. So, she made the decision to resign.
CZ: Is Scottie thinking about getting into coaching again?
SS: I think she wants to get into real estate. I think she still has the passion for coaching, though. I do ask. Some days she does want to, some days she doesn’t.
CZ: How would you describe your marriage, looking back at it now?
SS: I was, when I was married, happily married for the first two years. Like any couple, we had problems and issues. And we both started going in different directions and I felt like it was time for us to go our separate ways. I don’t regret it because I learned a lot about life, a lot about myself, and I got a beautiful, healthy baby boy out of it.
CZ: Does your son, Jordan, play basketball?
SS: What doesn’t he do? He does a little bit of everything.
CZ: Has he met Michael Jordan?
SS: Yep. A few times.
CZ: What does he think of his mom being with another woman, and with all of this publicity about it?
SS: I tried to sit him down before it happened. Jordan is a very smart kid. He understands. He’s eight years old, so there’s only so much I want to tell him, and there’s only so much he wants to listen to. So, told him that mommy’s about to be in a lot of newspapers and magazines and TV, because mommy’s going to tell people that she’s gay and mommy loves Scottie and Scottie loves mommy. And he says, “oh, ok,” like, “why are you telling me this now?” And then he was ready to move onto something else. I wanted to at least talk to him so I could try to prepare him, so when kids, and even adults, because we live in a very mean world, come up to you and say mean things to you, this is how you can respond to that. So, he gets it, but he doesn’t get it.
CZ: You're Christian. How do you reconcile your religion with your sexuality?
SS: That’s probably one of the toughest battles that I deal with on a daily basis. But, I believe that you are who you are, and you can’t control your feelings as far as who you fall in love with. I’m a good person. I treat people well. I don’t kill, I don’t rob, I don’t steal. I try to do the right thing. I’m okay with it. I would like to believe that, at some point, it’s not going to even be a religious issue. But you hear different things. My mom talks about it. I pray about it every single day and I wake up every morning and I’m happy and I’m OK with who I’m with, I’m okay with my life.
CZ: What do you pray about every day?
SS: Just life. I pray about my life, I pray about her life, I pray that our relationship grows stronger. I pray for the world. Just lots of things.
CZ: How has your church received this news?
SS: I’m in the process of trying to find a church that I’m comfortable with. I don’t want to be just another number in any church. I want to feel I have a purpose there, and I want to feel like I have a purpose there. I know God put me on this earth for a reason. I know whatever church I find, I want to know I have a purpose for being there.
CZ: What would you say to a closeted athlete, male or female, who is wrestling with their sexuality and their love for sports? In what circumstances would you encourage others to come out?
SS: My reason to do this was not to encourage others to come out. It was all about me. But, I know there are so many people in the sports world, in corporate America, who are dealing with their sexual identity and whether to come out or not. If it’s something you’re comfortable with, then do it. What you do in your personal life is your own business. But, I don’t think it’s healthy to live a lie. And how am I going to teach my son to be honest with people, to be honest with himself, if I’m not being honest with myself. I just think one of the most important thing in anything you do, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. And to constantly live a lie and be battling feelings inside, that’s unhealthy. You’ve got to be able to be who you are and be okay with that.
I think there are so many teenagers out there who are dealing with their sexuality, but they don’t know how to address it. They don’t have anyone to talk to. They can’t go to mom and dad because they don’t know what mom and dad might do. And they’re terrified. And the way they deal with it is they commit suicide or turn to drugs. If there is one person out there, in the sports world or corporate America, that reads one of these many articles about me, and it’s going to have a positive effect on their life, whether they decide to come out or not, then I feel like I’ve done my job as far as being a role model for that person. There are so many people who feel alone, like they can’t relate to anybody. So, their answer is to commit suicide. And that’s a sad thing.
CZ: Do you think you might become an advocate for any gay/lesbian-specific causes?
SS: It’s a little too early to talk about that. I think I’ll probably be approached. There’s a possibility. And I say that because I want to have a positive effect on life. And if there’s something I can do, I can say, to make this world a better place, then I absolutely want to do it.
CZ: How can our readers contact you?
SS: I would be very interested in hearing from people. I want to read the letters, good and bad.
People can write to Sheryl via snail mail at:
434 Brannan Street
San Francisco, CA 94107