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Swoopes: The New Martina

(This story was published in 2005).

This is big. Real big.

Sheryl Swoopes is the most decorated, biggest-name athlete in American team sports history to come out of the closet. Period. And that's not over-stating it. Along with Martina, she is, overnight, one of our two biggest name in sports.

To say the Michael Jordan of women's basketball just declared that she's a lesbian is no stretch. Swoopes won four consecutive league championships with the Houston Comets. She won her third league MVP award – more than anyone else – this past season. She is in the top five on the all-time WNBA playoffs lists for points, assists, steals and rebounds. She has won three Olympic gold medals. She was the college player of the year.

And, if all that's not enough, she has a Nike shoe called the Air Swoopes.

Some will try to discount the impact of Swoopes' public declaration because she's a woman. Because of the uneducated notion that "every woman who plays sports is a lesbian," some will try to say that this is not a story at all. Even Queerty, a gay blog, says, facetiously, "Big shock."

While it may not be surprising that a lesbian plays in the WNBA, what is surprising is that one of the game's most recognizable personalities, and it's best player, has decided to share her homosexuality with the rest of the world. THAT is shocking.

People are always surprised when I tell them that (until now, of course) only two WNBA players have ever publicly come out: Michele Van Gorp and Sue Wicks. Both of them mentioned their homosexuality to the press and now neither will discuss it. While they're out in the sense that their sexuality is a matter of public record, they are locked in a closet of secrecy in all other regards.

While she's only the third WNBA player to come out of the closet, Swoopes is the first one to embrace it. She's endorsing Olivia Cruises, which plans cruises for lesbians. She's doing interviews with tons of media outlets including ESPN, ABC and, on Friday, Outsports.com. She is talking about her life, her partner, and what it is to her to be gay.

While she is the Michael Jordan of the WNBA, she, of course, is not Michael Jordan. If Air Jordan himself was gay and came out of the closet, the impact would creep into every household in America and would be felt around the world. Given the place of women's sports in our culture, Swoopes' declaration won't have quite that impact. What it will do, though, is take the conversation about gays in sports to the next level. Despite the protests of many that an American professional sports team can't operate with an openly gay player, Swoopes' Comets will get the chance to prove all of those people wrong next summer.

For that matter, Swoopes' timing couldn't have been better. Many have said the "media circus" that would erupt around an active player coming out would be detrimental to their team. Swoopes' timing makes playing with her team the final act of the show, not the main event, with the season still over seven months away. And besides, Air Swoopes attracts significant media attention anyway; a couple more reporters asking for comments from her partner wouldn't be any more of a distraction.

The most important impact of her coming out will be felt in the high schools and the colleges of this country. Homophobia lurks in the locker rooms of most institutions; it's no different for the women than the men.

The last few weeks have seen the emergence of one of these stories. Penn State head women's basketball coach Rene Portland has a long history of anti-lesbian policy on her basketball team, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. NCLR has recently brought complaints against Portland, who is accused of kicking a star player off her team in the last couple of years because the player is a lesbian, and is prepared to file a lawsuit against her and/or the University if something isn't done about it. NCLR sports guru Helen Carroll, a former collegiate head basketball coach, has told me many stories about anti-lesbian collegiate coaches and "negative recruiting," in which a coach will tell recruits that a competing program is a "lesbian program."

Hopefully, what these coaches and programs will start to realize is that they may be scaring off the next Sheryl Swoopes.

What Swoopes' declaration can do is offer the young lesbian athletes some hope and encouragement. While Swoopes' courage could lead to more lesbian WNBA players sharing their own stories, the real impact will be on the younger players who just saw one of their idols tell the world about her partner. If that doesn't give them the courage to be themselves, then probably nothing will.

What some may be worried about are Swoopes' quotes that position herself squarely on one side of the nature versus nurture argument. "Do I think I was born this way? No," she tells ESPN the Magazine. "And that's probably confusing to some, because I know a lot of people believe that you are."

To me, it's the sensible conclusion of someone who was married and obviously feels that love and marriage were as valid as her relationship now. Frankly, I don't think I was born this way, either. And I'm thrilled to see another gay person say the same thing.

Swoopes' story is now one of the biggest stories in the history of gay sports. She joins a select few professional athletes who have decided that they've had enough hiding; and she's one of the even fewer who have done so while still playing.

Some people say that WNBA games are just jam-packed with lesbian fans. This season, when Swoopes and the Comets come to Madison Square Garden, there will be at least one gay man there, too.