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WNBA champ Ann Wauters on being gay in women’s basketball around the world

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Wauters has played in the WNBA, Belgium, Turkey and South Korea.

WNBA Finals Game 3: San Antonio Silver Stars v Detroit Shock
Ann Wauters won the WNBA championship with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016. She was a league All-Star in 2005.
Photo by Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images

This first-person story by professional basketball player Ann Wauters originally appeared on the Out For The Win Web site.

I think I’ve just always tried to be myself. Quite late, I knew I was a lesbian.

At first I had some boyfriends and around my 20-something birthday I started a relationship with a woman. When I think about it now, there were some signs, but it took some time.

I had my first girlfriend when I played basketball in Valenciennes, France. It was a secret at first, but gradually I told a couple of teammates, which of course was really exciting.

It wasn’t until I met my girlfriend Lot that I felt way better in my relationship, and from that moment I had no problem with coming out. I know that there are many lesbians who felt kind of an inner struggle to accept themselves. I didn’t. I may be different in this than others. It all went pretty smoothly.

Being with my boyfriends didn’t feel good, but being with my girlfriend did. Also thanks to my basketball environment, it was pretty easy: I saw others lesbians and noticed that even then – almost 20 years ago – they were fairly accepted. That may have helped me to not make a big deal of it. Only telling your parents is not so fun, but at that time I felt strong enough to say I was happy that way.

It became more public when I came out in a magazine. Often journalists asked me if I had a boyfriend and if I wasn’t feeling too lonely abroad. And suddenly I was so tired of these questions that I just told them I had a girlfriend. I felt good in my relationship and my parents had already had the time to get used to it. So for me, it felt like the right time to stop trying to keep it a secret. But I didn’t want to tell more than that either: I was happy, end of story.

In any country, in team sports you always live in some kind of bubble. You have your teammates, team employees and some volunteers, but outside you make little contact with others. For example, now in Turkey, I barely get in touch with the local population. With your team on the other hand, you literally live together: You train with them every day, you often travel together and so you know almost everything about each other.

Everybody on my team knows about my family life, and that has never been a problem.

Only in South Korea did I not tell my club that I’m with a woman. Lot and I weren’t together for a long time when I went to play in South Korea in the summer of 2005. In some guidebook we read that homosexual behavior was not tolerated. That was the first time that we thought, “Wow, to what country are we actually going?”

When we arrived, there was a room arranged for both of us. Lot explained to them that she was my personal assistant and that we needed to sleep in the same room so I could play well. One room became the bedroom and the other was our salon. It was a great solution.

In South Korea it was also difficult because I had little contact with my fellow teammates. Their English was very limited, so I got an interpreter. She translated everything, but this way of course I had way less contact. You can never say something spontaneously. And because I would only play there for a short season, this was the only team where we didn’t make the effort to explain our situation.

In my team now, in Turkey, I do talk about it of course. I notice that my teammates have a lot of questions about it, like how we got our children.

Because of these situations, I started to realize more that we’re really lucky in Belgium. In my team there are some girls who are also lesbians. For them, it seems so unlikely to start a family, while for me it was just a natural thing, which makes me feel so sorry for them. By playing in other countries, I now realize more how lucky we are with Belgium being such a progressive country.

As a person I always respect the culture of the country I play in. South-Korea, Russia and Turkey; Those aren’t gay-friendly countries, but I adjust. After a game I would never kiss in public, that’s not how I am. First and foremost, I play in those countries and those clubs for my sport, because they have great teams.

I also never had any troubles with brands wanting to connect with my name, because I’m a member of the club and I don’t have private sponsors. I don’t need to justify myself to anyone apart from my club, but they want me because of my athletic abilities. My personal life doesn’t matter to them. This is probably a difference between team sports and individual sports.

In 2000 I travelled to the U.S. to play basketball, and I went back in 2016. In this short period of time, I noticed there had been a big evolution. Belgium has always been very progressive, whereas America in the beginning was not. In my first years — 2000 to 2002 with the Cleveland Rockers — there were a lot of players who hid their sexuality. You could feel that they weren’t ready for this.

Now – apart from some conservative states in the middle of the U.S. – their mindset has completely changed. You notice that young athletes are now raised totally differently.

Obama surely played a big role in this, but also the BeTrue campaigns by Nike. Basketball player Brittney Griner became the face of the gay-friendly Nike campaign. She’s very big and also pretty masculine, but Nike has made a very positive story out of it. When Nike backs something up in America, it really helps.

Also the media didn’t mention the sexuality of players years ago. The WNBA didn’t want to associate with the gay fan base, who really represented a big number of fans. At a certain point, they also completely changed their view and embraced those fans. From total silence, these fans suddenly became a part of the community.

I don’t have a lot of contact with the men’s teams in basketball, but there surely aren’t many male athletes who dare to come out. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. Women’s basketball appears to be more tolerant, while it’s a totally different story among the men. In the NBA, I can only think of one athlete, Jason Collins, who openly came out. I can’t think of anyone else. Just like in the soccer world, there’s still a lot of work to do. That still seems somewhat inaccessible.

Obviously, there’s more money in those scenes with sponsor deals and television rights, which is far smaller in women’s basketball. That’s why I can image the men’s world to be more difficult. They consider their sexuality maybe as a risk, but for all we know a brand might be waiting for someone like this.

I don’t see it as a burden, but I never had to make a choice. What if sponsors let you know that they prefer you not to tell? I don’t know what I would choose: Do you choose to be yourself or do you keep your private life secret for a while? You can’t judge that, everyone has his own reasons.

In Belgium too, there are still gay athletes who prefer to keep their private life secret. I think they just want to focus on their sports and don’t really want to use the platform that they actually have.

In the beginning of your career – and I felt this same way – you’re only focussed on your sport. But at that very moment, you have a platform that you could use to make your voice heard. This is something you only realize later… at least I did. Knowing that you can bring a message and be an example for young people.

Some athletes might not be ready for this yet, because they don’t know that they really can make a difference in someone’s life. Perhaps I could have used my own platform in a better way, but I always found I was walking a fine line. After all, I am just a basketball player.

At this moment, I don’t think it’s possible for transpeople to play basketball professionally. In my opinion, the sport isn’t ready for this yet. Last year, I played with a Ukrainian girl in my team. She was built pretty masculine and was very strong. As a teammate you don’t have any problems with her of course, but I was shocked by the reactions she received from other teams and fans. I was happy for her that she couldn’t fully understand.

Women’s sport too could be much more tolerant towards transpeople. It is not an easy discussion, but there should become more clarity about it. We can’t exclude those people and definitely not in sports. Sports should bring people together.

Everyone is different and diverse and that’s what makes it so beautiful. Everyone has the right to feel good about who they are. In the first place, sports should be fun. Discrimination doesn’t belong there.

You can find Ann Wauters on Twitter @AnnWauters12.

You can find all of Out For The Win’s stories on their Web site, outforthewin.com. They are also on Twitter @OutForTheWin and Instagram @OutForTheWin.