When WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes made headlines in 2005 by coming out publicly and talking about her relationship with a woman, a common facetious refrain rang through from some fans and media pundits: “Oh shocker, a woman in pro basketball is gay or bi.”
It wasn’t a shocker then, and it isn’t a shocker now to see a WNBA player come out publicly. This year over 25% of the players in the WNBA Playoffs were LGBTQ and publicly out.
Yet every time I hear that refrain, I point the person saying it to the courage it still takes to come out publicly. Just because it isn’t a “shocker” doesn’t mean it isn’t newsworthy or admirable. Whether an athlete is in men’s or women’s sports, college or the pros, there’s still fear in sharing your true self.
Two-time WNBA champ Candace Parker decided to talk publicly today about being LGBTQ, her marriage, her wife and their new baby. While the two women married two years ago today, they chose to keep their story quiet, amongst friends and family and away from the media.
Parker’s concerns that kept her from sharing her true self sooner offers us some powerful insight into how athletes assess coming out.
When people ask me the reasons more professional athletes aren’t out, I often point away from sports for the reasoning. As we proved earlier this year in our Out In Sports study — while there are still issues, acceptance of LGBTQ athletes is widespread in North American sports.
Is it possible Parker was afraid of how her teammates would handle the news? Not likely. With the Chicago Sky she already had at least three publicly out teammates — Stefanie Dolson, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot. Hell, Quigley and Vandersloot are married to one another.
Is it possible Parker thought WNBA fans, or fans of the Chicago Sky, would turn their backs on her? Not likely. No professional sports league in North America has a richer history of publicly out athletes, including some of the biggest names in the game: Swoopes, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Elena Delle Donne. Just to name a few.
Might she be afraid the Sky would cut or trade her for being LGBTQ? No, not possible. She was top-25 in various statistical categories this past season in the league. This year she was ranked by fans as a top-10 greatest WNBA player of all time. Plus, as I said, if they cut every LGBTQ player they’d lose at least a third of their team.
All of the reasons people surmise that keep athletes in the closet weren’t relevant here. No fear of teammates’ reactions. No fear of fans’ reaction. No fear of being cut by the team.
Yet Parker still kept her relationship and her LGBTQ identity away from the public eye.
We often lose sight of this, but LGBTQ athletes are still people. They have families — parents raised in Baptist Churches and grandparents in their 80s. They have religious beliefs of their own that can sometimes make self-acceptance difficult.
In Parker’s case, she has a wife — Anya Petrakova — who is a more private person. While Parker may be comfortable with the spotlight — she’s been in the public eye since winning national titles with Pat Summit at Tennessee — Petrakova, who played professional basketball in Russia, may not be. Being LGBTQ in Russia isn’t what it is in the United States.
I can imagine how external forces that had nothing to do with Parker’s personal experiences in sports may have played a role in the couple staying publicly silent for so long.
To be sure, there are elements in sports that continue to add to the difficulties of making the decision to come out. As we’ve written about over and over, homophobic language in sports — even when it’s unintentional — can have a powerful impact on an athlete’s decision to stay in the closet.
Plus, Parker has played professional basketball in Russia, Turkey and China. If she plans to return, these are hardly hotbeds of LGBTQ acceptance.
The decision by Parker and Petrakova to share their story publicly today will help chip away at the fear created by unfortunate language and lingering family and religious issues in the United States, as well as a mountain of concerns in Russia.
And while it may not be surprising that a WNBA player is LGBTQ, Parker’s public coming out is something to be celebrated, as it will help another young girl growing up shooting hoops accept herself.