As one of the highest ranking LGBTQ members of any MLB front office, Arizona Diamondbacks Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Nona Lee has seen firsthand how our community has become more welcome within the league over the past 21 years.
After playing college basketball at Pepperdine University, Lee was inspired to merge her work in law with her passion for sports by the founding of the WNBA. She initially found a job in 2000 with the Phoenix Suns and soon after began providing shared services to the Phoenix Mercury and the Diamondbacks.
Then, as the D-backs were in the process of being sold, Lee asked for the opportunity to create a legal department and was brought on board as the team’s counsel in 2005. She has been with them ever since.
When Lee began working in the sports industry, she described her approach to being out with her coworkers as “cautious initially. Because I’d come from a firm environment where I was out,” she said. “But I was going into a male-dominated environment not knowing what that meant. So I wasn’t exactly in the closet but I wasn’t really forthcoming about who I was. I was really just there, doing my job.”
Despite some initial trepidation, Lee asserted that “As I got more comfortable over time, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to go back in the closet. I just had to be me.” In the process of getting to know her coworkers, she “found it very difficult to talk in obscurities” and instead was upfront with them about being gay. While Lee never made a formal coming out announcement, her openness ensured that they knew who she was.
Over time, she began noticing a change for the better. As the years progressed, her sense of belonging was reinforced by moments like her boss and colleagues attending her wedding or her wife being invited to attend D-backs Wives Luncheons. Compared to her experiences when she began her sports career, she reflected on the progress that has been made:
“People are welcoming. They’re wanting to learn how to be better allies and be better supporters — what they can do to help bring more LGBTQ+ people into the industry. And it’s a beautiful thing. It’s wonderful.”
Thanks to the work she’s done over those two decades, Lee has played a large role in the game’s cultural shift. During the past year, Lee directed D-backs for Change—a team-wide initiative designed to promote a environment of inclusion throughout the organization.
Currently, Lee chairs the D-backs for Change JEDI Council (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) that oversees “team player resource groups” for employees representing numerous marginalized communities. Its LGBTQ+ resource group is led by Noel Guevara, an LGBTQ “rising star in our organization,” and incorporates both out employees and “a significant number of allies.”
In addition to front office members, D-backs for Change also incorporates some on-field staff and scouts from around the country. In a sport that is sometimes maddeningly resistant to new ideas, Lee revealed that the initiative has already made a difference in opening up a few minds within the team:
“A couple of times, people have said that it’s been tremendously helpful because they may have had situations in the past where they feel like they really missed the mark and fell down. And the ability to learn and to have conversations in a safe environment and be able to ask questions and share their feelings and concerns has been tremendously helpful to them. So a lot of wins here. We’re just starting but I think it’s helpful for everyone on both sides.”
D-backs for Change has gotten off to such a promising beginning that Lee named it her proudest achievement during her time with Arizona:
“This is the one that matters to me because it’s the one that has the ability to create change going forward and to shift the paradigm. And see more people of color and LGBTQ+ people and Indigenous people get involved in sports and feel welcome and feel that there is opportunity for them... that they actually do have a shot at jobs in the industry.
“I get emotional about it because it’s so closely tied to my lived experiences. To be able to do something in this space that makes a difference is a privilege.”
In addition to her work moving the organization forward, Lee’s day-to-day job includes important tasks like presenting salary arbitration cases, assisting with the Diamondbacks’ cable TV rights deal, and helping negotiate for the building of Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Arizona’s majestic spring training home. She is also the proud owner of a 2001 World Series ring.
As a Black gay woman in MLB, Lee is acutely aware that baseball still has a long way to go in order to create a fully accepting and inclusive culture. She noted that “being a woman has probably been the biggest challenge” in regards to working within the game. Lee further expressed her belief that recent harassment allegations across the league should call MLB’s attention to the trauma that victims of such behavior are forced to deal with for years afterward.
Reflecting on the civil rights movements arising within baseball over the past year, Lee lauded the activism of The Players Alliance, praising them for recognizing and utilizing the power of their platform to amplify the push for change. She hoped that the momentum for social justice that they have established is here to stay.
Ultimately, Lee realizes that her position within baseball means that she also possesses a powerful platform to make it better for the generations who follow her—especially those from marginalized groups. She summed up her hopes for how her time with the Diamondbacks will be remembered:
“I’d like for people to be able to say, ‘She was a great practitioner, a great lawyer. Before that, a great person. And mostly, a person who made a difference in our game — who made our industry or our organization better through the work that she did.’”
The success of D-backs for Change and the subsequent generations of LGBTQ workers it helps should ensure that her hopes become reality.