Brittney Griner is 6’8 with a 7’4″ wingspan. Brittney Griner set the NCAA record for blocked shots and earned two player of the year awards while playing basketball for Baylor University in Texas. Brittney Griner led her team to an NCAA-record 40 wins in 2012. Brittney Griner’s 18 slam dunks last year also beat an NCAA record, especially because only 18 other female players have ever made even one slam dunk. Were it not for family and school obligations that prevented her from going to London, Brittney Griner would’ve been the first college player on a US Olympics women’s basketball team since 1998. Brittney Griner is a two-time All-American. Two days ago, Brittney Griner became the 2013 WNBA Top Draft Pick when she was snatched up by the Phoenix Mercury. Oh, and she’s gay.
In an interview with USA Today on Monday, Griner spoke about bullying, coming out, and her bright future in the WNBA.
As a mega-tall gay tomboy with a “masculine presence,” Griner was often a target for bullies growing up: “I can’t help but cry when I talk about bullying, just thinking about the suicide rate. I know what those kids are going through.” Although she brushes it off now, she says that “when I was younger, it was tough.”
When I googled her name, the first thing that came up in auto-fill was “Brittney Griner man,” so I wasn’t surprised to read in her USA Today interview that she’s had to “brush off” quite a bit of gender-policing harassment on social media: “I heard, ‘Oh she’s in the right league now, she should have been in the NBA anyway because she’s a man, she has a penis.’ It’s ignorant, it’s stupid, but yeah, I read all of that. You can say mean things, but you’re doing it behind a screen. I don’t block them (on Twitter) unless they keep commenting. If you block them, then you give them the attention, that’s what they want. I’m not going to give them that thrill.
“I just feel like, who cares what they say. When you’re doing something good and you’re on top, someone’s always going to have something bad to say.”
Griner has been, for all intents and purposes, “out” for a while now, but according to ESPN, this week marked the first time she talked about her sexual orientation publicly. She told USA Today about (kinda) coming out to her parents: “My parents didn’t know at the time. I hadn’t come out completely. It was kind of like, YOU KNOW…I just hadn’t said it. My dad and my mom have always told me ‘be who you are.’ At the time (chuckling), they probably weren’t sure what I was interpreting that as.”
Griner’s awesomeness extends beyond the court: she’s a Jimi Hendrix fan and a passionate longboarder who wanted to be a professional skateboarder before she caught the basketball bug in high school. Also, her fashion icon is Ellen DeGeneres. A stylist from the Ellen Degeneres Show, Emmy-nominated Kellen Richards, designed the white suit Griner wore on draft day. Griner also sported Mercury-inspired orange socks and matching orange nail polish at the draft, which she noted would be “the first time and the last time I get my nails done.”
In a group interview on Sports Illustrated with the other top three draft picks, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins, host Maggie Gray had more questions about Brittney’s sexuality:
SI Video host Maggie Gray: “Another big topic in sports recently is sexuality, especially with the NFL. In football it was rumored that maybe one or more players were going to come out–that would become huge news in the sports world and in general. In female sports, women’s sports, in the WNBA, players have already come out, and it’s really accepted. Why is there a difference between men and women in that issue?”
Brittney Griner: “I really couldn’t give an answer on why that’s so different. Being one that’s out, it’s just being who you are. Again, like I said, just be who you are. Don’t worry about what other people are going to say, because they’re always going to say something, but, if you’re just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don’t hide who you really are.”
Gray: “You’re in a different position where you’re not just a regular person, you’re a famous athlete, you’re the number one pick in the WNBA draft. How difficult was it for you to make the decision?”
Griner: “It really wasn’t too difficult, I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all. If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way.”
Gray: “The second part of what people talk about with the NFL is that a male player would be hesitant to come out because they’re worried about what the people in the locker room would say about it. If you guys were her teammates, how would you respond to it?”
Elena Delle Donne: “In our sport, we’re fine with it. We’re all friends, and I want everybody to be who they are. You shouldn’t have to lie, that’s not fair. Hopefully the men can one day adopt that same attitude that we have.”
Skylar Diggins: “Yeah, we don’t ask Brittney to bring the ball up the court. We like Brittney because she’s a post player and that’s what she does best. We like her because she’s herself. I think it’s the same, we don’t care, you know, it has nothing to do with basketball or how you play the game. I think that people need to realize that. And once we do that, we’ll start to figure out everything out in the world, maybe become a better place, if people start accepting people for who they are.”
While it’s certainly true that it’s easier for women in professional sports to come out than men, it’s still not quite that simple, nor has it always been so. When the WNBA launched in 1997 it immediately went on the offensive to avoid a gay image by marketing a pregnant, married Sheryl Swoopes to the public to put a heterosexual face on its league. Then, in 2005, when Swoopes announced that she was dating her Houston Comets assistant coach Alisa Scott, making her the only openly gay athlete playing a major professional team sport, many “saw Swoopes’ coming out as potentially harmful to the league and its family-friendly image and marketing.” (In 2011, it was announced that Swoopes was now engaged to a man.)
In 1998, The Advocate reported, “conventional lesbian wisdom on coming out in women’s basketball” is “Don’t do it. If you’re a coach you could lose your recruits, your job, and life as you know it. If you’re a player, you could lose everything. Dribble around the pronouns, though, and you’ll see nothing but net — net as in winning, net as in money.” Furthermore, “if you worship women’s hoops, you know that some of its most visibile figures in the media are the men who are married to the women stars” because “heterosexy sells.”
In 1999, security guards confiscated lesbian-themed signs from fans at a New York Liberty Game. In 2000, the Arco Arena broke with its tradition of flashing ticket-block-purchasing groups’ names on the Astrovision screen when the “Davis Dykes” bought a block, eventually talking the group into adopting the name “Davis Rainbow Womyn” in order to get their moment of recognition.
In 2000, the WNBA distributed a list of 28 married-or-engaged players to the press, a move that was interpreted by many as an effort to drive the point home that most of their ladies preferred male company. In 2001, author Mariah Burton Nelson noted, “[the WNBA] have bent over backwards to portray a family environment and family atmosphere, and family is always a code word for straight.”
In 2008, The Chicago Tribune reported that the WNBA has been “looking to give its players a makeover” and is giving rookies “lessons in how to handle the media, how to stay fit and healthy — and how to wear clothes and makeup.” The article quoted Sports Psychology professor Susan Ziegler, who noted that the league’s “No. 1 [goal] is, of course, the need for the image of WNBA players to be seen as real women. That comes from the lesbian homophobia that surrounds women in sports in general.” Then in 2009, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics came under fire for not installing the popular Kiss-Cam used at other sporting events because “they don’t want to show lesbians kissing.”
According to our resident sports expert Brittani Nichols, Griner’s sexual orientation was common knowledge amongst basketball fans, but it’s possible that the WNBA has decided that “now is the time to actually capitalize on having gay players since being gay is now a ‘national issue.’” Griner’s coming out could drum up interest in the league while shaming other professional leagues who aren’t so accepting of their gay players — a complicated proposal considering that the WNBA, as aforementioned, has not been as accepting as it’d like it’s contemporary fans to think. As the most well-known player since Candace Parker, Griner could become the big gay face many WNBA fans have been waiting for.
In 2001, Pat Griffin, a professor of Social Justice Education at U-Mass-Amherst, noted, “Women’s sports has been built on the backs of the hard work of lesbians at every level. Lesbians always have been a vital part of women’s sports. It’s long overdue to acknowledge that.”
With last year’s bevy of out female athletes at the U.S. Olympics and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Griner’s announcement this week, perhaps 12 years later, that time has finally come.