In the Current Uprising for Black Lives, the WNBA Refuses to Play it Safe

In the wake of the current uprising in the movement for Black lives, professional sports leagues have attempted to meet the moment, most with tepid or performative but ultimately meaningless actions. Among the empty calls for “unity” and pre-approved t-shirts, the WNBA stands out for its refusal to play it safe.

While other leagues continue to debate whether kneeling during the anthem is offensive, the WNBA has moved past that conversation — they walked off the court before the anthem played during their games Opening Weekend, recognizing the continued debate as nothing but a distraction. They launched their season-long #SayHerName campaign, uplifting the names and stories of Black women and girls who have been lost to violence during every. single. game. They hosted a media event with Kimberlé Crenshaw, the creator of the #SayHerName hashtag. They debuted shirts campaigning for the candidate running for Senate against the owner of one of the teams. Everyone else is playing checkers; the W is playing chess.

But that’s not the only place the W is head and shoulders above the rest: they appear to be the only league whose activism is intentionally inclusive of trans people. When the WNBA asks the public to “say her name,” they mean Black trans women, too. “#SayHerName came from us being at the marches, going into those marches with a banner of Black women who had also suffered the ultimate penalty… Some people had no idea Black women were killed by police.” Crenshaw said on the call hosted by the WNBA and the African American Policy Forum. “A few were deeply disturbed that we would bring women’s name into the march, they were deeply troubled by the fact that an issue that had so long been framed as only being about men was being disrupted by the sad reality that it’s not just about men, it’s not just about boys. It’s about women. It’s about girls. It’s about gender non-conforming people. It’s about trans women, as well.”

During the league’s opening game, the New York Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon, who is also a member of the league’s social justice committee, introduced the campaign to the world. Clarendon listed off the names of Black women who had been killed by police, and they included the name of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black trans woman killed in Philly earlier this summer.

“For ages, women have been holding it down for all sorts of different identities, so I’m not surprised that it took a women’s league to actually bring awareness to what’s going on to the trans women right now in America, especially Black trans people as a whole,” says Jae Rice, the Outreach and Communications Coordinator for Brave Space Alliance. “This league is the only one talking about trans women, but… it can’t possibly be the only league that knows that trans women are getting beheaded in the streets. So it’s very warming to see someone, in this entertainment and sports realm, really step up and be like, ‘Look, this is something we need to be talking about.’”

But that hasn’t been the end of the league’s inclusion of Black trans women in their campaign. While #SayHerName is league-wide, the teams and players have been given the freedom to individually uplift causes that are close to their heart. The Liberty have continued to wear shirts with the words “Black Trans Lives Matter” on them, which the team tells Autostraddle was a collaboration between players and staff. On a nationally televised game, the entire coaching staff could be seen on the bench wearing the shirts. “I think it’s rare,” Liberty player Kiah Stokes told Jackie Powell at The Next. “Who has a coach who wears ‘black trans lives matter’ to a game? I think it’s powerful and it tries to send a message.”

“It’s important we are intentional about including trans folks in our activism because as a community, trans people are often forgotten and silenced, all while facing high rates of violence, police brutality, and death,” Clarendon told Autostraddle. “Trans people’s humanity is on the line daily and we wanted to use our platform to make sure we proclaim that their lives matter.”

The Liberty are not the only team lifting up Black trans folks. Stefanie Dolson and Gabby Williams of the Chicago Sky have dedicated this season to partnering with Brave Space Alliance, the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ center on the South Side of Chicago. When Dolson expressed interest in supporting Black trans women this season, Williams made the connection to Brave Space and the two have spearheaded the collaboration.

The Sky are donating their own money to various causes the team voted on this season, but some players are supporting causes of their choosing; Dolson’s is Brave Space. “I’ve been part of the LGBTQ community for a while but with BLM the movement and people taking sight of that, something that was going unseen was Black trans women,” Dolson tells Autostraddle. “My eyes have been opened to [the issue] as of lately and I thought using my platform to open other people’s eyes to that, the fact that they’re disproportionately murdered or attacked, and partnering with Brave Space, was a good opportunity to use our platform to spread awareness.”

As part of the collaboration, the team will be wearing shirts with Brave Space’s logo on them, and Williams and Dolson will be hosting an Instagram Live with the organization. That means that anyone watching the game will know that Brave Space exists, and may then be able to access resources for themselves, a child, a friend, or a loved one. In addition, Dolson is auctioning off two pairs of shoes and matching whatever amount they auction for, including the pair she wore to the first game of the season, to benefit Brave Space.

“Often in these movements, there is still a group that gets forgotten along the way. In feminist movements, women of color and Black women are less heard. In LGBTQIA issues, trans lives are not heard,” says Williams. “They face discrimination in their own community and they are the most marginalized group. We wanted to put them on our shoulders and I wanted to be an ally and help in any way I could.”

Brave Space Alliance is a crucial resource in Chicago. Since the pandemic began, they’ve started a food pantry so folks can access things like food, diapers, and basic necessities and they fed over 15,000 people in the first few weeks. As protests have been ongoing in the city, the org has stepped into a rapid response role, giving out protest supplies and doing jail support across the city. They have mutual aid funds and three monthly support groups: Rose Petals, for trans women and transfeminine people; Boi Talk, for trans men and transmasculine people; and Fluid AF, for non-binary people.

“It’s one of the most important things when we talk about community equity —the best way that people can do that is by using their platform,” says Rice. They explain that for Black-led, trans-led orgs like Brave Space, they’re often not receiving the funding and financial support from the city and state that other nonprofits receive. Rice says they’ve applied for many grants, but never receive them, making the support and advocacy of a league like the WNBA so much more important.

And Brave Space needs all the support they can get: as the needs of their community have changed during the pandemic, they’ve adapted to meet those needs. In addition to ongoing sustainability fundraising, they are currently in the process of trying to raise $800,000 for building renovations, allowing them to offer a safe and welcoming community space for folks, and allowing them to make their food pantry a permanent fixture.

“The WNBA has such great people who support [them], they really care about the players, they care about the initiatives that they’re doing,” says Rice. “So it’s like it’s bringing these two worlds together, it’s bringing leisure and pairing it with necessary social activism and necessary resources that need to be reallocated.”

Adorable gay content from the Wubble

In case you missed it, here is the cutest couples’ content from inside the Wubble this week. Watch Brittney and Cherelle Griner flirt and throw ice cubes at each other on Instagram Live, or see Marta Xargay poke Breanna Stewart in the face and tell her how cute she is.

And, the gay W content I personally crave, the two sides of Vanderquigz:

Loving teammates:

And if you come for my wife I will kill you:

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Frankie de la Cretaz

Britni is a freelance writer whose work sits at the intersection of sports, gender, & queerness. Their writing has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Vogue, The Atlantic, Vox, and many more.

Frankie has written 12 articles for us.


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