Brittney Griner is not the first female athlete to come out about her sexuality, nor is she the first black woman in the WNBA to do so. What she is, though, is the first black woman athlete of her caliber (she is compared to the late great Wilt Chamberlain) to come out on the front end of her professional basketball career. A towering 6 feet 8 inches tall, Griner is no stranger to attention or controversy. Her feats on the basketball court have earned her numerous awards including an ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete and two Naismith trophies. She is sorta a big deal!
As women who are non-gender conforming, female athletes regularly face public scrutiny, discrimination, and accusations about their sexuality and sex. People often comment about women athletes as if they are trying to be or imitate men, calling them “mannish” or “tomboys.” Accordingly, women athletes are often afraid of being seen as unpretty or unkempt (remember when Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball Team as “nappy headed hoes?”) and may feel the need to exaggerate their femininity to fit in and/or avoid innuendoes about their sexuality. (As a child I was a big Florence Griffith-Joyner, aka Flo-Jo fan. Her appearance was even more memorable than her speed and elegance on the field. She wore long hair, sexy outfits and fingernails, unnecessary adornments that seemed to serve as a reminder that despite her athletic prowess she was still first and foremost “a girl.”)
Brittney Griner doesn’t feel the need to wear dresses or look feminine to prove she is a woman. Her gender performance is masculine and she embraces it. She is not concerned about what other people think or say about her.
But what makes Brittney Griner special is not that she is a powerhouse woman athlete (we have seen that before), an amazing talent (we have seen that before), that she is openly gay (we have seen that before) or even that she can dunk a basketball (we have seen that before). What makes Griner extraordinary is that she is a gender-bending, woman-loving, basketball playing, androgynous woman superstar-in-the-making who is unapologetic and unsecretive about her sexuality or her past. In fact the 22 year old opens up about more than her sexuality in her recent interview with ESPNW and ESPN The Magazine.
She is beautiful and handsome and people don’t know what to do with that. She doesn’t hide behind the anonymity of being an athlete or shy away from the fact that the general public is generally homophobic and resistant of difference. She is proud of who she is and is determined to live in her truth. As one of (if not) the most famous black woman basketball players in the world right now, she is using that platform to represent other transgendered and/or lesbian blackgirls who are ball players.
Griner is doing her thing and being herself which is opening up some important conversations about what it means to be different. Here are five (of many) reasons you should be a fan:
1. Even if you are not a (women’s) basketball fan you have to respect Griner’s raw and unquestionable talent. In her WNBA debut she broke a record by being the first player to dunk twice in one game! And have you seen this clip from 2009 when she was still in high school?
2. In a personal essay for The New York Times in response to Jason Collins coming out, she wrote: “Just as basketball doesn’t define who I am, neither does being gay.” Even though folk attempted to pit her against
Collins because his “coming out” announcement received more publicity than hers, she didn’t take the bait and instead expressed her excitement and appreciation for Collins.
(It is, however, important to note that it took a gay black man to come out in a major sport for the world to take notice. The fact that Collins’ announcement followed Griner’s by 11 days and some venues erroneously credit Collins with giving Griner the courage to come out is beyond problematic (but the topic of another blog, another day). In The New York Times article Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs, Jim Buzinski, a founder of Outsports.com suspected that the non-reaction people had about the revelation of Griner’s announcement was because she was a woman. He is quoted in the article saying, “Can you imagine if a man did the exact same thing? Everyone’s head would have exploded.” How true his prediction was!)
3. She is a badass blackgirl role model. On the cover of ESPN’s “Taboo Issue” she is seen flossin’ a huge yellow snake (she says she can relate to snakes because they, like her, are misunderstood for being different) around her neck like a necklace. She is fearless, brave and unapologetic about being (all of) herself. Her self-acceptance and graceful response to the vitriol of (social) media attacks and bullying will help normalize difference and hopefully encourage
young all people to be self-loving. She is also committed to work with LGBTQ youth.
4. She calls people out for their homophobic bullshit! She faces cyberbullies and mean-spirited commenters head on online regularly reading comments though rarely responding to them. Having been teased and taunted all her life for being/looking different she has found a way to not take the hate-speech to heart. She has also been transparent about the fact that administrators at Baylor (the private Baptist university where she attended college and played basketball) enforced a don’t ask, don’t tell policy against homosexuality, and pressured her to keep her sexuality a “open secret.” She was not allowed to not talk about or openly express her sexuality. By not continuing to keep the secret of the circumstances she faced as a gay college athlete she will hopefully force Baylor and other schools with similar hidden policies to not push athletes into closets they don’t want to be in. One’s sexuality has nothing to do with one’s athletic ability and should therefore not be used against them as student athletes.
5. She’s not going anywhere! Griner was the #1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft (to the Phoenix Mercury) and has had an impressive start to her professional career; she has a Nike contract that will allow her the freedom to wear menswear apparel (something that has never been done before); she is involved with the Its Get Better campaign; and she is positioned to be a game changer in the league. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has said that he would consider recruiting her, which is likely a publicity stunt but brings up some interesting questions about what it would mean for men and women to compete against each other in professional sports. Despite her openness to the possibility, it is unlikely that Griner will ever play with “the big boys,” on “the big stage,” it is heartening that she is able to utilize her celebrity to shake things up a little bit.
I have been pretty ambivalent with professional basketball for the past few years (I could literally care less about the Playoffs this year) but I am a big Brittney Griner fan. I think you should be too!