A slam dunk for lesbian players

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com November 15 2005 12:00 AM ET

Sports have
always played an invaluable role in my life. When I was a
kid my parents thought I could become a star ballerina
and had me wearing pink leotards and a tutu.
Eventually they gave in to my pleas (and those of my
frustrated ballet instructor) and let me put the tutu in the
closet. What I really wanted was to accompany my father to
his many basketball practices, which he allowed after
much begging on my part. After practice I would
listen, rapt, to Dad’s stories about trying to
play for the whites-only basketball team of his alma mater,
Louisiana State University, in the 1960s.

That’s how
the love affair began. I didn’t care what venue or
team it involved—I just needed to be around
that brown bouncing ball, either playing or watching
the game. I wanted the sense of strength and
fortitude, the team-oriented atmosphere—and yes, even
the power—that comes with being an athlete, all
of which are rarely offered to African-American girls.

So I
practiced...a lot. Fifty free throws a day, jogging two to
three miles before I went to school, three hours of
shooting, and of course, I could never actually play
enough. Being a girl, a lesbian, and an
African-American can make a person’s life
challenging. But sports evened the playing field. You
weren’t alone; you had a support system that
exemplified the old American adage “If you work
really hard, you’ll succeed.”

Fast-forward to
my early teens in the mid ’80s, and my love of sports
was confirmed by the way I felt when I first saw a
televised game of Cheryl Miller taking her University
of Southern California team to the NCAA championship.
It was easily one of the defining moments of my life. Here
was an African-American woman, on one of the earliest
nationally televised women’s sporting events,
playing like she had every right to be just as good as
the guys. It was the grooviest thing. I wanted to be just
like her—without the perm.

Now WNBA All-Star
Sheryl Swoopes has come out. “I’m at a point
in my life where I’m tired of having to say,
‘Don’t tell this person or don’t tell
that person,’ ” Swoopes told The
Advocate
for a November cover story.
“Hopefully many other people out there will look at
this and say...‘If she’s doing it, why
can’t I?’ ”

I was reminded of
the photo of Swoopes, during her pregnancy years ago,
that was featured on the cover of Sports
Illustrated
’s inaugural women’s
magazine. The message that photo sent to me was that it
wasn’t good enough to be great at
sports—it was also necessary to exude
heterosexuality. I imagine that as Swoopes continued to grow
as an athlete, the sacrifices required by this team
mentality shortchanged her personal life, and she
became an actor in a role she never realized she’d
signed up to play.

Reading about
Swoopes, I could relate so much to the compartmentalization
of life, because I had done the same thing. Basketball, this
great sport, despite giving me so much, didn’t
allow for self-expression on a personal level. It
seems logical that in an environment where you’re
surrounded by an almost exclusive sisterhood, where
you spend obscene blocks of time together—you
cry together, party together, and in many cases you become
almost family—a full disclosure about something as
intrinsic as sexuality should be fairly easy. But it
isn’t. While acceptable to seek boyfriend
advice, the environment didn’t allow for that kind of
exchange if you were gay, because that was
“different.”

So my lesbian or
bisexual teammates never got the kind of emotional bond
and the support that non-gay people enjoyed, and that helped
us stay in the closet. I could not integrate who I was
as a person with who I was as an athlete, so I chose
to step away from the game. Sheryl Swoopes stayed in
the game, and she has now boldly chosen to come out and stop
playing that heterosexual role.

I hope the
stories about Swoopes and on the lawsuit filed against
allegedly anti-lesbian Penn State coach Rene Portland help
shine the media spotlight on homophobia in sports, an
issue that’s been ignored. Media have a choice:
They can cover homophobia in sports or pretend it
doesn’t exist, thus keeping athletes locked in the
closet. I hope they choose the former, because no one
should have to choose between what they love to do and
who they are.

As for me, I did
eventually manage to marry the two: I am now
“professionally gay,” working for the Gay and
Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, traveling to a
number of states every month and training advocates
and media professionals to better communicate LGBT issues.
In my work I get to see what can happen when media
reach beyond their comfort zones and cover LGBT
stories. Just a couple of months ago I even had the
honor of helping a lesbian couple publicize their fight to
have their marriage announcement printed in their
local paper. They haven’t prevailed yet, but
now a lot of people know their story.

I also clock many
happy hours watching Big East Conference collegiate
basketball, and I still play, despite some injuries. I
can’t manage to get a good betting pool going
at GLAAD, but that’s all right. Basketball is a
big part of my life, but not my whole life, like it once
was. I guess you could say I traded in my Air Jordans
for a Tinky Winky doll. Sorry, Jerry Falwell.