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A slam dunk for
lesbian players

A slam dunk for
lesbian players


WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes's dramatic coming-out has given this longtime fan and player of the game hope for the future of gay athletes. Now it's up to the media to get in the game.

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.

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