Let's Play Pretend

Without lesbian players and fans, there might be no women's pro basketball. But tell that to the WNBA.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

In the stands during another late-season Lynx meltdown, Tracey Harris holds up a WNBA crowd survey marked well outside the lines with black ink scribbles and exclamation points. "They ask, 'Are you married or single?' and 'Who did you come here with?'" she notes tartly over the crowd noise, "and they don't include 'same-sex partner.' We just added some editorial comments, pointing out that they excluded at least half their fan base with those two questions."

Season-ticket holder Harris and her three friends are enthusiastic members of the Lynx fan family. They're also part of a subset of lesbian attendees, which, while perhaps not actually constituting a majority, does appear to be one of the largest demographic groups helping to raise the Target Center roof. The estimate is purely subjective and based on an unreliable straight-girl gaydar. But even the most naive heterosexual has to realize that at Lynx games the old gay-rights saw--"We are everywhere"--is made manifest.

By ignoring lesbians, says Lynx fan Tracey Harris (second from left), the league gives the cold shoulder to "at least half their fan base"
Diana Watters
By ignoring lesbians, says Lynx fan Tracey Harris (second from left), the league gives the cold shoulder to "at least half their fan base"

And local crowds are not unique in this respect: Newspapers around the nation have reported on the immense popularity of women's professional basketball among lesbians. What's troubling to Harris, then, is the league's cold shoulder toward a group of fans it couldn't survive without.

Part of that silence is a function of the league's marketing focus on the heterosexual family. (The 1998 WNBA book A Celebration: Commemorating the Birth of a League oozes sentimental family stories, but completely ignores the WNBA's jump-start lesbian support.) And part of it has to do with the complete absence of openly gay WNBA players. Gay athletes definitely exist in the league--even Lisa Leslie, the definitive well-feminized athlete, acknowledged as much in a 1997 ESPN special. But--for reasons that might include league, peer, or internal pressures--they're not talking.

Whom or what you blame for this state of affairs really depends on whether you grab the tail or the head of a long-lived women's sports boogeyman. As University of Massachusetts scholar Pat Griffin's 1998 book Strong Women, Deep Closets relates, the primary tactic for scaring women off sports this century has been the suggestion, explicit or implied, that athletic participation "masculinizes" women and (hence, obviously) transforms straight females into dykes. Griffin, herself a lesbian and an athlete, relishes the deep involvement and impact of gay women in organized sports. She also shows how women athletes, gay and straight, have dolled themselves up, chosen "ladylike" individual sports like golf or gymnastics, and mocked less "feminine" players--all in order to distance themselves from the scorn a lesbian label has tended to attract.

Although Griffin argues for more public visibility of gay athletes as a way of combating stereotypes, she's far from sanguine about the drawbacks of coming out. "I understand WNBA players' fears," she says, on the phone from her home in Massachusetts. "I think they're vulnerable. Until the WNBA makes more specific statements about supporting players of all sexualities, it's understandable that individual players--who for the first time have an opportunity to play in the United States--are not willing to risk that." When I raised the issue with a random Lynx starter, guard Katie Smith, she agreed. "Some people probably don't want to be the [gay] poster child, and why should they? I just don't think anybody wants their whole life disrupted and talked about. And would you get the marketing, would you get the pub[licity] that you deserve? Maybe not. So where is your career going to go? If somebody speaks out against the WNBA--you have a clause in your contract [against] saying 'anything detrimental to the league.' That could be anything. You don't know what's going to happen until it happens, and they decide the consequences." (WNBA media relations director Mark Pray confirms that the players' contract contains a "conduct clause," but adds that "someone coming out of the closet would not be deemed negative conduct.")

As it is, the league has been extremely cagey about the subject of lesbian interest in the game. In any article I've read raising the topic, WNBA spokespeople deflect pertinent questions with the ease of career politicians. Queried about the marketing survey, Pray says: "It's not necessarily ignoring anybody; there is an 'other' [box] on there. And, just so you know, this is a standardized form produced by an outside research firm."

There are indications that the Lynx franchise, having recognized the WNBA's sturdy lesbian fan base, is making up for some of its parent's bullheadedness by quietly marketing to gay women. Lynx volunteers and sales representatives ensured that ten percent of attendees at a team booster luncheon starring league president Val Ackerman were lesbians, the community newspaper Focus Point reported in August 1998.

Still, the presence of lesbian fans hasn't been exactly celebrated at Target Center--beyond one early game when local women's music figure and Gay Pride entertainer Ann Reed was invited to sing the national anthem. "The Lynx walk a difficult line," stresses Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "On the one hand, they certainly don't want to alienate a significant part of their fan base. But on the other hand, because of issues of bigotry and discrimination which are long-standing and deep-seated in women's sports, they have to be concerned about backlash."

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