Let's Play Pretend

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

No doubt this concern is the basis for the WNBA's "lesbians in sports is a nonissue" stance (which Griffin calls an "unplayable lie"). Like its players, the WNBA has to worry about holding onto corporate sponsorships and television contracts. And it's those gatekeepers Griffin pegs as the real culprits in the closeting of gay athletes: They assume, she says, that any successful sport must attract a traditional sports audience, i.e., men, and, further, that men only watch women's sports "if the women are pretty and heterosexual." In fact, according to the WNBA, their audiences have been 70 percent female, 30 percent male, the mirror opposite of NBA figures. And reports on the women's soccer World Cup noted the predominance of women and girls in match crowds. If the WNBA and the World Cup have proved anything, Griffin declares, it's that "there is a fan base and a market [for women's sports] that has developed in the midst of a media blackout."

Griffin believes these nontraditional fans are less bugged by the idea of lesbians in sports bras than marketers imagine. And it's true that times have changed since a woman yelled out, during a Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert match: "Come on, Chris, I want a real woman to win!" LPGA player Muffin Spencer-Devlin came out in a 1996 Sports Illustrated article to little response from either fans or sponsors, Griffin observes in Strong Women.

"It's very noticeable that there's lesbians here," says Sue Mooney, another regular Lynx fan. "Straight people must feel comfortable, 'cause they keep coming back. I guess going to games, people see that we're just people, too. And that helps."

In other WNBA cities and in college ball, lesbian fans have bought sections of seats and worn shirts announcing their presence, partly for fun and partly to protest the silence of the professional and college leagues. But while some Lynx fans sport distinctively dykey looks, they haven't united in display. "I'm fairly out, but I'm not flamboyant," says season-ticket holder Kris Stoffel. "I'm just here. If you ask me about my boyfriend, I'll tell you about my girlfriend. At the same time, I don't wear a banner and force that in people's faces."

"I wouldn't expect any players in the WNBA to carry our community," Stoffel continues. "I would like them to be able to have their partners at the games and acknowledge that as easily as the heterosexual women acknowledge their husbands and children in the stands. It's a family atmosphere, and partners should be included in that."

According to Smith, this kind of inclusive family vibe does exist, privately, among players. "In basketball, it's more accepting than in the world in general. It's not necessarily out, but people acknowledge it. People on a team, if they're with somebody, most of the people know. Sometimes people are more secretive, but that's their business.

"Honestly," she adds with some exasperation, "your personal life is your personal life, and as long as it doesn't affect the team, on the court, it's really no biggie. If it's something people want you to know, then they're gonna let you know. If they don't, then you leave it alone."

"I suppose that's progress," Griffin comments, with a wry laugh. The problem with such a "family-secret climate," she writes in Strong Women, is that "any breach of secrecy voids the informal contract of protection and solidarity." Her book is full of anecdotal stories from college players and coaches who felt they had to date men to escape scrutiny, were told to curtail their friendships with rumored lesbians, or were snubbed by teammates when they came out publicly. Basketball coach Rene Portland set a "no lesbians" policy at Penn State in the early Nineties, before public outcry forced her athletic department to schedule "homophobia workshops"; other Division I coaches have admitted to similar policies off the record.

These kinds of injustices will continue, Griffin emphasizes, until institutions and coaches affirm that the problem is not lesbians, but discrimination. For Harris and friend Lauri Wollner, the surest way to push that process along is for players to come out. The stakes, Wollner says, are higher than one person's job security.

A star runner in high school, Wollner had dreams of being an Olympic marathoner. "But since I was a closet dyke growing up in small-town Iowa, I had to go to treatment and work on an eating disorder instead of continuing my running career. This kind of thing could change that shit.

"It sucks having to be courageous," she allows. "But the more of us that stand out, the more of us are safe. There's other role models out there now, like k.d. lang and Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche. [Players] could be on the Internet with those people, talking with them and learning how to do it, how to handle it. It's too much out there now to hold back."

Although Wollner proclaims that "watching lesbian players" is one of the game's chief pleasures, she and Harris are quick to add that they wouldn't want anyone forced out of the closet. "There are clearly developmental stages in the 'coming out' process," says Harris. "To interfere with or rush that can result in painful consequences that last a lifetime."

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