Across the arena, fan Peg Dellwo says she simply appreciates watching the "beauty, fun, and energy" of women players: "It doesn't have to be about whether they're a dyke or not." It's pretty obvious, though, that at least some lesbian fans have picked out favorites--largely, it seems, due to their appearance--who, they would like to believe, are "sisters." The Web site www.dyxploitation.nuthis spring featured two WNBA players on its "lust objects" list; one of them, the Phoenix Mercury's Michelle Timms, draws rich applause whenever she's introduced at the Target Center. Timms, with her crisp dyed-blond 'do, seems to have earned this notice just for daring to break with the league's ponytail standard.
Interviewed before a game here, Timms tips a gracious hat to her fans: "I think it's an absolute honor to have anyone support you, any group of people admire you or respect you. If they're gay, straight, whatever." But she's carefully precise in describing her image: "When I'm on the court, I'm an athlete, and an athlete is asexual. On the court I'm aggressive, I'm quick, I have a never-say-die attitude. That's the classic athlete's attitude. I wouldn't call it feminine, I don't call it butch, I don't call it any of the stereotypical words that people like to use."
By ignoring lesbians, says Lynx fan Tracey Harris (second from left), the league gives the cold shoulder to "at least half their fan base"
Asked an innocuous, general question about the lack of out lesbians in the league, Timms gives an innocuous, general response. Half an hour later, the Mercury's publicist calls me and demands that I strike that answer from the record: "Michelle does not want to speak for other people's personal lifestyle choices." Further, the publicist scolds me for posing any questions about "personal lives." Such is the schooled paranoia of the WNBA.
Says a sympathetic Smith: "It is hard. Because if you're not [gay], you don't want to be perceived [that way], because there can be negative consequences." If rocking the boat a bit in the looks department makes a player feel vulnerable, the pressure on players not to rock the boat, period, must be very strong.
It's depressing, if understandable, that lesbian fans, lacking uncloseted role models and idols, have been driven to appropriate them. It's sad that lesbian players have been convinced that what Griffin calls their "enforced invisibility" is a privacy issue. And it's infuriating that the league and its corporate sponsors have as yet refused to publicly pledge continuing financial support for any lesbian player who might attempt to be as open as her heterosexual teammates. Until they do, all women in the WNBA--gay and straight--will be playing scared.
Correction published 8/25/99: Because of an editing error, a comment about sports audiences in "Let's Play Pretend" was attributed to University of Minnesota professor Mary Jo Kane rather than the University of Massachusetts's Pat Griffin. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.