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."

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"

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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

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