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By Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, MA

Madison Square Garden during a Liberty game
Madison Square Garden during a Liberty game. Photo credit: Jason Lam

I’ve been to at least five New York Liberty WNBA Games. I’ve even done something most New Yorkers rarely do: I took New Jersey Transit to Newark a couple years ago to catch the Liberty there while their home court, Madison Square Garden, was being renovated.

One thing I love about Liberty games (and I’m assuming is true of WNBA games in other cities) is the unabashed support of queer players and fans. Muscular, sweaty women race across the court to cheering crowds of female partners and their children. (The little boys are impossible not to watch, jumping around with expressions of glee as their favorite women score). There’s nothing like the boost that comes from seeing strong women doing what they love while expressing their signature styles. And the lesbian energy is palpable.

It’s no secret that many WNBA players date women. The list of “out” players gets longer and longer each year, and includes stars like Sheryl Swoops, Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter, and ex-partners Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson. Many of the players are straight, of course, but they openly embrace their queer sisters.

Things haven’t always been so hunky-dory, as evidenced by the 2009 documentary Training Rules, which exposed the culture of homophobia in women’s college sports. The film centered around basketball coach Rene Portland of Penn State, who was said to have had three rules for her players: No drinking, no drugs, and no lesbians. 

A Slate article pointed out that 2014 was the first year a pro sports league (the WNBA) openly recruited LGBTQ fans. These days, there’s a WNBA Pride logo, giveaways, rainbow t-shirts, and, of course, a float in the Pride Parade.

The most recent show of support for LGBTQ causes in professional sports was the July 21 announcement by the NBA that the men’s All-Star Game would be moved out of North Carolina because of the state’s new anti-LGBTQ law, which includes a section barring transgender people from using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

I was surprised by the move, especially since the NBA has been slower to warm up to LGBTQ causes than the WNBA (despite being subsidiaries of the same parent organization). The NBA did participate in the Pride March, but, while Sheryl Swoopes, the first out lesbian in the WNBA, made her announcement in 2005, the first openly gay male player, Jason Collins, didn’t come out until 2013. Homophobia remains rampant in men’s sports. Boys suffer endless bullying for anything perceived as feminine, and being attracted to other men falls in that category.

While the NBA’s latest move demonstrates significant progress, what I find most interesting about the league’s action on the North Carolina bathroom bill is that it comes at a time when the NBA is fighting internal battles with its players on another civil rights issue—the deaths of so many black men at the hands of police officers.

In 2014, Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers players, including LeBron James, donned “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts prior to a game, representing the last words of Eric Garner, a black man killed by a New York City police officer earlier in the year. While the NBA did not fine the players, the league suggested that it was inappropriate to use pregame uniforms to express opinions.

More recently, WNBA players have made their mark with pregame Black Lives Matter shirts, and spoken out against police violence in postgame interviews. However, the league has taken a harsher stance this time. Ironically, within a day of announcing a change of venue for the All-Star Game because of anti-LGBTQ laws, the league fined three WNBA teams and their players for their pregame Black Lives Matter shirts. Almost immediately, the league realized its PR mistake, and reversed the fines, but sent a reminder to players that their method of protest was not supported. In contrast, after the mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, the league handed out t-shirts to players, and encouraged them to wear them.

What is clear is that, while the NBA has decided to take a stand for LGBTQ rights, it has not taken a similar stand for black rights, despite seventy percent of both the NBA and WNBA’s players being black. The politics behind this are complicated. For one, the fight for LGBTQ rights has been corporatized and is now a moneymaking venture. Criticizing a group for being anti-LGBTQ has become a shaming tactic used by companies and countries to make others seem less tolerant, and to cover up attacks by those same companies and countries on workers’ rights and human rights (i.e. “pinkwashing”). In just one of many examples, proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline have launched a campaign called OPEC Hates Gays to paint Canada’s tar sands as producing “ethical oil” because Canada is more accepting of LGBTQ people than OPEC countries.

There is real importance in taking a stand like the NBA’s against anti-LGBTQ discrimination. But it’s not enough. It’s become relatively easy for corporations to be LGBTQ-supportive, at least on paper. But we can’t just do what is easy. We have to do what is hard—what is uncomfortable. As LGBTQ advocates, this means staying aware of the ways in which our identities are used as corporate or political tools. It means never sacrificing one marginalized group for another. It means standing together.


About the Author

Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, MA (New York, NY), is a psychiatrist working with LGBT people in New York City. She is the editor of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a resource guide written by and for transgender people. Her forthcoming book is “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!” And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions About Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People written with Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW-R.