Jason Collins put an end to a very long wait last month. Finally, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community had an active, openly gay male athlete in one of the four major American sports they could look up to. In a culture where sports and sports figures dominate and set the tone for the rest of society, it was a noteworthy step forward.
However, while some may have pointed out the courageous active female athletes who have come out over the past 32 years to pave the way for Collins, few would have suggested that any lesbian athlete from the past had as much to lose when they came out as Jason Collins did.
Helen Carroll, the sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, summed up what lesbian athletes go through by saying, “it’s not easier for women, because they are dealing with sexism and homophobia at the same time, always.”
The first active American female athlete to be out publicly was tennis’ Billie Jean King in 1981, followed by Martina Navratilova that same year. King did not come out on her own. Instead her sexuality was revealed by a former girlfriend. King and Navratilova lost what people have speculated was millions of dollars in sponsorship money.
That was 1981. But the stigma remains for all LGBT athletes, and not just men. As Carroll put it: “the actual answer [to the question of who has it worse] is that it’s difficult for both men and women – it’s just different.”
But the majority of America seems to disagree with the sentiment that it is equally difficult for men and women – the general consensus seems to be that lesbian athletes are treated as completely normal in locker rooms and that women are very welcoming and embrace each other’s sexual preferences, whatever they may be, without hesitation.
And Carroll does admit that gay women do have more people to turn to at times.
“Lesbian women do have a circle of friends who support them,” Carroll said. “I think men are more isolated. Until they are out they don’t even tell the people who are close to them.”
Minnesota Lynx guard/forward Seimone Augustus, who, as a current and openly gay WNBA player knows firsthand what lesbian athletes go through, agrees that it is easier for women to tell their inner circle.
“My family knew for a while,” Augustus said. “It wasn’t a big secret. I think everybody had a hint. As far as the public, last year is when I made it known to the world. But some fans knew it before last year. I felt like a lot people close to me already knew who I was.”
Contrast that with Jason Collins who didn’t come out to his brother until last year.
“As far as with us coming out it’s a lot easier for people to embrace it,” Augustus said. “Why? I have no idea. I guess women are more warm and loving – we can kind of take in whatever comes our way. You always see men as macho beings.”
However, if there were no obstacles at all for women, we might have seen more female athletes come out when they were just getting started in the pros.
Instead, while Augustus’ teammate Amber Harris and former Lynx player Jessica Adair came out one and two years into their careers, respectively, many other women waited until long after they turned pro: Sheryl Swoopes (eight years), Lori Lindsey (ten years*) King (13 years), Muffin Spencer-Devlin (17 years), Patty Sheehan (18 years) and Rosie Jones (22 years).
Now, Brittney Griner, who many people feel will one day join Swoopes among the WNBA’s all-time greats, has broken the trend.
Griner came out right after one of the most accomplished college basketball careers ever and before she ever suited up for a WNBA game. At age 22, and with enough talent to perhaps become one of the greatest WNBA players ever, Brittney has the opportunity to do a lot throughout her career to help combat homophobia in female sports.
“Americans love a winner,” said Mary Jo Kane, a sport sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. “And Griner has been the best and most successful college women’s basketball player of all-time. So when she comes out, people are like: who cares? It’s like Martina [Navratilova] said, it becomes a ‘non-issue.’ It’s like: so what? Can you win? Can we count on you when the game’s on the line? That’s what people want to know.”
Carroll also thinks Griner coming out so young is a huge step and that it says a lot about how far the battle has come.
“I think Brittney coming out at the beginning of her career really shows us who the present day gay or lesbian athlete can be,” Carroll said. “I think we’re going to see her have a great career and get great sponsors. I think we’re going to see that being a lesbian is part of who she is. I think she has broken a ceiling as a star college player who came out immediately.”
A big indicator of how far society has come since 1981 will be whether Griner gets those sponsors that for much of the time eluded King and Navratilova.
“I certainly hope that no female athlete who plays at the level that [Griner] plays at will be denied the sponsorship opportunities they would have been provided,” said Marie Hardin, an associate dean and journalism professor at Penn State’s College of Communications. “Female athletes especially are going to make their money on endorsements.”
There may be a bad history of openly gay athletes getting major endorsements, but it should also be noted that Swoopes came out in conjunction with the announcement that she would take on the role of spokeswoman for the lesbian cruise line, Olivia. In addition, two basketball players, one male and one female, coming out around the same time this year and one of them being such a huge news story could be a good sign for Brittney Griner. So could straight athletes such as Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Steve Nash helping the fight for gay rights. Their efforts could have an impact on the way gay athletes are treated across the board, meaning in women’s sports as well.
When asked if Jason Collins’ announcement could be inspiring to young female athletes looking to come out, Carroll said there is no doubt.
“I absolutely believe he is a role model for every kid,” Carroll said. “If they do happen to be gay, whether they’re a boy or a girl, it is inspiring to see an athlete come out and be honest about who they are.”
Meanwhile, both Carroll and Hardin believe the reverse is true – that female athletes unquestionably paved the way for Collins.
“They have done a great deal to pave the way,” Hardin said of openly gay female athletes. “I would argue that without the female athletes who have come out we would still not have had a male athlete come out. And I think [Collins] has acknowledged that.”
“I think that every person who has been out as an athlete from Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to lower level athletes to retired athletes, has paved the way for Jason to come out,” Carroll said. “I’m sure he has watched this for years until the point where he felt it was the right time in his life to come out.”
So perhaps the take away from this spring where both Collins and Griner came out, is that the more people who come out, regardless of gender, the better it is for the rest of the athletes who are in the closet.
Hardin would argue, however, that young female athletes do need their fair share of women role models, and, as Carroll points out, the number of pro female athletes who are out is still small, though perhaps not compared to the number of male athletes who are out.
According to a recent BuzzFeed timeline aimed at chronicling the history of “prominent” female athletes who have come out, the WNBA has had the highest number of notable players go public about their homosexuality with seven (Sue Wicks, Michele Van Gorp, Swoopes, Harris, Adair, Augustus and Griner).
There are several other openly gay WNBA players who didn’t make that list and it is sometimes hard to draw the line between publicly out and out to your teammates as Brittney Griner was in college. But the point is that openly gay female athletes are still a small minority and every new person who speaks up publicly is still a step forward, just as Jason Collins was a step forward for gay men, simply because those brave souls have the chance to represent the LGBT community in a positive way.
“Jason Collins physically is big, tall, powerful, aggressive – that was his role in the post,” Kane said. “And he has a really good character. Brittney Griner is a class act. She graduates, she is a good citizen, she leads her team to championships. I think they shatter the stereotypes. If people hadn’t come out, we wouldn’t be here, meaning we wouldn’t have made as much progress as we’ve made.”
As Augustus put it, “Positive role models can show people what it’s all about. We are no different from heterosexual human beings as far as being loving and going about life day-to-day.”
In addition to people coming out, straight people can also help the battle against homophobia as we’ve seen with Ayanbadejo, Kluwe and Nash. People in positions of power in sports can make a huge difference too, as both Carroll and Hardin brought up.
“I think we have to change the environment these athletes live in so they feel like they can come out,” Carroll said. “And that would start at the top with commissioners.”
“I think coaches can do a whole lot and should do a lot to make sure they create an environment with their teams that is accepting of all forms of sexuality,” Hardin said.
Hardin then added an opinion that one would hope eventually becomes the consensus opinion in all sports leagues for both men and women: “Tolerance should be the status quo and anything else shouldn’t be allowed.”
* Lindsey came out ten years after graduating from Virginia in 2002. She played semi-pro prior to 2002 and came out in 2012.