Thursday, October 27, 2005

Coming Out in the Locker Room:
Sheryl Swoopes, Title IX, and Gay Athletes

Sheryl Swoopes (Bio, Stats), the Michael Jordan of women's basketball and one of the greatest female athletes in the history of women's sports, fell in love. The reigning WNBA MVP didn't see it coming. By her own admission, what she feels for her partner is as intense and as real as she's ever experienced. Lots of athletes have fallen in love with trainers and coaches before.

But this is different. The intensity and passion led the Houston Comets forward to hold a press conference yesterday. According to Associated Press writer Kristie Rieken's piece,

"The only thing that outshines the exquisite diamond on Sheryl Swoopes' left ring finger is the glow on her face as she discusses the love of her life."

Athletes fall in love, male or female, just like everyone else. What makes Swoopes's story newsworthy is that she also publicly announced to the world that she's a lesbian. Swoopes claims that part of her motivation for the announcement was the desire to be able to finally share her world and her accolades with the love of her life, former Comets assistant coach Alisa Scott.

Swoopes wants to be free to be herself and to be happy.

Hopefully, the American sports media will give her and her partner that chance -- without turning her story into another insipid celebrity-comes-out story.

Lesbianism has for too long been an unwelcome stereotype cast unfairly upon women's sports. Yes, there are female athletes who are lesbians. But there are also lesbian doctors, lawyers, EMTs, soldiers, police officers, and firefighters. Because of the stereotype cast on women athletes and the fear that such stereotypes might lead to an overturning of Title IX protection for high school and college women's programs, lesbian athletes have been unfairly stigmatized by not only a conservative society but by teammates, coaches, and fans as well.

In my seven years as a journalist, mostly spent as a sports reporter, I had the privilege of working with hundreds of very talented athletes at all levels of competition across the country. And a few of them, male and female, were homosexuals. Most felt enormous pressure to stay in the closet, because any admission meant the possibility of social rejection, being cut or traded, or the possible loss of scholarships.

I've had several athletes admit in strict confidence and off-the-record that they were gay. To this day, I've never revealed their identities or their sexuality to a single soul - not an editor, not a girlfriend, and not even my closest friends and family. And I will take their secrets to my grave.

One kid was a very talented athlete with a full scholarship. This guy lived in constant fear of being outed because his dad openly bragged about beating up homosexuals. The only female athlete to ever come out of the closet to me did so accidentally - I ran into her while she was on a date with a friend of mine.

As I write, Texas -- Swoopes' home state and home of her WNBA franchise -- still has a ban on gay marriage on the books and is even debating the possibility of adding an amendment to its state constitution that further restricts the rights of its citizens to love who they wish.

I'm hoping Sheryl Swoopes and her partner can offer a bit of hope and inspiration to the thousands of high school, college, and professional gay athletes out there. We supposedly live in a free society built upon a foundation of the rights to self-determination and independence. Its about damned time we began to apply that to all of our people, including the gay and lesbian community, on and off the court.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Zenformation, thank you so much for writng about sheryl swoopes. she's one of my heroes and i'm so glad she's finally getting a chance to be hereself. i know that its hard being a female athlete as it is and to be gay and to admit it at her level takes a lot of courage. hope i'm doing this write not sure never posted on one of these things before.

Whispering Hills said...

I came out two years ago and i know it must have been extremely difficult for Sheryl to do. Its amzing...I think you're the first person I've seen write about this in Oxford. Kudos to you and thank you. And thanks for keeping people's orientation private. not many journalists would have done that.

Leigh said...

Ah, to be oneself is a beautiful thing. Coming out of the closet is a feeling of relief and liberation. I never feel completely comfortable around people unless they know I am a lesbian (and I don't mean I flaunt it - I mean when I am building a friendship with someone I'd like them to know. Its a part of who I am, not a defining aspect). Good for Swoopes!

The ZenFo Pro said...

Yup, it posted, so you must have done it right :-) You're so very welcome. Thank you for the shout-out. And you couldn't have chosen a better hero.

Whispering Hills:
Thanks. I'd like to think that a lot more of my former colleagues do the same thing, everyday.

Yes, it is. Nobody should ever feel like an outcast because of sexual orientation in a free society. You should be proud of who you are.