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Sheryl Swoopes Asked :: "How Gay is the WNBA?"

by Laura Kiritsy
Thursday Oct 25, 2007

About 15 minutes into her onstage interview with WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes at Provincetown's Unitarian Universalist Meeting House on Oct. 13, comedian Vickie Shaw cut to the chase: "How gay is the WNBA?" Shaw asked, abruptly changing the subject of her previous question about who inspires Swoopes (her mother) and causing the 200 or so ladies in the pews to erupt in laughter and applause.

"It's no gayer than the NFL or the NBA," replied the Houston Comets forward, who is currently the only out lesbian playing pro basketball. "It's a very interesting question, because obviously, it's a huge stereotype that all the women are gay." Swoopes pointed out that there are "lots of moms in the WNBA who have boyfriends, some of them are married." And, she added, there are "some who got married and then realized that they liked women" - a reference that drew more laughter from the audience. Swoopes acknowledged that "there are a lot of women in the WNBA who have [female] partners and have had partners for a while and feel very comfortable with that." But Swoopes believes they don't come out publicly because they don't think they'll be supported by the league.

As for her own public coming out in October 2005, shortly after being voted the WNBA's Most Valuable Player for the third time, Swoopes simply got tired of hiding who she was and her long-term relationship with Alisa Scott, a former Comets assistant coach. "I was at the point where I said," she began to explain, then, after a long pause, "'Fuck it.'" The audience broke into cheers and applause all over again.

Swoopes's first visit to Provincetown for the latter half of this year's Women's Week, which took place Oct. 5-14, was greeted enthusiastically by her legion of lesbian fans.

Of course, the love lavished on Swoopes during Women's Week is not at all surprising - lesbians comprise a significant portion of the WNBA's fan base, and Swoopes is a record-setting superstar. But it was also not surprising to hear Swoopes criticize the 10-year-old league, which has a complicated history with its lesbian fans to say the least, for not marketing more aggressively to the community. In response to an audience member's question at the UU church about what she'd do if she was the WNBA commissioner, Swoopes said she'd market the league more aggressively in general. But she specifically talked up the need to market to the gay and lesbian community. Said Swoopes, "I've had so many people - straight, black, white, whatever - say [to me], 'Why doesn't the league market to their biggest fan base?'"

Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the first woman athlete to have a sneaker named for her (Nike's Air Swoopes), became emotional when she broached the subject of what she characterized as the league's refusal to market her as aggressively as it once did since she came out. "The one thing that probably disappointed me more than anything else was not really having the support of the league," said Swoopes, her voice cracking. Though she was not told explicitly that the league did not support her decision to come out, said Swoopes, the WNBA no longer markets her as strongly as it did in earlier days, when Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo were sold as the - presumably straight - face of the league, which once compiled a roster of married and engaged players for the media. A married and very pregnant Swoopes, for instance, posed in her Comets uniform for the cover of a women's sports magazine in 1997.

Seated on the deck of The Pied after the meet and greet with fans, Swoopes, who was sidelined for all of last season due to a back injury, elaborated for Bay Windows on her disappointment with what she says is the WNBA's failure to use her in its marketing scheme post-coming out. "I don't feel like because I made that decision to come out, I don't feel like that changed me at all," she said. "If anything it made me stronger and it will show all the young girls out there - or whoever [else] out there - that you can live your life and be who you are regardless, and everything's going to be okay."

Swoopes learned that lesson during a conference at the Zuna Institute, a California-based national advocacy organization for black lesbians, not long before she decided to come out publicly. At a workshop that included a number of women with children, Swoopes, whose son Jordan is 10, was struck by some of the things said by workshop leader Angela Harvey, a motivational speaker and out lesbian. "She was just talking about her life and ... what she went through and how she got to where she is today," Swoopes recalled. "And it was just very empowering to me to sit there and listen. I asked a couple of questions as far as being a parent, and any advice that any parent could give me being gay [or] lesbian and raising a child. But so many things she said as far as, if we don't live our lives and be who we are and come out and share that with the world, we're going to forever be in the closet and we're going to forever feel like we're less than everyone else."

Swoopes said she left the conference with Scott feeling very differently about her situation. "It was just like, 'I gotta do this,' she said. "It's time. It's time for me to stop being ashamed, stop being scared - it's time for me to do me."

Swoopes is also anxious to return to the basketball court, though she acknowledged that she'll soon be hanging up her Air Swoopes. But after undergoing back surgery in September, Swoopes promised that she'll be going out on top. "I just never wanted to end my career being injured or hurt or not playing my best," said the 36-year-old. "When I retire I want to retire and leave people saying, 'Damn, why did she retire? She could have at least played another four or five years maybe.' I don't want it to be, 'Oh yeah it was time for her to retire.'... I want to leave the game leaving people with great memories of who Sheryl Swoopes was on the basketball court. So you know, I'm saying one or two more years because by the time I'm 40 I really don't anticipate myself on the basketball court because I have a passion for so many other things and I want to be able to do it while I'm still young."

One of those passions is the Sheryl Swoopes Foundation for Youth, which assists battered women as well as at-risk youth. Swoopes said she's particularly interested in helping gay and lesbian teens through the foundation. It's an interest she said was sparked by the numerous gay youth who have approached her with tales of being kicked out of their homes for being gay, living on the streets and falling into drugs and crime and parents who have spoken to her about their gay children who have attempted or committed suicide. "I think that's unfortunate when there are so many of us in this world that can reach out to them and help them out," said Swoopes. "That's my eventual goal, is to be able to reach out to the teens in the gay and lesbian community who really don't have anywhere to turn to."

With few openly gay black celebrities on the cultural landscape (former NBA basketball player John Amaechi is the first to come to mind), Swoopes also aims to be a role model for black gay people. While there are no shortage of high-profile white gay people like Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell, said Swoopes, "The African American community - we don't have anyone. We really don't have anyone that's come out and that's open that we can turn to and look up to and say, 'You know what, if she made it by coming out in our community' - because the black community, it's tough to come out and admit that you're gay or lesbian. That's a no no."

But her message to the black gay community is this: "Don't be afraid." For so many years, Swoopes said she and Scott put the happiness of those around them - friends, family, teammates - before their own. "And we went to bed miserable, woke up miserable and [I] lived my everyday life just miserable because I was doing what everybody else wanted me to do."

That, said Swoopes, is not why she was put on this earth. Rather, her purpose is show others that though coming out can be difficult, it's worth the trouble. "I just feel like everybody deserves happiness and I wasn't happy until I did what I did a couple of years ago," she said. "And now I live every single today to the fullest without any regret whatsoever."

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