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WNBA Athletes Are Destroying the Traditional Notion of Coming Out

SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 24: Candace Parker attends 2019 NBA Awards at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019 in Santa Monica, California.
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All the time, especially as a journalist constantly covering LGBTQ news, I hear that people wish it wasn’t news when someone comes out publicly.

Besides the fact that I roll my eyes every time I hear or read that — because, while I understand the sentiment, I believe someone publicly sharing their identity is still worth recognizing, even if it’s not always “big news” — there’s already a universe where that sentiment has come to fruition: women’s sports.

Many people in majority women’s sports leagues enjoy the strangely unique juxtaposition of having enough notoriety or recognition to be considered public figures, while still having relative anonymity to much of the general public — and the accompanying media coverage. That allows them to still enjoy a large amount of privacy that’s usually not afforded to the atypical pro athlete in America.

There’s no other league where this is more evident than the WNBA.

For years since it was founded in 1996, the amount of openly queer and/or trans people playing or working in the league has only continuously grown with each coming year. Soon, many of the league’s biggest stars — Sue Bird, Cheryl Reeve, Glory Johnson, Sue Wicks — were known for being proudly out of the closet. Now, not only are many non-stars comfortable sharing their authentic selves, but people are entering the league while being openly queer, and still enjoying their careers. There are very few places where that can be said in the world, let alone the country, outside of women-dominated sports associations.

This year, that trend not only continued, but the number of proudly out players and league employees seemed to skyrocket. Why? Now, more than ever, many in the WNBA have taken advantage of the privacy they have (and many, many more athletes deserve) are sharing their lives when they want to. They’re not hiding in the closet, and they’re not shying away from who they are either. They’re simply not “coming out” in the way the public has become accustomed to.

One prime example, one that I wrote about earlier this year, was Renee Montgomery. The star of the Dream retired and, within a year, had become the co-owner of the team she had been playing for, taking over for a notoriously anti-LGBTQ owner. At the same time, she was engaged and, as we found out later, married to a woman, singer Sirena Grace. (Read about their love story, first on INTO, here.)

Now more than ever, WNBA players are taking advantage of the privacy they have to share their lives when they want to.

Trans and nonbinary athletes also became more open about sharing their journey, especially as lawmakers across America further politicized and demonized the participation of trans people in sports. Layshia Clarendon not only became the first WNBA player to play in the league while out as nonbinary — but they have undergone top surgery, had their journey and story featured by ESPN and on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and continued to raise their child with their wife with general anonymity, as the public doesn’t even know their name, let alone their sex assigned at birth. 

Then, there’s Candace “Ace” Parker. It’s nowhere near implausible to say that Parker, off the court — and arguably, even moreso on — is essentially the Steph Curry of the WNBA, in terms of celebrity, cultural impact, or universal acclaim. (Check her adidas commercial, if you’re unfamiliar.)

Well, in addition being considered one of the all-time greats of basketball, Parker revealed this week that she, too, has a wife. Parker, who was previously married to NBA player Shelden Williams and had a child from their relationship, had not previously disclosed publicly that she was attracted to women — but as we can tell from social media posts, it was not a secret to those who mattered most to Parker: her teammates, her friends around the league, and her loved ones.

Not only did Ace reveal that she’s been married to fellow basketball player Anna Petrakova for two years, but the pair are now expecting a child as well.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Candace Parker (@candaceparker)

The reaction, as it has been for Clarendon, Montgomery, and most of the other LGBTQ+ players across the WNBA, was one of unequivocal joy and elation — which should be the reaction when anyone shares such joyous news. It didn’t matter that the general public was unaware of Parker’s sexuality (and, technically, still is; marriage doesn’t solely indicate one’s identity) or that many might have previously assumed that she was straight. Her career, and her stature as an all-time great, will likely be unaffected; if anything, the fact that she’s raising one child, about to raise another, and managed to keep a marriage under wraps from tabloids or gossip mills should only improve her legacy’s standing.

That’s not to say people outside of Parker’s circle didn’t know — several people in the WNBA realm, including die-hard level fans, were not surprised, and some seem to have learned about this a while ago.

That exemplifies how the WNBA has created a space where one’s personal life isn’t important and doesn’t need attention, unless someone chooses to illuminate it. Candace Parker’s not “coming out,” she’s celebrating a new special moment in her life, and she’s allowing the rest of us to come in to her life and join her.

And that’s exactly what people are doing: outside of the usual bigots and men who don’t know how to interact with a women without sexualizing her, the world is celebrating right along with Parker.

Sure, part of the reason that’s possible is the stereotyping and marginalization of women and trans/nonbinary athletes, especially those in the WNBA. Outsiders may already assume a majority of the people in the WNBA are gay or queer.

But you know what? The people who matter — the actual fans, supporters, and participants of the league — don’t seem to be bothered by it anymore. A good number of the most beloved and successful people in the WNBA are queer; eight of the WNBA’s self-proclaimed Top 25 players list released this fall were out, and counting Parker, now nine. A large portion of the fanbase are queer themselves, and it’s only going to grow. And, most of all, people being presumably queer is inherently not a bad thing! So as usual, anti-LGBTQ people will have no remedy to their issues other than to stay mad and grow the hell up.

The WNBA is not perfect, and has historically struggled with its queer population, too. But as usual, it is setting a higher standard not only for the rest of sports, but the rest of society, too. We’re seeing leagues like the PHF, the NWSL, and others follow them in a similar fashion. Coming out was (and, in many places, still is) important to proving we’re here, we’re queer, and you can’t stop us from being who we are.

In a post-coming out universe, where individuals don’t have to fear facing marginalization for that, we can allow those that we want to come in instead, whether that’s a few people or the entire world. For those that want a universe where coming out is not news, look no further than the WNBA and other women-dominated sports leagues as the places you need to go.

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