Had a good long Twitter DM chat with a friend the other day. She is trying to understand why Brittney Griner’s sexuality is news – why any athlete’s sexuality is newsworthy, in fact. I trust my friend, and I know her questions came from a place of curiosity and genuine reflection, so I’m sharing our conversation.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Twitter Friend: I’m going to ask you a question and trust you know me well enough to know it is an honest question. I seek understanding.
TF: When I look at Brittney Griner I see an awesome, talented ball player. Why is it important for me to know or care whether she prefers men or women? Same with Megan Rapinoe. She is one of my favorite soccer players, she is funny and bright. I don’t care who she sleeps with.
LT: When you say “me” are you speaking only for yourself, or for people in general? That will affect my answer…
TF: I guess both. Me personally. And generally.
LT: This is why: Matthew Sheppard. And this: Alan Gordon. And this: Coach Lisa Howe. Not everyone shares your accepting, open-minded views. And until people like Matthew are safe, people like Alan don’t use homophobic slurs, until people like me can’t get fired for being different, it’s important to show that we are everywhere and we deserve to be treated equally. Who we sleep with is .00000000001% of who we are. But it’s treated like 100% of who we are. That some people and the media chose to focus on the “sex” in “sexuality” is unfortunate. But that’s how it is for now. People like Griner can help change that just by being who she is.
TF: I guess that is where I am coming from. I’m not sure I wish to be defined only by my sexuality. Just trying to figure out why we would want Griner to be defined by hers.
LT: I don’t think she is, or Pinoe either. And I think that’s progress. But it’s VERY recent progress. And it won’t be that way for a man. I think something you’re missing out on because, frankly, you’re not gay, is how we… my people… look to the famous gay people as heroes. It takes courage to be out; and Griner has Billie Jean & Martina to thank for being able to speak so nonchalantly about it. Lesbians glom on to out people because we have so few heroes. They become instant celebrities. Even straight actors who play gay people on TV – if you represent us well, you will have our loyalty. That’s kind of the feeling, because there are so many who are against us. [This is one reason why it matters for famous gays and lesbians to be out].
TF: You mean it is expected that female athletes would be gay but not male. You mean by other players or fans or both?
LT: As for a gay male major sports athlete… It will be a motherf’in ZOO. It will be all about sex, because that’s what the majority of people see. “Ew, gay sex! It’s gross and wrong!” The media, the religious, will make it all about sex, when really, it’s about relationships. But… that doesn’t sell newspapers.
TF: That’s why I asked. Trying to understand. I figured we could converse and you not want to kill me.
TF: So someone who lives their life in an open secret sort of way. No big announcement but no subterfuge. Encouraging or frustrating?
LT: Speaking only for myself? Frustrating, but not maddening. Being out can do so much good, but I completely respect the choice. Because here’s the thing… Each person in the world gets to choose what they will stand for. What they CAN stand for. What crosses they are strong enough to carry. I don’t begrudge a closeted person their choice. You can’t make someone carry that weight – they have to choose it, or they’ll do it badly. Then, everyone loses.
TF: Do you see famous “open secret” athletes as closeted?
LT: Yes. Though as @fromaleftwing would remind us, not necessarily only because of their actions; rather, the media helps put them in there. Make sense?
TF: Sort of.
LT: “Hey David Beckham, how’s your wife Victoria?” No one ever asks “open secret” athletes about their personal lives. Lots of possible reasons for that: In truth, it’s not 100% safe to be out. [Or] perhaps the media respects the athlete’s choice not to talk about it. But then, they also perpetuate it. [Or] perhaps they’re afraid to ask. They don’t want to be accused of outing someone. But again, they perpetuate it, even if intentions are good.
TF: For some people, though, anyone with a Twitter account could figure out who they’re with in about three minutes.
LT: Perhaps in light of Griner’s easy answer to a question that was not really asking about her primary relationship, someone will be more willing to ask similar questions to others. (By “easy” I mean “relaxed”).
TF: As someone who’s interviewed “open secret” athletes, I guess I don’t think it is anyone’s biz unless they choose to make it so.
LT: So they don’t say it directly, the press doesn’t ask directly, and it just exists there in the ether. And in doing so, saying it, or asking it, comes across as being wrong. Maybe.
TF: If I interviewed Pinoe at this point I would probably ask about [girlfriend Sarah] Walsh.
LT: Yes, that’s different, [Pinoe] has outed herself. She has made that topic open. And that’s the Big Thing. By not talking about it, by not asking, the topic carries shame. That is what we have to overcome. We… gay people…. we… media… we… humanity…
TF: To me, I don’t care and I guess I wouldn’t feel it my place to ask about it. Maybe you are right. It feels different, whereas with straight married players it is just their relationship. They present their partners as their partners. Rapinoe does as well so I would feel it is open territory. I would ask a straight married player about her husband because she presents him as her partner.
LT: You wouldn’t feel comfortable asking an “open secret” athlete how their partner is doing?
LT: And don’t get me wrong, Twitter Friend, NO ONE is going to ask an “open secret” athlete how their partner is doing. But you could… What’s the worst that could happen?
TF: I would feel comfortable asking Pinoe that re: Walsh but with others I’m not sure. It’s like I know but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to.
LT: I understand your dilemma, I really do. That’s the whole “ether” thing. It’s why activists press for people to be out. Make it clear. And while an argument could be made that it’s no one’s biz, that becomes false for public figures. It becomes our biz. So what it comes down to is, who else is going to ask the question the Griner interviewer asked?
TF: I can’t imagine it hasn’t been asked.
LT: By the mainstream media? If it’s an open secret, it’s still a secret, and it’s a line no one has been willing to cross.
TF: I just assume it’s made clear beforehand that it is off limits.
LT: I think people don’t ask. And don’t tell. Sound familiar? Fear. Shame. That’s why people like Pinoe and Griner are so important. No fear. No shame.
TF: Think if you were [RETIRED ATHLETE 1] or [RETIRED ATHLETE 2] although I’m not sure #1 ever cared.
LT: Or [RETIRED ATHLETE 3].
TF: Is #3 out or another open secret?
LT: Open secret.
LT: Ok buddy, I gotta go to a meeting. Always here for you. So glad you asked, please feel free anytime.
TF: Me too. Good to have discussion. Not everyday you can have this conversation with a [conservative occupation]‘s wife!
The amount of shading and massaging I
had to chose to do to protect the identities of players we spoke about by name is the object lesson of the entire post. There is no good reason – not one – for anyone, famous athlete or regular ol’ person, to feel compelled to hide who they are. There are only bad reasons: shame, danger, fear, and fear, and more fear.
If I claimed to live openly but never spoke about my relationships in public, what message would that send to those around me? This isn’t even a rhetorical question. I can tell you from experience my friends don’t ask about my relationships because they think I don’t want to talk about it, that it’s private. (The real reason is that there’s nothing to talk about, but that’s another post). My dad always said, you teach people how to be around you. When someone claims to live openly, but subtly denies the truth of their situation, it sends signals to those around them that it’s not really OK to talk about this part of you, that it is still a secret. That it’s not open at all.
When a Brittney Griner or Megan Rapinoe step up and say, nope, I’m not going to be afraid, they make it a tiny bit safer for everyone else. All of us, gay and straight, famous and not, can do our part to fight danger and fear. For example, I can ask questions from a place of curiosity, not judgement. Speak my truth. Be myself. And maybe, with each DM and RT and +1, we can chip away at the shame that keeps others from feeling safe enough to live freely.