The images of Brittney Griner from 17 April 2013 are striking. It was the night of the annual WNBA draft, and Griner was beaming from ear to ear. For months, everyone expected her to be chosen first by the Phoenix Mercury. But when WNBA commissioner Laurel J Richie called Griner’s name from the podium as the top overall pick, there was a separate and nearly tangible anticipation in the room.
Because in that moment, Griner became the most prominent openly gay basketball player in the world.
She had always wanted to be upfront about her sexual orientation. It wasn’t really a matter of deciding when to come out publicly, but rather, a question of when those in power would step out of her way.
So on draft night, the sports world watched as Brittney embraced her father Raymond, then strode to the stage. She had never looked better, wearing an ivory suit with satin finishes and a matching vest underneath, the jacket tailored perfectly. Pops of color emerged from argyle socks and a playful manicure featuring bright orange nail polish, a nod to her new team. Looking “fearlessly dapper”, the 6ft 9in Griner boldly stood in the spotlight. It was the first day of the rest of her life.
In a brief TV interview just moments later, she was nearly speechless, a bit breathless. But then ESPN host Holly Rowe asked, “How are you looking forward to playing with a little bit more freedom?”
Griner answered immediately: “Definitely looking forward to the freedom.”
Brittney Griner has spent nearly five months wrongfully detained in a Moscow prison. She was arrested in February for alleged “large-scale transportation” of cannabis into Russia, on her way to rejoining her team in Ekaterinburg, where she has played EuroLeague ball since 2014, like so many other WNBA players who earn the bulk of their income during winters abroad.
A week after Griner’s arrest, Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
Despite a coordinated campaign from the WNBA and a growing grassroots movement demanding her freedom, there is no end in sight to Griner’s detainment. Her trial – considered a “sham” by many – is only just beginning. On 7 July, she entered a guilty plea to the court, potentially clearing the way to expedite a political negotiation between the United States and Russia for her release. Regardless, experts say Griner’s trial will almost certainly end in conviction. She has become a human bargaining chip amidst a raging war, trapped in the maze of hostage diplomacy.
Meanwhile, US media outlets have often failed to capture the full impact of Griner’s accomplishments. Because her story has always been bigger than basketball – more important than championships and Olympic gold medals.
It’s a story of confronting discrimination, breaking glass ceilings and leading radical change. It’s a story of women’s basketball players across the US and the world, a story of queer people who play sports, a story that highlights why so many WNBA players must continue to demand the respect they already deserve.
This is the real story of Brittney Griner, a singular American trailblazer on and off the court.
Griner was born in 1990. The WNBA came along in 1997, under the supervision and ownership of the NBA. From the start, the league worked hard to maintain an image of heterosexuality and traditional feminine gender roles. A 1998 Washington Post story highlighted a new segment in the WNBA’s halftime report, called ‘Girl Talk’, in which “young fans call in to ask WNBA players questions about their boyfriends or about how someone can become a WNBA star”. To be a star on the court, in the 90s, was to necessarily also have a “boyfriend” on the sidelines: containing the threat of a female athlete who might call her own shots.
The league kept a tight seal on its lesbian and bisexual players that few broke. If you look at a timeline of the WNBA, the bullet point of Sheryl Swoopes’ coming out in 2005 is the sole event of its kind for 10 years, between 2002 and 2012. Even then, Swoopes told the New York Times, “Five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have [come out]. I was just afraid of what type of effect it would have, afraid of losing endorsements.” It was only at that point in her career – when Swoopes had won an Olympic gold medal, four WNBA championships and earned league MVP honors three times – that she had the emotional, and financial, confidence to live openly as a queer person.
As a kid growing up in Houston, Texas, Griner often felt overwhelmed by her differences. “I guess I started feeling different when everybody started telling me I was,” she says in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin. In middle school, she was “flat and thin, my voice low”. Kids taunted her in the hallways, shrieking insults: “She must be a boy. She’s not really a girl.”
The ridicule chipped away at Griner’s self-esteem and left her in a “mess of emotions”. But by the time she entered Nimitz High School as a 6ft 0in freshman, basketball had become a motivating force in her life. She used her size and tenacity on the court; the sport gave her focus and resilience. In 2007, a video clip of Griner dunking went viral on YouTube.
In the fall of 2008, she arrived at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she could be seen longboarding across campus, joking around at barbecues with friends, and dominating opponents on the basketball court with her 88in wingspan and unrivaled combination of size and strength. As a junior, she led her team to a 40-0 record and the 2012 NCAA championship, making headlines for dunking along the way.
But during her time at Baylor, Griner was also forced to keep quiet about her true identity. One day, in the middle of her sophomore season, she was summoned to the office of her head coach, Kim Mulkey. As Griner recounts in her memoir, she had gone to a restaurant the night before for Valentine’s Day dinner with another woman. Although the two barely touched hands at their table, word got back to Mulkey, who told Griner she was disappointed in her behavior. “You can’t be seen doing that,” Mulkey said. “Big Girl, keep it behind closed doors.”
At the time, Baylor had a formal policy in the student handbook forbidding homosexual activity and premarital sex in general. The school also prohibited “advocacy groups which promote understanding of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching”. As a result, Griner’s freedom was curtailed by the same institution she was helping to elevate in the public eye, bringing money and attention to Baylor. She writes in her memoir: “I spent a lot of time wondering if they supported Brittney Griner the person or just Brittney Griner the basketball player.”
It wasn’t all that long ago, really: When Griner turned pro in 2013, journalists were obsessed with “conducting a comical stakeout of closet doors across all professional sports”. Even the WNBA had continued its clumsy refusal to acknowledge a strong base of lesbian players and fans. Only one player in the league, Seimone Augustus, was openly gay.
And then, during what was meant to be a routine interview with Griner and the other two top draft picks – Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins – a Sports Illustrated reporter seized the opportunity to bring up the issue of sexuality in sports.
It wasn’t the way her media coming out was meant to happen. But there it was. Without hesitation, Griner jumped in: “I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way.”
Griner was only 22, still in college, on the brink of starting her professional career. But she lacked the fear that marked so much of women’s basketball at the time. And she didn’t back down.
That same week, she also declined to participate in the WNBA’s makeup application session for rookies. And in wearing that iconic white tuxedo, Griner did more than defy gender norms; she showed the potential for players like her to lead change within the league itself.
The WNBA had no choice but to follow. Just a year later, in 2014, the league hosted its first nationally televised Pride Game, in Phoenix.
The story of progressive change in the WNBA is long, winding and complex. But Brittney Griner embodies the spirit of today’s league, where players like Layshia Clarendon, Maya Moore and Natasha Cloud have become heroes for their off-court advocacy, making the WNBA stand out for its leadership on social justice issues.
Even today, the strongest critiques of the league come from the players themselves. Many are now leading the call for the WNBA to better support and lift up its Black players, like reigning MVP Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun, who “deserves way more attention than she’s gotten”, says Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP.
“It’s hard to get at that table, being yourself, being Black, being gay and being unapologetically yourself,” Sun guard Courtney Williams told ESPN’s Katie Barnes. Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum said she became so “pissed” about the league’s approach to marketing that she blocked the WNBA on social media. “I was getting preferential treatment because I was straight and white,” Plum told Barnes. “It’s absolutely a problem in our league.”
And now the WNBA faces a new political challenge: Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment. Once again, she is a unique protagonist. This time, however, she faces an especially harrowing set of circumstances.
In wrongful detainment cases, legal trials exist not to deliver justice but to provide artificial pretext for whatever political outcome best serves the detaining regime’s demands. In the case of Griner, Russia’s demands are likely to include a prisoner swap – a potentially unfavorable outcome for many in the US government.
For the next few weeks, or perhaps months, we will catch only carefully curated glimpses of Griner from Russian media. We will see her shackled to a guard, hunched over, paraded through the courthouse. But those images, while capturing the bleakness of her current situation, only distort the larger truth.
Griner has always had a deeper power: her ability not only to survive and thrive, but to make that idea seem possible for others.
What makes her so compelling now is precisely the same reason she has too often been overlooked in American society – and why she sticks out as a useful target for Vladimir Putin, who has long wielded violently anti-gay rhetoric and policies to further his political agenda. In this way, Griner and many queer, Black, gender non-conforming people can spend a lifetime seeking freedom.
Now we can only wait and see when she might find it again.
July 14, 2022 at 12:41PM Maya Goldberg-Safir and Sue Hovey