Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alice Hoenigman has a Masters in public relations and focused her studies on Sports PR/Journalism at Indiana University. She writes for Ladies of the League, a site featuring positive stories of professional female athletes and/or NBA mothers, wives, and significant others.
My first love in life was basketball. I mean, I loved it. I was hooping every single day after school until dark; it was a heart-pounding, knee trembling, die hard love. I grew up in Cleveland in the 80s, but the snow on my driveway didn't slow me down a step. I was recruited to hoop when I was 13 in one of Cleveland's elite girls basketball schools. A power forward with an outside touch, I was tall, scrappy and loved playing defense.
But in all my talent and passion, I quit my high school team. A major reason was the homophobia I faced every day. Our sleeved jerseys were called, "Dyke shirts" by the coaching staff, kids were called out publicly, and the shaming, secrecy and hypocrisy of it all made me sick.
I walked off the court at 16 and never looked back. The same coaches that relied on my androgynous physique on the court would mock it off the court. Even as a teenager, I simply couldn't handle the pretenses under which lesbian athletes had to live and play.
In the early years of the WNBA I saw the same experience I had in high school play out again. There were reports of the WNBA hosting seminars for its players on makeup and fashion. My heart hurt for the players that sat in the hair and makeup seminars wearing heels because their career depended on it. The lesbian fan community felt the sting of the blatant attempt to feminize the leagues image.
This created the feeling that despite our majority numbers as fans, we were marketed around, pushed behind a support beam so we wouldn't be seen. The WNBA told the gay community as players and fans season after season that this was a family environment and not our kind of families.
The league fell all over themselves to market the women's game to the fraction of the fans that weren't us. The "daddy-daughter" fan base was their prime target, and we were considered fringe. The waves of outrage rolled over me for the second time in my life. Marketers, coaches, and schools were succeeding off the sweat of gay women and then denying that they are in fact gay women so as to not offend the minority of mainstreamers who paid passive attention to our game.
As recently as 2009, the Washington Mystics publicly demonstrated systemic homophobia by banning the kiss cam on the chance that lesbians would be seen kissing. Their PR was atrocious. The Mystics Managing Partner, Shelia Johnson said, "We got a lot of kids here, we just don't find it appropriate."
The same trends were seen in college, including negative recruiting - where straight coaches used gay coaches' orientations against them to get parents to send their kid to the straight coach's school. Everywhere we looked, at all levels of women's basketball, homophobia and outright meanness were the strategic marketing plan.
The WNBA has come leaps and bounds in the last two seasons. The league is somewhere between blazing a trail and following a national trend. Either way, it is no longer popular to deny lesbians exist or try to put makeup on those of us who didn't want it. Those behaviors now are seen in society as tone deaf. So, the WNBA became inclusive and now they celebrate diversity. All families are beautiful. Even ours.
Brittney Griner helped tremendously - which was just luck on the WNBA's part. If Griner played in 2002 she would be whisked away immediately after the game clock showed 0.00 and told not to speak in the deep, husky voice especially if there are children around. As it stands now, she is a role model for kids telling them it is ok to be different, and you can recover from bullying and be whom you want to be... and she models men's clothes for Nike and doesn't get asked to wear makeup.
Now it seems to be a part of the story that all of us can begin to put behind us. The WNBA is finally, officially marketing itself to us: the LGBT community. Every WNBA team is having a Pride night this year, the WNBA released its first ever pride shirt, and the WNBA became the first pro sports league ever to market itself directly to the LGBT community.
WNBA, we appreciate your inclusive tone today, but we haven't forgetten. As lesbians we haven't forgotten that you distanced yourselves from us for 15 seasons because we were bad for your bottom line: We didn't forget kiss cam, we didn't forget negative recruiting, we didn't forget that the straight players were put on posters while we were shuffled into the locker room.
We didn't forget and we won't. It's a part of our story and yours.