After years of disdain for LGBTQ+ fans, the WNBA is the sport’s most welcoming league

Jean DiMarco was 11 years old when he was WNBA It was launched in 1997. She was a fan of UConn women’s basketball while growing up in Connecticut and loved collecting baseball and basketball cards with her family. But once I reported to the WNBA, I started adding league player cards to the mix.

“It wasn’t like it is now – you can watch games, watch videos, or read about (the league),” says DeMarco. “So when I was a little kid I would collect cards and I would look up all the players I wanted. I would see their uniforms and look at their stats. This is how I experienced the WNBA.”

Years later, after DeMarco, 35, came out as a lesbian and moved to New York City, I attended freedom game with friends. During a break, a group of lesbian fans started kissing and laughing as a planned protest against the league. When DeMarco asked her friend about it, the friend explained that the WNBA wasn’t supportive of her fan base, so fans took it upon themselves to be as visible as possible in the crowd.

“I was confused,” DiMarco recalls. “W doesn’t like gays? Isn’t half the court gay? What’s going on here? So, I felt like the league wasn’t right for me.”

To new fans, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community, this may seem surprising. The WNBA is one of the most progressive and diverse professional leagues in the world – if not the most – where gay players appear both on and off the field and the need to appear in public or make a major statement about their sexuality or identity seems unnecessary. Players also use their voices and platforms to support causes, speak out about social injustice, enact political change and raise awareness about the issues. WNBA Commissioner Kathy Engelbert and her cohorts not only embraced it, but elevated and encouraged her messages.

It’s hard to look back and admit that the WNBA hasn’t always been this way. But there was a time when the league overlooked the LGBTQ+ community, purposefully marketing its players and basketball products as a way to specifically attract heterosexual fans instead—particularly men. Not only were they overtly feminized, straight female players who were married with children were put to the fore in promotional materials and league marketing, while gay players liked Pioneer Sue WeeksThey said they felt pressure to hide their sexuality and identity. Throughout the mandate, the WNBA has reflected on American society when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues and their acceptance. Gay fans like DeMarco were scorned.

Then something changed. A new generation of bold and outspoken players A hand forced the WNBA, and the league began turning toward the queer community instead. Veteran players like So Bird And the Diana Taurasi, who had been in the league during his closed years, finally felt he could be himself. Pride parades and events took place regularly. Layshia Clarendon became the first non-dual player in league history. And when Candice Parker She recently announced on Instagram that she married European basketball player Anna Petrakova and they were expecting a baby, and social media comments were hugely supportive.

“I think that’s where the league was. I don’t want to say it was a natural progression, because I think that takes away from the players who had a role in changing the league, says Camper Clemens, 35. “If they hadn’t come, it wouldn’t have been League exists. So did they come because they had to, or did they come because they wanted to? “

Clemens, a lesbian marketing and co-founder of Cut Down The Net — an organization that provides resources and support to young girls in basketball — joined the WNBA during the 2020 “Wubble” season in the midst of the pandemic. She chose not to let the skeletons of the League haunt her. For her, it is about the present moment.

Clemens, who lives in Florida, says: “It’s really important that I make sure my kids have things they can see clearly on (TV) and feel — we live in a very red zone especially right now with all the legislation I’ve been through across the country and everything — you have representation. It’s non-binary, it’s all across the spectrum in the league. Whether you’re gay personally or identify a certain way, there’s likely to be someone on the court (that you belong to).”

Sue Bird (right), seen here after the 2020 Storm Championships with fiancé Megan Rapinoe, is one of many notable WNBA players. (Chris O’Meara/The Associated Press)

Allyssa Eclarin, 31, agrees with Clemence when it comes to embracing the WNBA where she is now, and not just because they started Cut Down The Net together. It’s personal.

Clemens and Eclarine recently teamed up with AAU’s Miami Girls Team lynx star Silvia Fowles. They have invested heavily in women’s basketball in general and champion incorporation.

“Just seeing the fact that you can be professional and have your love life not hurt your career was really cool, because that was kind of the insecurities I had and I still kind of feel about going out,” says Eclaren, of California. “What I love about the WNBA is how open (the players) are about their sexuality. It made it easier for me, and it made me feel less alone. It’s a lot like an after school club sometimes — it’s more of a welcome and acceptance than a watchdog.”

For Billy Gray, a 32-year-old attorney who lives in Texas, the evolution of the WNBA has paralleled hers.

“The WNBA pivot came around the same time I was getting out and starting to get more involved in the gay community,” she says. “It helped a lot for me – as if we were kind of growing together in some way. So I missed a lot of hard times. I know there was a lot of silence and a lot of avoidance of the obvious strange elephant in the room.”

Gray, woman followed across NBA and other sports for years. She was in the spirited squad at Texas A&M and was in both the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments. When Tulsa Shock moved to Dallas and became wingsGray jumped at the chance to follow the local WNBA team. Her fan base has swelled ever since and the WNBA became the first sports league to make her feel like a part of the community. With other leagues, Gray says she feels like a passive participant. Her love for the WNBA grew. And she has the jersey collection to prove it.

“I feel visible. I mean, I don’t want to give them too much credit. It’s not like they’re going out of their way or anything else,” Gray says. “They don’t necessarily actively follow my fans, but they acknowledge my existence. and acknowledgment of our existence.

Fans say that feeling like you’re seen in a way that’s real beyond just a sports league change, and changing your social media avatar to the colors of the rainbow during Pride Month is an important aspect that defines the WNBA.

“I think there’s a certain pride in there,” says Amanda Aubrey, 43. “W knows their fan base. They know who they are. They know who’s been in the seats from the start, because there’s been a flurry of enthusiasm in general. Instead of just giving in to it, they They actively say: We know, we see you, and we celebrate you. And they generally communicate in this way.”

Aubrey, a Texas attorney like Gray, remembers the WNBA inaugural season and the legendary “We Got Next” commercials that ran before the league ended. Her association with the WNBA runs as deep as the nostalgia she feels when she talks about how amazing she was as a teenager when the league started. Years later, after going through her own acceptance journey regarding her sexuality, Aubrey’s WNBA fandom took a different shape. She follows the league closely now, roots for multiple teams, and celebrates the vision and acceptance of her players.

“For me, there’s a level of assurance,” Aubrey says. “I think especially for people who have grown up in this charged kind of the last 20 years where the messages have been so hostile, for lack of a better word. I think it’s really important to have that kind of candor, not just tolerance, but acceptance and celebration, in a visual way “.

WNBA teams are hosting Pride-themed games throughout June, Pride jerseys are available in the WNBA Store, and WNBA and NBA representatives will March include float At the Pride Parade in New York City on June 26. But it’s more than just marketing that makes Pride events feel authentic to WNBA fans. When Clemens took her teenage daughter to school recently, she asked her daughter if there were any gay players in the NBA. Clemens could not name a single player, because there are no active gay players in the NBA. But in the WNBA, the list is deep with at least one player on each team. The reason is a combination of player independence and a cyclical atmosphere of acceptance and support. “I really appreciate the guys,” Bailey says. “Just the sheer number of guys that want to be out there and are excited and open up. Because, I don’t know, the world is bad. And watching these bad guys play basketball and do amazing things is a breath of fresh air that I think we all need sometimes.”

WNBA fan Jen DeMarco (left) and her wife enjoy a game of Liberty. (Courtesy of Jane DeMarco)

It’s been a long time since DeMarco left the WNBA. Her relationship with the league is complete. She still lives in New York City and works as the show’s artistic director. She still has this binder from the WNBA player cards that she started collecting as a child. But when Panini released some new WNBA cards in 2019, she started collecting them and pursuing the league again. Now, she has new folders filled with current player cards and considers herself a big fan of the WNBA, attending Liberty games whenever she can.

“I feel the connection I’ve always wanted but may not have (before),” says DeMarco. “I love that.”

(Top image: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)