Amazons: Inspirational lesbians in sport
Coming out takes courage, especially in the macho world of professional sports where all women battle sexism and lazy stereotypes.
But the last few years have brought massive, positive changes in society, from the success of the marriage equality movement in Europe, to the raft of new gay rights in North America. We take a look at some of the most talented sportswomen who’ve come out recently, as well as some who paved the way before.
This piece is brought to you in association with Titanbet Poker.
Shot-blocking, slam-dunking winner of the 2012 Best Female Athlete ESPY Award and 2013 GLAAD Media Award for Special Recognition among others, Women’s NBA star Griner hasn’t
always been able to be out and proud.
Although her family and friends had been supportive, she told ESPN her Baylor college coach told her to keep quiet about being a lesbian to protect the Baptist college team’s image: “It was a recruiting thing…The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”
Nevertheless, she described her sexuality as “an open secret”, and in 2013 came out to the world, telling critics who’d prefer her to say nothing: “What about the kids who need someone to look up to?’
“I’m not trying to target whoever’s complaining. I’m targeting the people struggling who need someone to set an example… Just knowing that you can help somebody out, that’s a feeling you can’t express.”
A legend in the open swimming world after breaking the world record for swimming around Manhattan by almost an hour in 1975, Nyad went on to break both the women’s and men’s open-ocean world record, swimming unassisted from the Bahamas to Florida, an incredible hundred and two miles.
She retired happy aged 30, but her failed swim from Cuba to Florida, thwarted by jellyfish stings and strong currents, was something she never quite let go.
Aged 64, the end of her 10-year lesbian relationship with TV executive Nina Ledermaner and the death of her mother forced Nyad to think about what she still wanted to achieve, telling the New Yorker: “There’s a real speeding up of the clock and a choking on, who have you become? Because this one-way street is hurtling toward the end now, and you better be the person you admire.
“Cuba, because the dream had been there before, I thought, boy, that’s a dream I could rekindle.”
And with gut-wrenching determination and strength of mind, she did. After five gruelling attempts, she completed the swim, telling the expectant crowd, “You’re never too old to chase your dream.”
It’s not hard to notice a female poker player on your average table – she’s usually the only one. But that is changing as more and more women make it big in this traditionally male-dominated world and Vanessa Selbst is the most successful so far. Winning over $9 million in tournaments, she has taken home the Partouche Poker Tour Main Event, two NAPT Main Events and won two World Series of Poker bracelets. In 2013 she won the $25,000 PCA High Roller title, plus the first prize of $1.4 million.
Asked by a fan on Reddit whether being told she is a great “female” poker player grated at all, she said she hoped one day such qualifications wouldn’t be necessary: “I wish those distinctions didn’t have to exist, but I understand that people want to make them, given how relatively little success women have had in poker thus far.
“As women get better and better and a few of the up and coming players become really elite (which WILL happen), hopefully that distinction will be made less often.”
On the rampant stereotypes about women who enter a traditionally male world like professional poker, she said such perceptions were exacerbated by the media: “I think as a masculine lesbian, there is a tendency for people to expect me to be mean and aggressive…I think a lot of what people see and characterize as me being ‘angry’ results from
selection bias of which moments the media is going to show from me, and I think some of that results from me being typecast based on my gender presentation.
“And that, I would say, is by far the toughest challenge.”
Only the second international cricketer to come out during their career, after England player Steven Davies, New South Wales and Australia specialist batsman Blackwell found her voice when she got involved with Athlete Ally, a non-profit which promotes LGBT inclusion in sports.
She told women’s sports advocate Danielle Warby that coming out loud and proud was the least she could do: “How can I be trying to stamp out homophobia in sport and be attempting to make sport a safer place for gay athletes while I’m not totally upfront about being a gay athlete myself?
“I wasn’t hiding who I was to those around me – I just never took the opportunity to be really upfront about it in the media. I didn’t choose to focus on that part of my life in the media as it wasn’t the most important thing about me and my ability to play good cricket.”
Blackwell thinks many gay female sports players don’t come out due to their fear of stereotyping, and share her own worries that the media will shift its focus from sporting prowess to sexuality. She also says that athletes who are gay, or perceived to be gay, are just not asked about their love lives by reporters in the same way as obvious straights, so these conversations just don’t take place.
Blackwell’s partner is fellow cricketer, ACT Meteors player Lynsey Askew.
Palmer broke huge barriers in 1997, becoming the NBA’s only ever female referee. She faced opposition from men in the sport, telling PBS: “Generally it was a good ‘ole boys club, and I think that’s within any sport. There were a lot of referees that resented me joining the ranks.”
It’s not surprising then that before refereeing her first ever NBA game, she says “I felt scared out of my wits… knowing the entire world was waiting for me to fall on my face”.
But like a true pro, as soon as she blew her first whistle, “it was all over, it was just like any other game.”
Palmer knew she was a lesbian as a child, but didn’t come out to her parents until adulthood. It took her 10 years to be open with her co-workers. She married her partner of 20 years in 2014, in what she says was her real coming out moment: “This is actually the big formal coming out,” Palmer said at the time.
“We are saying to the world, to everyone, here’s my wife of 20 years. This is the big coming out.”
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Billie Jean King
No discussion on lesbians in sport could be complete without a hat-tip – nay, a full on bow – in the direction of the great Ms. King.
Winner of six Wimbledon singles championships and four US Open titles, she was number one in the world for five years and in probably her most remembered match, thrashed self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” and ex-champion Bobby Riggs in 1973.
The significance was not lost on her: “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match…It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self esteem.”
Outed by her ex-husband in 1981, a time when homophobia was the norm, King has campaigned for decades for gay rights and in 1990 was named one of Life’s “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century“.
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