WNBA star Brittney Griner earns her place in LGBT sports history

All month long, Outsports is revisiting key moments in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer sports history as part of LGBTQ history month. Today, we look at Brittney Griner, who has consistently proven herself to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, whether it be men, women, or non-binary identified players. And from the get-go, she’s never had to “come out.”

In April 2013, Jim Buzinski wrote:

Brittney Griner did an interview with Sports Illustrated where she talked about her sexuality and being out, all without using the word “lesbian.”

”Being one that’s out, it’s just being who you are. Again, like I said, just be who you are. Don’t worry about what other people are going to say, because they’re always going to say something, but, if you’re just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don’t hide who you really are.”

Griner, the Baylor star and top pick in the WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury, was interviewed with two other stars, Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne. Asked about her sexuality in light of being the top pick, Briner responded:

”It really wasn’t too difficult, I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all. 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.”

Diggins and Delle Donne, the second overall pick, both said they were fine with people being who they are. What’s interesting about the interview is how matter-of-fact Griner is about being lesbian. She said she never hid, so there was no official coming out campaign. What makes it news was that, as far as I can tell, she had never directly addressed the question before publicly. Either she wasn’t asked or she declined to talk publicly. Whatever, Brittney Griner is out.

Griner gave this great quote to the AP when asked what it was like to stand out:

’’It was hard. Just being picked on for being different. Just being bigger, my sexuality, everything,’’ said the 6-foot-8 Griner, who acknowledged she is a lesbian. ‘’I overcame it and got over it. Definitely something that I am very passionate about. I want to work with kids and bring recognition to the problem, especially with the LGBT community.’’

I looked back at Griner’s life when we named her one of our Stonewall Spirit honorees in June 2019.

The Phoenix Mercury center was honored last year as World Cup gold medal game Player of the Game, and also made the 2014 FIBA World Cup All-Tournament Team. In addition to her FIBA World Cup gold medal, Griner has won an Olympic gold medal, WNBA title and NCAA title while attending Baylor University. She’s one of only 11 women who have achieved that many accolades, and not surprisingly, a few of them also made our “Stonewall Spirit” list.

But… Nobody is perfect. Not athletes, not coaches, and certainly not referees, umpires and sportswriters.

So it will shock no one that Griner’s history has some rough edges to it. She’s 6’9” and recalled in an essay in The New York Times that she was relentlessly bullied, endured racist slurs and repeatedly misgendered.

“The teasing about my height, appearance and sexuality went on nonstop, every day.

“People called me a dude and said there was no way I could be a woman. Some even wanted me to prove it to them. During high school and college, when we traveled for games, people would shout the same things while also using racial epithets and terrible homophobic slurs.

“I’ve had moments when I questioned my place in the world. At times, especially in seventh grade, life was lonely and I’d often feel sad. I never wanted to deny who I was, but dealing with the sadness and the anger that came from people constantly making fun of me wore me down at times. I relied heavily on my mom, family and friends to lift my spirits and help me through it — and still do.”

She came out to her mom in ninth grade, and when she revealed this truth about herself to the world in April 2013, there was little fanfare, coming as it did on the heels of Jason Collins’s announcement.

And to The Times: “Just as basketball doesn’t define who I am, neither does being gay.” She would much rather discuss skating or bacon, she said,

It was a month later in 2013 that Griner revealed she had been silenced about her sexuality. Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey was fully aware of her star player’s sexual orientation but did not want it out in the open, for fear it would hurt recruiting.

What hurt Griner, however, was not her love for a woman but the media’s repeated painting of her as a brute, whether it be playing rough on the hardwood or in the context of her first marriage.

Both she and her now ex-wife, Glory Johnson, were arrested in April 2015 for domestic violence. Johnson was with the Tulsa Shock at the time, and is now a Dallas Wings forward.

Glory and Griner have gone on to new relationships, after court battles over the custody and financial support of their twins; Griner is now married to a Baylor alumna, Cherelle Watson.

So like for many people, Griner’s life did not follow a straight line — no pun intended. What matters is not the TMZ gossip machine or mug shots, but how she has overcome adversity to achieve her goals.

That is one likely reason Nike chose her along with other successful athletes to represent the athletic brand in a short video campaign. The latest incarnation of the BeTrue ad shows Griner alongside another WNBA great, Sue Bird, trans athlete Chris Mosier and more.

Their message: “Nobody wins alone,” “No one wins until we all win” and “None of us can truly win until the rules are the same for everyone.”

For Griner, the rules may never be equalized in her favor, in some aspects, given her height and prowess on the court.

In August 2019, Griner made headlines again:

The WNBA issued a three game suspension to Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner for her role in an on-court fight that broke out midway through the fourth quarter of last Saturday night’s game with the Dallas Wings.

Griner said that the WBNA’s response could impact her future in the league. She said:

”I’m not doing it for the money because we don’t make enough and they want to fine me for every little thing. I’m getting techs for protecting myself in games and flagrants because they always only see me. They never see anything beforehand. I’m basically not getting paid this summer already (due to fines).”

”How they handle this will determine a lot about the future. Because how can I fight for some league that doesn’t even want to protect their players? They better hope our coaches and GM (Jim Pitman) don’t go anywhere and DB (DeWanna Bonner) plays here forever. Because I’ll be done in a heartbeat if I was anywhere else.”

Griner’s contract with Phoenix is in its final year. AZCentral.com says that she’s exaggerating when she says that she’s not making any money due to fines. The publication writes:

“Griner, WNBA scoring leader, six-time All-Star and league MVP contender, is making close to the league maximum $115,000 with the Mercury this season. She makes a seven-figure salary with her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s offseason.”

At the time of the incident, Taurasi said:

”When you have referees that can’t handle situations and let situations get to that point. I mean, [Britney Griner] pretty much gets beat up every single game. The minute she steps on the floor, she basically gets physically abused and a person can just take so much. I think she’s been doing a great job of being poised and just playing her game, (but) when you get hit in the face and the refs aren’t willing to protect you night in and night out, you’ve got to protect yourself. They definitely don’t pay you enough money to not protect yourself in this league and Britney Griner has a lot of stake playing all around the world and if this leave feels like it shouldn’t protect their players by letting a lot of things go during the game — and I’ve obviously watched a lot of games this year because I haven’t been playing and this is the most physical (the league has) been in a long time and when you say you want things to be free flowing and you want freedom of movement and then you see people just physically hitting each other the whole game through the year, things like this will keep happening.”

Last month, AZ Central reported both Taurasi and Griner plan to return in 2020:

Griner said that she plans to re-sign with the Mercury for an eighth season once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached between the WNBA and its players.

“You will see me next year,” Griner said. “They want me back, I plan on signing back. If I don’t play here, I won’t play anywhere (in the WNBA). I mean that. I’m not playing for any other organization. I’m a Phoenix Mercury until I’m done.”

The WNBA lists the following personal details about this amazing woman:

  • Wears men’s size 17 shoes
  • Hand size is 9.5 inches, wider than LeBron James (9.25”)
  • Wingspan is 7-feet, 3.5-inches, longer than NBA center Andrew Bynum (7’ 3’’)
  • Standing vertical reach is nine feet
  • Loves extreme sports and longboarding and idolizes Tony Hawk
  • Favorite food is bacon
  • Favorite movie is The Notebook
  • She has two pet snakes (Audii and Sage) and a dog (Major)
  • Daughter of Ray and Sandra Griner
  • Says her father is her role model and if she weren’t playing basketball, she would follow in his footsteps and become a police officer
  • Three older siblings.

Read more about Griner’s career by clicking here.

Tomorrow — and every day in October — we’ll look back at another moment in LGBTQ sports history.


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