Sheryl Swoopes Asked :: "How Gay is the WNBA?"
About 15 minutes into her onstage interview with WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes at Provincetown’s Unitarian Universalist Meeting House on Oct. 13, comedian Vickie Shaw cut to the chase: "How gay is the WNBA?" Shaw asked, abruptly changing the subject of her previous question about who inspires Swoopes (her mother) and causing the 200 or so ladies in the pews to erupt in laughter and applause.
"It’s no gayer than the NFL or the NBA," replied the Houston Comets forward, who is currently the only out lesbian playing pro basketball. "It’s a very interesting question, because obviously, it’s a huge stereotype that all the women are gay." Swoopes pointed out that there are "lots of moms in the WNBA who have boyfriends, some of them are married." And, she added, there are "some who got married and then realized that they liked women" - a reference that drew more laughter from the audience. Swoopes acknowledged that "there are a lot of women in the WNBA who have [female] partners and have had partners for a while and feel very comfortable with that." But Swoopes believes they don’t come out publicly because they don’t think they’ll be supported by the league.
As for her own public coming out in October 2005, shortly after being voted the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player for the third time, Swoopes simply got tired of hiding who she was and her long-term relationship with Alisa Scott, a former Comets assistant coach. "I was at the point where I said," she began to explain, then, after a long pause, "’Fuck it.’" The audience broke into cheers and applause all over again.
Swoopes’s first visit to Provincetown for the latter half of this year’s Women’s Week, which took place Oct. 5-14, was greeted enthusiastically by her legion of lesbian fans.
Of course, the love lavished on Swoopes during Women’s Week is not at all surprising - lesbians comprise a significant portion of the WNBA’s fan base, and Swoopes is a record-setting superstar. But it was also not surprising to hear Swoopes criticize the 10-year-old league, which has a complicated history with its lesbian fans to say the least, for not marketing more aggressively to the community. In response to an audience member’s question at the UU church about what she’d do if she was the WNBA commissioner, Swoopes said she’d market the league more aggressively in general. But she specifically talked up the need to market to the gay and lesbian community. Said Swoopes, "I’ve had so many people - straight, black, white, whatever - say [to me], ’Why doesn’t the league market to their biggest fan base?’"
Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the first woman athlete to have a sneaker named for her (Nike’s Air Swoopes), became emotional when she broached the subject of what she characterized as the league’s refusal to market her as aggressively as it once did since she came out. "The one thing that probably disappointed me more than anything else was not really having the support of the league," said Swoopes, her voice cracking. Though she was not told explicitly that the league did not support her decision to come out, said Swoopes, the WNBA no longer markets her as strongly as it did in earlier days, when Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo were sold as the - presumably straight - face of the league, which once compiled a roster of married and engaged players for the media. A married and very pregnant Swoopes, for instance, posed in her Comets uniform for the cover of a women’s sports magazine in 1997.
Seated on the deck of The Pied after the meet and greet with fans, Swoopes, who was sidelined for all of last season due to a back injury, elaborated for Bay Windows on her disappointment with what she says is the WNBA’s failure to use her in its marketing scheme post-coming out. "I don’t feel like because I made that decision to come out, I don’t feel like that changed me at all," she said. "If anything it made me stronger and it will show all the young girls out there - or whoever [else] out there - that you can live your life and be who you are regardless, and everything’s going to be okay."