Swoopes poses with the WNBA Most Valuable Player award after receiving the honor for the third time during a news conference in Sacramento, CA.< (AP)

“Being gay has nothing to do with the three gold medals or the three MVPs or the four championships I’ve won. I’m still the same person. I’m Sheryl.”
— Sheryl Swoopes on coming out, concerned that this could jeopardize her status as a role model.

You know, it’s sad when coming out for a sports figure is feared as more damaging than say, steroid abuse (and lying about it), but here’s a sports figure that is willing to take the heat and be who she is in this political climate.

The subtle and not-so-subtle lesbian-bashing and loss of endorsements prevents many women from declaring that they are gay. But Sheryl Swoopes is tired of playing the hetero image game. Thank you. (AP):

Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes is opening up about being a lesbian, telling a magazine that she’s “tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about.”

Swoopes, honored last month as the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player, told ESPN The Magazine for a story on newsstands Wednesday that she didn’t always know she was gay and fears that coming out could jeopardize her status as a role model.

“Do I think I was born this way? No,” Swoopes said. “And that’s probably confusing to some, because I know a lot of people believe that you are.”

Swoopes, who was married and has an 8-year-old son, said her 1999 divorce “wasn’t because I’m gay.” She said her reason for coming out now is merely because she wants to be honest.

It’s not something that I want to throw in people’s faces. I’m just at a point in my life where I’m tired of having to pretend to be somebody I’m not,” the 34-year-old Swoopes said. “I’m tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about. About the person I love.”

Who wouldn’t find Swoopes a wonderful role model of excellence in sports with an image untarnished by scandal.

A five-time All-Star and three-time Olympic gold medalist, Swoopes is the WNBA’s only three-time MVP. She played for the Comets during their run of four championships from 1997-2000, but missed the 2001 season with a knee injury.

…Swoopes led the WNBA in scoring last year, averaging 18.6 points. She also averaged 4.3 assists and 2.65 steals while making 85 percent of her free throws and playing a league-high 37.1 minutes a game.

You can also read more about the Swoopes story on Outsports, Swoopes: The New Martina. Here’s a snippet by Cyd Zeigler that rings so true.

While she is the Michael Jordan of the WNBA, she, of course, is not Michael Jordan. If Air Jordan himself was gay and came out of the closet, the impact would creep into every household in America and would be felt around the world. Given the place of women’s sports in our culture, Swoopes’ declaration won’t have quite that impact. What it will do, though, is take the conversation about gays in sports to the next level. Despite the protests of many that an American professional sports team can’t operate with an openly gay player, Swoopes’ Comets will get the chance to prove all of those people wrong next summer.

For that matter, Swoopes’ timing couldn’t have been better. Many have said the “media circus” that would erupt around an active player coming out would be detrimental to their team. Swoopes’ timing makes playing with her team the final act of the show, not the main event, with the season still over seven months away. And besides, Air Swoopes attracts significant media attention anyway; a couple more reporters asking for comments from her partner wouldn’t be any more of a distraction.

The most important impact of her coming out will be felt in the high schools and the colleges of this country. Homophobia lurks in the locker rooms of most institutions; it’s no different for the women than the men.

This is spot-on, especially in the light of the lesbian-baiting by Penn State coach Rene Portland, which I posted about recently (Gay-baiting coach needs to zip it). Outsports bring this up as well.

The last few weeks have seen the emergence of one of these stories. Penn State head women’s basketball coach Rene Portland has a long history of anti-lesbian policy on her basketball team, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. NCLR has recently brought complaints against Portland, who is accused of kicking a star player off her team in the last couple of years because the player is a lesbian, and is prepared to file a lawsuit against her and/or the University if something isn’t done about it. NCLR sports guru Helen Carroll, a former collegiate head basketball coach, has told me many stories about anti-lesbian collegiate coaches and “negative recruiting,” in which a coach will tell recruits that a competing program is a “lesbian program.”

Hopefully, what these coaches and programs will start to realize is that they may be scaring off the next Sheryl Swoopes.

Surf over to more Outsports coverage, Sheryl Swoopes Comes Out and this earlier Blend post on women in sports, Women, sports and sexism – has anything changed? A snippet:

It’s like stepping back in time…to the days of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and 50s (romanticized in the entertaining Penny Marshall flick A League of Their Own). The “girls” were professionally groomed, sent to charm school and expected to be a lady. From the charm school guide:

You should be the best judge of your own beauty requirements. Keep your own kit replenished with the things you need for your own toilette and your beauty culture and care. Remember the skin, the hair, the teeth and the eyes. It is most desirable in your own interests, that of your teammates and fellow players, as well as from the standpoint of the public relations of the league that each girl be at all times presentable and attractive, whether on the playing field or at leisure. Study your own beauty culture possibilities and without overdoing your beauty treatment at the risk of attaining gaudiness, practice the little measure that will reflect well on your appearance and personality as a real All American girl.

These young women, some of them lesbian, were allowed to play pro baseball – but all of them were forced to present a feminine image to the crowd, to assure that only heterosexual energy was radiating on the field.

Thanks to Blender Janean for the pointer.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding