In the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine, Sheryl Swoopes, generally considered one of the best women's basketball players of all time, comes out of the closet. On its face, there's really nothing surprising in this news. Women's basketball players -- like female golfers, or male figure skaters -- are often suspected of being gay. And in Swoopes' case, the suspicion went beyond an easy stereotype; reporters who cover women's basketball say that Swoopes has never really tried to hide her sexuality from the media (when she won her third WNBA MVP award in September, Swoopes gave a shout-out to "Scotty," a reference to her longtime partner Alisa Scott). Even Swoopes' family wasn't surprised by the news. "Five years ago, when I told my mom I'm gay, her reaction wasn't any different than I expected," Swoopes tells ESPN. "She just said, 'I figured.'"
But if the fact of her sexuality is not exactly a surprise, the particulars of Swoopes' experience -- how she discovered she was gay; why she decided to finally come out; her fears about how her openness might change her role both on and off the court -- these particulars can shock. For one thing, Swoopes does not believe she was born gay. "I've been married, and I have an 8-year-old son. Being with a man was what I wanted," she says. Swoopes is somewhat vague about when she finally realized she was gay, but she describes the process as slow, and something beyond her control. Even if she wasn't born gay, it wasn't something she chose. Instead, she just fell in love; over time, her friendship with Scott deepened, she says, to the point that both eventually realized that they were something more than friends. "That was eight years ago when all this stuff was happening, and we're still together."
Swoopes' decision to come out was similar: "It just sort of happened," she says. She and Scott booked a cruise on Olivia cruise lines, which caters to lesbian customers, and when the company asked her if she'd like to advertise for the company, Swoopes said yes.
Now, Swoopes worries about what her fans will think -- particularly those in the African-American community, where homosexuality is "not accepted," and among parents of girls who love women's basketball. "My biggest concern is that people are going to look at my homosexuality and say to little girls -- whether they're white, black, Hispanic -- that I can't be their role model anymore," she says.
Swoopes -- who now plays for the Houston Comets and has a huge following in Lubbock, Texas, home of Texas Tech, where she became a college star -- probably isn't wrong; there are likely many fans in these very conservative places who will abandon Swoopes just because she's gay. Of course, this makes Swoopes' decision to come out all the more courageous.
There are as many gay women in the WNBA as there are straight women, Swoopes says, and she suggests that her move will make it easier for others to come out after her. But Swoopes also wants gay male athletes to be honest about their sexuality. Very few gay men in sports are out of the closet (there's the diver Greg Louganis; football players Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo; baseball players Billy Bean and Glenn Burke, who died of AIDS in 1995.)
"I don't know if a guy will have the courage to come out while he is still playing because of the whole male-ego thing," Swoopes says. "Male athletes of my caliber probably feel like they have a lot more to lose than gain. I don't agree with that."
She adds: "I know I've got to deal with the consequences of coming out, but I feel like I'll be able to be free. To be me."