Every year in June, LGBTQ+ Pride Month is celebrated around the world in commemoration of the first steps of the gay liberation movement, which took place in New York in 1969. The Stonewall riots are widely recognised as one of the most important moments for the LGTBQ+ community coming together to defend their rights and their identity.
Since then, more than 50 years later, progress has been made in different parts of the world, but discriminatory obstacles continue to exist, whether they are explicit through legislation or implicit in society.
The field of sport is not alien to homophobia. A Human Rights Campaign study carried out in 2019 resulted in more than 70% of people in the LGBTQ+ community playing sport and hiding their identity from their peers and coaches.
That same culture also led to the delay in the development of women in sport, with implicit biases against gender roles in the field.
* To fight against that, the WNBA and the NBA also launched the "Her Time to Play" program in 2018 which seeks to inspire girls from 7 to 14 years old to practice basketball, with important female participation as coaches and mentors. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, at age 14, girls dropped out of the sport at twice the rate compared to boys.
The WNBA was created in 1996 and began its first season in 1997, with the full support of the NBA to establish itself as the leading women's basketball league in the world and in its time, one of the few truly established professionally within women's sport worldwide.
In 2001, one of the league's most successful franchises, the Los Angeles Sparks were the first to have a night dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ pride. The Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx followed suit and by 2014, all the franchises in the league did so.
2014 was also the year in which the league's offices made the decision to launch an official campaign celebrating "WNBA Pride", and while COVID-19 pandemic has put live games on hold, teams are sending their message via social media.
"The @PhoenixMercury & the #WNBA is a place where anybody & everybody is accepted & welcomed. For us to celebrate that lets our fans & everybody know that this arena, this house, is a safe zone. PRIDE to me is just being yourself and being who you are." -BG pic.twitter.com/BTOeo3fzTM- WNBA (@WNBA) June 14, 2020
The league was a pioneer within the major sports organisations in the United States and two years later, the NBA joined the movement and both leagues participated in the iconic Pride parade in New York City. The float included NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, then-WNBA President Lisa Borders and former players Jason Collins and Sue Wicks.
Several of the WNBA's stars have publicly stated their sexual orientation. In fact, the five members of the 2019 All-WNBA First Team are members of the LGTBQ+ community. Using their platforms in the WNBA, they have helped to make the cause visible and in the words of Brittney Griner, trying to blaze a trail for those who follow in their footsteps.
"I'm just trying to help, I'm just trying to make it not that difficult for the next generation." - Brittney Griner
In 2017 Sue Bird told her story and acknowledged how the context of the league had helped her: "The players were very influential, especially the younger ones. I think the league is now in an appropriate place in terms of support. Homophobia hurts our league. Racism too, sexism too. For [the NBA] it is a big racial problem, for us it is racial and gender."
In 2013, a year prior to the creation of the WNBA Pride campaign, it was a turning point, as the stories of Griner, NBA player Jason Collins and several other athletes became known and were met with support.
"I saw the reaction [Griner] got and it helped me with my decision," the four-time Olympic champion said. "I think the higher profile somebody is the more normal it becomes for other people who aren't comfortable with the idea themselves or are familiar with it. It just normalises it."
"Lesbian and bi women are too often invisible in our culture so the out and proud WNBA players send invaluable messages to young women that achieving your dreams is possible regardless of who you are and who you love," said GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis in 2018. "I love attending WNBA games with my wife and our children because the WNBA and its teams have created an accepting environment for all families to cheer for the talented athletes."
🖤🤎❤️🧡💛💚💙💜 pic.twitter.com/4uMTAJiSSo- Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) June 24, 2020
In 2019, the WorldPride event was held in Manhattan, New York, mobilising some five million people, making it the most populous LGBTQ + demonstration in world history. Among them marched several prominent figures from the WNBA and NBA, as members and allies of the community.
"At the end of the day, I'm much bigger than just my relationship and my sexual preference," said Washington Mystic Natasha Cloud. "So yes, I think it's huge for us to be out and be open, and to live in my truth, but we have a lot more to give than just our relationships and being out.
"I feel like the WNBA is for everyone to just be themselves, and within our league you can find a diverse bunch of women that fit every type of criteria," she says. "I've always felt our league was super inclusive of everyone and accepting of everyone." And with this kind of acceptance and inclusion happening in the present, it's nearly impossible not to be excited about the future of the league."
Male colleagues like Jabari Parker of the NBA's Sacramento Kings recognised the momentum generated by the players: "They are in the forefront of this. They made it cool to wear it on their chests and that's a great thing for everyone. I'm proud to say that women have a lot more courage in this kind of thing, so I applaud the WNBA ."
Rome was not built in a day, but initiatives of this type contribute, step by step, to reducing the toxicity of the sports environment and making it somewhat more inclusive with respect to society as a whole. If sport is that unifying tool for all kinds of people that is talked about so much, a person cannot be allowed to have the feeling of having to hide their identity, whatever it may be.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.