On loving broken women and Brittney Griner
In June, espnW's weekly essay series will honor LGBT Pride Month.
Everything in my life has prepared me to love damaged women, women who drag their broken wings behind them "like a decoy," as poet R. Erica Doyle writes in her collection, "Proxy."
"You hold back enough to keep them curious. Women like that. Wounded enough to be salvageable. Women like that, too. Fixing broken things. Take in the broken wing you drag like a decoy."
It begins, as everything does, with my mother. Schizophrenic and eventually unable to care for her children, my mother vacillated wildly between affection, praise, bouts of intense creativity and joy and seemingly infinite rounds of melancholy, listlessness and abuse. Living with a mother whose mental illness made her behavior erratic and her presence unreliable made me an expert at reading other women, at shaping my needs, desires, and self to fit their moods.
As I move into grown womanhood, I'm shedding this tendency toward accommodation and emotional acrobatics that put other people's (lovers, friends, colleagues) needs before my own. I get it wrong sometimes, as humans do, but we make the road by walking.
Given my history, I was predisposed to love WNBA player Brittney Griner in all her beauty and flaws. She has come through the fire of bullying, a vexed relationship with her father, what she describes as an anti-homosexuality stance of Baylor University that forced her into a closet she didn't want to be in, and, most recently, the public debacle of her domestic violence incident with, marriage to and impending divorce from her estranged wife, Glory Johnson.
Griner is 25 now, and her fame has rocketed some admittedly terrible adolescent choices into the public sphere, which is unfortunate. As a survivor of -- and occasionally, a bad actor in -- several spectacular romantic breakups in my 20s and early 30s, I am glad that my faux-pas weren't broadcast for the world to examine and, eventually, judge me.
There is much in Griner's story of coming out and into her own as a "strong, black lesbian" to which I can relate. Griner's love for her father for starters. After coming out to her mom in middle school, Griner told her dad about her sexuality in high school, and his reaction was as terrible as she expected, including forcing her to leave home. I was 24 when I wrote my father a letter to tell him that I was gay, in spite of my mom's warning that it would give him a heart attack. It was a coward's move. The letter was sent when I was living in South Africa for a year, several thousand miles removed from his reaction.
The confrontation I dreaded never materialized, but I lived on tenterhooks that year, afraid that the solid ground of support from my beloved father might drop away. I have always been a daddy's girl: his stomach a pillow I slept on as a child, his too-big shoes I clopped around the house in, his scratchy beard and mustache I liked to rub against my smooth face, the uncompromising standards I still work toward, the walks we took as he recovered from various health setbacks. I don't know who I'd be without my daddy, an oasis of steadiness in the desert of my mother's absence.
My father never said anything about my letter, but he did drive me to the thrift shop one tough spring when I wanted to purge everything that reminded me of my ex and the life we tried to make together. When I read that Griner's father didn't attend her lavish, doomed wedding to Glory Johnson, my heart ached for the turmoil in her relationship with her father because I know that, grown or not, there is a part of us that always wants to please our dads.
Breakups can make you do strange things, such as recently when I extended a trip to allow for day drinking in Chicago before a night train home to Ohio, arriving in Elyria in the small hours of morning before any cab company would collect me. What I can relate to in Brittney's story is her tears that reveal not a hardened butch or a man, as Griner's detractors have called her, but a girl broken open by the loss of love, the shock of betrayal and the aftermath of poor choices. I remember waiting alone for a taxi on that warm March morning, awed by the overwhelming light and sound as freight trains passed by. I found myself feeling grateful that the wish I once had to take my own life no longer haunted me. This desire to end it all is one that so many gay women experience throughout their lives. In our pain, Griner and I aren't extraordinary. It is the amplification of these painfully private moments that differentiates us.
There's something to this amplification, something useful, necessary even, in the hyper-visibility of an accomplished, out black lesbian athlete. Griner has the potential to do for black queer women what Ellen DeGeneres did for the LGBT community. And we are certainly watching. Beyond the problematic pressure on athletes to serve as role models, this is what media offer us: a fantasy against which to judge our dreams, a projection of our deepest desires, an ideal to aspire to, an object to desire, a person to want to grow up to become while we are busy becoming ourselves. I pored over ESPN's 2014 photo essay featuring Griner, admiring the dandy style she shared with so many of the women who I've loved. I winced as the media recounted a bloody fight at the house Griner and Johnson once shared together, looked away as Griner burst into tears in an interview lamenting a marriage she now knew with certainty was a mistake.
True confession: I'm a hopeful romantic who reads the New York Times wedding announcements faithfully every Sunday. I still remember the thrill of reading about Griner and Johnson's "Hardwood Romance" that led them to the altar in 2015 with stops along the way at "Say Yes to The Dress: Atlanta and the Maricopa County Jail." Despite the disaster that followed this wedding, I still find beauty in the care they took to make their day special and unique -- coral lace dresses for the bridesmaids, coral ties and polka dot socks for the groomsmen, bow ties for their dogs. This was undeniably a black gay wedding, even as the Times described it as "a marriage between a gay woman and straight woman." The pride and headiness I experienced witnessing their story was similar to the breathlessness I felt reading about the nuptials of black lesbian couples Savannah Shange and Kenshata Watkins, Aisha and Danielle Moodie-Mills, Audrey Smaltz and Gail Marquis.
Even as we celebrate these unions, in the wake of gay marriage's legalization, I wonder what will become of the alternative lifestyles, family models and radical queer politics LGBT people have shed for the sake of exercising our civil rights, in the name of assimilation, in order to belong. While I recognize the importance of Griner, I hold her exceptional success alongside the reality of many black lesbians whose lives are threatened by systematic racism, homophobia and sexism that make basic things -- employment, affordable housing, health care, personal safety -- out of reach for so many.
I'm sobered too by how few of us there are in the media. Besides Griner and filmmakers Dee Rees and Lena Waithe, I can think of only a handful of others in my generation to call upon as role models and peers.
What me and my black queer friends are seeking when we look at Griner and other out black lesbians of her generation is a public acknowledgement and display of the private rituals of courtship and style that we hold dear. Griner -- 6-foot-8, size 17 men's shoes, a deep voice and long-bodied -- is nothing if not many a black femme's dreamboat. I thought Johnson, gorgeous and a boss in her own right, was supposed to be her princess. The fantasy has been cracked open, and the bed of lies that undergirds it exposed. But the victory of a love we can have and share with the world remains.
We do have a long way to go. I'll take our love stories along the way.
Naomi Jackson is author of "The Star Side of Bird Hill," published by Penguin Press in June 2015. She graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @thenaomijackson.