Editor's note: Layshia Clarendon, who identifies as transgender and nonbinary, uses he/him, she/her, and they/them pronouns interchangeably. We do so throughout this piece. We also introduce the preferred pronouns for others who appear in this story and for whom pronouns are used.
Layshia Clarendon wrapped their hand around the back of the fussy newborn looking up at them in the maternity recovery room at a Bay Area hospital. A nurse had just shown Layshia how to cradle the baby in a football hold, and Layshia rested the soft skin of the baby's back against her own left forearm and held the baby's head in her hand.
Baby C (they/them) gurgled and squirmed at Layshia's touch. Layshia accepted shampoo from the nurse, silently wondering if it would be appropriate for Black hair. With her right hand, she gently rubbed her fingers through the silky curls of Baby C's full head of hair.
It was Dec. 21, 2020, Baby C's birthday and first wash day. Layshia's wife, Jessica (she/her), had just given birth to Baby C by cesarean section after a 29-hour labor after carrying the baby for just over 41 weeks. As Jessica recovered, Layshia found himself alone with his first child. He never expected to have these first moments alone with Baby C. Layshia and Jessica had planned for a vaginal birth and for these moments to be shared.
"For me to get that opportunity right away was powerful," says Clarendon, a one-time WNBA All-Star who plays for the Minnesota Lynx. "It was so beautiful."
Exhausted and weak, Jessica joined Layshia and Baby C in the recovery room 30 minutes later. Layshia held the baby up to Jessica's chest to assist with Baby C's first meal.
As Jessica drifted off, Layshia placed Baby C back in the hospital bassinet. He removed his shirt and sat down. Layshia picked the baby back up, cradling Baby C against their chest.
"It's a love that's so different than any other love I've experienced before," Layshia says. "And to feel that, as a parent, reminds me that's how much God loves us. The way I look at Baby C ... God smiles at me like that."
Layshia and Jessica hadn't settled on a name before coming to the hospital. Torn between two, they planned to decide after the baby was born. It would take two more days before Layshia and Jessica would land on the perfect name -- it was neither of the two they were considering when they arrived at the hospital. And it's a name they've chosen not to share publicly.
For Clarendon, the arrival of Baby C crystallized the reasons they have fought so hard to make the world a more just place, and why the fight must persist.
During a time of crisis, when Black lives were lost at the hands of police, Clarendon took the spotlight and the microphone to say their names.
During a time when lawmakers around the country have sought to erect legal barriers to sport for transgender youth -- and many have succeeded -- Clarendon bared their chest so the youth who look up to them could see themselves reflected in Clarendon's surgical scars.
The WNBA has garnered a reputation as the most progressive professional sports league. That story reads differently without Layshia Clarendon and their journey that has encompassed many homes but is rooted in an immovable commitment to justice.
SANDWICHED BETWEEN AN older sister, Jasmine, and a younger brother, Terry, Layshia grew up in a house on a cul-de-sac in San Bernardino, California. The Clarendon home was full of neighborhood kids and teammates. Big sporting events offered the opportunity to throw a party, any party. "We were the house that everyone wanted to be at," Clarendon says.
Layshia and Terry played basketball in the hallway on a makeshift court, they pelted each other with toilet paper rolls from the Costco pack and wrestled their father, Curtis. "We broke so many things," Clarendon says.
"If you're around [Layshia], you're smiling," Terry says. "Even if she's beating me up, she always made it some kind of fun."
Curtis (he/him) used to sit on the couch while Layshia stood in front of the fireplace. He'd call right or left as he threw a tennis ball toward her, and she'd have to catch it with that hand. "I found a lot of joy in playing games like that," Clarendon says. "Obviously it taught me a lot of hand-eye coordination."
Some of Layshia's earliest memories of playing basketball were in a YMCA coed league and against Terry in the backyard (or hallway). Jasmine, who is six years older than Layshia, eventually played at Pepperdine.
"I feel like my sister got to set the examples, and then I got to see the stuff she got in trouble for and be like, 'Ooh, nope,'" Clarendon says.
Those lessons extended from typical teenage shenanigans to much harder moments. When Layshia was in middle school, their parents discovered that Jasmine had a girlfriend. Layshia had met Jasmine's girlfriend before and saw parts of himself reflected in her. They dressed alike, and Layshia liked her dreadlocks. But Layshia and Jasmine's parents were livid. "It was not good," Layshia says.
The Clarendon family wasn't particularly religious, but Layshia heard a lot about God the day Jasmine was outed.
Sitting on her bed, surrounded by sky blue walls and their Hot Wheels collection, Clarendon couldn't keep the tears from spilling down their cheeks. Eyes closed, they reached out to God for the first time.
Dear God, why did you make me this way?
AS THE STARTING point guard for Cajon High School, Clarendon emerged as an elite recruit in the class of 2009. They were named California Ms. Basketball and a WBCA All-American and finished their career atop the school's record books for points and assists.
"Her team down in SoCal was one of the best in California, if not in the country," says former University of California coach Joanne Boyle (she/her). "We just followed her around all summer. I loved the conversations we had on the phone. I thought she was just really mature for her age.
"For me, it was really important to really recruit not only talent, just people that had potential to be a great leaders. She blew that one out of the water."
The knowledge of her sexuality was something Clarendon kept to herself during those years. Through Jasmine's experience, Layshia learned that being gay was not tolerated in their family. But she did share with Boyle.
"She was the only coach I came out to in the recruiting process," Clarendon says.
Clarendon entered Cal as part of a heralded recruiting class, and for two years, they learned at Boyle's knee before Boyle left for a job at Virginia. "Your best players are your best leaders," Boyle says. "They have to be your hardest workers, and she epitomized that."
While at Cal, Clarendon was invited by a teammate to attend The Way Christian Center. It was in this church that Clarendon explored their relationship with God and developed the deep motivating faith that activates their justice work today.
"Faith is their anchor," says Donna Coletrane Battle (she/her), former pastor at The Way. Michael McBride, the lead pastor at The Way, and Battle both attended a Methodist seminary. The Way, however, is rooted in the charismatic tradition of Black Pentecostalism. It also emphasizes justice.
"At The Way we understand, scripturally and theologically, there is no separation between justice and righteousness," Battle says. In other words, walking with God requires an active pursuit of justice, without which there can be no salvation.
"To me being Christian means f---ing s--- up," Clarendon says. "That's what Jesus came to do. It means disrupting and fighting for the most marginalized people."
Battle introduced Clarendon to queer theology -- religious ideas that are inclusive of queer people and the critical exploration of ideas that are exclusive. While majoring in American studies, Clarendon sought book after book on what he refers to as the "clobber passages" -- Biblical verses used to condemn LGBTQ identity, specifically same-sex relationships. Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:21-28, 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10.
"It was this deep journey of seeking knowledge and answers," Clarendon says. "And then I journaled and just cried."
Heading into his senior year, Clarendon cut his hair into a blond mohawk. They'd always wanted one. Clarendon also started speaking more publicly about their queer identity. And she led the Golden Bears to the program's first Final Four, which felt like direct affirmation from God. "I think the genuineness and authenticity was, like, coming out because I finally felt OK," Clarendon says. "And I was just shining because I just felt like God was like, 'You got this. Actually, I made you this way.'"
"Witnessing Layshia process through pain -- and still resisted becoming bitter, despite the experiences they've had -- was just something to behold," Battle says. "Justice is also healing from that kind of trauma and not being separated from the things and the existences that give us life. Layshia is doing that work, has done that work and wants to invite as many folk along to have access to life in that way."
Layshia's commitment to that work would be tested at their very next stop.
CLARENDON ARRIVED IN Indiana in the summer of 2013 as the ninth pick in the WNBA draft -- behind Brittney Griner, behind Elena Delle Donne, behind Skylar Diggins-Smith and behind a handful of players who are no longer in the league. The landscape for LGBTQ equality was disheartening. While advocates accomplished wins for marriage equality across the country during the 2012 election cycle, Indiana legislators were trying to enact a constitutional amendment that would ban marriage equality in the state.
Although it was just eight years ago, many WNBA players and coaches had chosen to keep their sexual orientation private. Griner and Clarendon broke the mold as out first-round draft picks. Superstars such as Delle Donne, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart would follow suit in the years to come. Back then, the LGBTQ initiatives embraced by teams were not always explicit. The Fever, for example, hosted "Diversity Night" (read: Pride Night) to support local LGBTQ organizations.
One of those local organizations was Indiana Youth Group, and Clarendon began visiting soon after their arrival to the Hoosier State. It started as a scheduled talk during which Clarendon shared the story of their faith and queer identity, but she returned just to hang out. No fanfare required.
"'The years that Lay was here in Indy, she developed relationships with some of these youth," says former program director at IYG Myranda Warden (she/he/they). "[Clarendon] wasn't doing the whole, I don't know, professional athlete kind of aura about them. [Clarendon] was literally just about that life, about that work."
Meeting Layshia and seeing them be successful was powerful. It gave me a reason to keep going.- Logan Ray
Logan Ray (they/them) was among those who frequented IYG during those years. Ray grew up in Pike Township, on the northwest side of Indianapolis. Now 25, they played multiple sports and spent time at IYG as a teenager looking for support and connection. Sometimes, they'd see Clarendon there too. "When you're a teenager and you're queer and you're trans, you don't know what it looks like to be older," Ray says. "You don't think you're going to make it to an age when you are an adult. Meeting Layshia and seeing them be successful was powerful. It gave me a reason to keep going."
IYG kids became a fixture at Fever games while Clarendon played for the team, gobbling up tickets whenever the organization could. "I became on a first-name basis with some of their marketing folks," Warden says.
In 2014, the WNBA launched its Pride initiative, becoming the first professional sports league in the United States to make an explicit overture to LGBTQ fans. Players were encouraged to participate in local Pride festivals and parades, and Clarendon was honored as grand marshal at Indianapolis Pride. Teams across the league were supposed to wear Pride warm-up shirts as part of the campaign, but that didn't happen.
And Clarendon knew why.
INDIANA'S TEAM BUS had come to a stop at a hotel in Phoenix, but Clarendon needed to make a detour before getting off. "Hey, Catch, can I talk to you?" they asked.
Tamika Catchings (she/her) made eye contact with her younger teammate and immediately understood that something was going on. Clarendon's eyes looked different. "Let me drop my bag, then I'll come to your room," Catchings said.
Catchings was president of the Women's National Basketball Players Association executive committee, which had recently decided not to issue a leaguewide mandate to wear the Pride shirts. "When we looked at it, it was more like 'OK, how do we make it where nobody feels targeted?'" Catchings says.
When Catchings knocked on Clarendon's door, she immediately saw the glassiness of Clarendon's wet eyes, and her mind started spinning. Did something happen in Clarendon's family? Was she upset about basketball? Catchings didn't think the team was playing that poorly.
But as Clarendon started talking, Catchings quickly realized what this was about. She listened as her teammate shared how much the WNBPA executive committee's decision hurt them as a member of the LGBTQ community and as Catchings' teammate, especially given their shared faith. Clarendon shared the statistics of negative mental health outcomes and suicide ideation and attempts among LGBTQ youth.
"Was it an uncomfortable conversation? Yes," Catchings says. "But if I was going to have a conversation, Lay would be the one that I'd want to have it with. And she changed my mind. We didn't wear the shirt that year, but the following year we did."
Soon after that conversation, Catchings encouraged Clarendon to run for the executive committee -- an idea that was supported by WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson, who had "met" Clarendon by stumbling across an email written by Clarendon to union leadership, stemming from the conversation they'd had with Catchings in 2014.
"I was blown away by this email," Jackson says. "It was done in a way that doesn't put anyone on their guard. It doesn't put anybody on defense."
Clarendon was elected first vice president of the WNBPA in 2016, a position that empowered her to impact the lives of her fellow WNBA players. She also needed to tend to something in her own life.
LAYSHIA SAT NERVOUSLY across from her wife, Jessica, at Rico Rico Taco, one of their favorite Mexican restaurants in Oakland. It was the fall of 2019, and Layshia knew it was time to share something with Jessica. It had been nagging at him. But Layshia kept pushing his feelings away. And away.
God, however, unveiled other plans.
Those plans came in the form of God tapping Clarendon on the shoulder with questions Clarendon could barely speak out loud. Do you like your boobs? Are you trans or nonbinary? They had been pushing those questions and that nagging feeling away because adding something else felt like too much. They were already Black. Already gay.
But to Layshia, God was relentless.
"God was like, 'I didn't make you to be anything less than whole,'" Clarendon says.
Layshia had met Jessica while they were both studying at Cal. Jessica was a graduate student and a graduate assistant on the women's basketball team, and Layshia was new to the program. Jessica had a boyfriend, and Layshia had a girlfriend, but they became fast friends. It wasn't until 2015 that they began dating. They were married in 2017. Donna Coletrane Battle performed the ceremony.
When Layshia looked at her wife over the top of that Rico Rico Taco chicken burrito, they knew they had to say something. Layshia couldn't ignore the feelings anymore. He told Jessica everything, or at least everything he had the language for. Layshia thought she might want to remove her breasts. They were trans. Or something.
Jessica's mind was spinning; they'd talked about Layshia's feelings before, but nothing this definitive. What will our family think? What will our friends think? What is this going to mean for you in the league? What is this going to be?
"So do you feel like you're a man?" Jessica asked.
"No, but yes," Layshia said. "A spectrum. I don't f---ing know. I don't know. I'm something. I don't know."
Jessica's eyes welled with tears, still focused on the questions she was asking herself. About what this meant for their lives. And for her. "Part of it was me not understanding that Lay had already felt and continues to feel all of that fear, and still needs to do this," Jessica says. "I'll always regret that moment, that I showed up with so much fear to pile on top of his instead of just being supportive."
A year later -- a devastating year later -- Jessica's questions would be answered, leading her to an emotion far more powerful than regret.
CLARENDON STOOD AT half court before the first game of the 2020 WNBA bubble season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. It had been almost two months to the day since George Floyd was murdered, and just over four since Breonna Taylor was killed in her own apartment. With COVID-19 raging and protests in the streets persisting, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that the players would even play this season.
But here they were. And here was Clarendon, representing all of their voices with his own.
Speaking up wasn't new; Clarendon had been doing that for years. They had recently been elected to a second term on the executive committee of the WNBPA, another three-year assignment as first vice president, and the demands were many.
Clarendon helped negotiate the WNBA's lauded new CBA following the player opt-out after the 2019 season. The contract included salary raises for all rookies, veterans and maximum-contract-level players. Travel accommodations were improved, as was support for players who were also parents. "She was a big hand in us doing our best to reflect every player," says Nneka Ogwumike, WNBPA president and Los Angeles Sparks forward.
Clarendon built on that success by drawing a hard line during negotiations between the league and the players about the bubble season. Social justice was top of mind for Clarendon. "Lay said, 'You're not allowed to sign any side letter for a 2020 season, unless we have a provision that speaks to social justice,'" the WNBPA's Jackson says. "Lay's point was we're not going to just do a handshake agreement with the league on this. We will have nothing to hold them accountable."
It was Clarendon's idea to dedicate the 2020 season to the Say Her Name campaign. When the WNBPA launched the social justice council to steer the players' activism efforts, Clarendon spearheaded it. When an idea was pitched to put "Black Lives Matter" on the court, Clarendon drew rudimentary sketches of basketball courts in Microsoft Paint, brainstorming how to make the concept work.
That I wasn’t able to be seen in my fullness and wholeness was actually really difficult.- Layshia Clarendon
In the bubble, the social justice council hosted webinars with the African American Policy Forum; politician Stacey Abrams; Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor's mother; and others. Clarendon hosted a conversation with Raquel Willis, a Black transgender writer and activist. Clarendon also lent their expertise to the "Vote Warnock" campaign -- the players' successful mission to oust then-Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler from the U.S. Senate as well as from the league.
"It was heavy work, it was heavy lifting, and she does it," Ogwumike says. "She puts everything on her back."
"Layshia has been kind of the pedestal on which that whole platform stands," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says.
Adds Seattle Storm guard and WNBPA executive committee vice president Sue Bird: "The one that we could all follow."
Holding a microphone on that opening night of the 2020 season, and about to speak to a national audience on TV, Clarendon had that familiar feeling of a heavy emotional anchor, tying their feet to this moment and giving them courage. "I felt like I was standing on holy ground," Clarendon says.
With no notes, Clarendon said their names. Sandra Bland. Atatiana Jefferson. Dominique Rem'mie Fells. Breonna Taylor.
There wasn't a discernible trace of the personal struggle Clarendon was battling within.
LESS THAN A month after holding their child for the first time, and just over a year after their conversation at Rico Rico Taco, Jessica dropped Layshia off at a surgery center in the Bay Area. Layshia wrapped his flannel shirt around himself as he entered the building. He felt the emotion coursing through him, and the presence of the divine. It was that holy ground again -- an anchor in the emotional ocean crashing over them.
When she unwrapped the bandages to see her chest without breasts for the first time, a smile spread across her face. "I knew you were in there this whole time," Layshia said.
Jessica felt similarly when she saw her spouse's chest, and it was a familiar sensation. When they were both at Cal, and Layshia cut his hair into that mohawk, not everyone approved. "There were some rumblings in the office about it, and people had different opinions," Jessica says. "Mine was like, 'Oh my gosh, you look so much like yourself.'"
Seeing Layshia's smile as the bandages came off brought those feelings to the surface. "You look like you," she said. "You look more like you than when I dropped you off."
You can’t get to the other side of that and not love them more, not see them more and not want to be there for the next journey of expansion.- Jessica Clarendon
When Layshia and Jessica got married in 2017, they wrote into their vows the commitment to love each other as they grow and change, years before Layshia would share with Jessica the knowledge that they were transgender. "I remember at one point she came back to our vows to say, 'We actually agreed to love each other through all these changes, and trans people aren't the only ones transitioning in life,'" Layshia says. "If you're not changing and shifting, then you're not really alive."
"My experience of Lay's expansion is it only gets better," Jessica says. "So, lucky me! You can't get to the other side of that and not love them more, not see them more and not want to be there for the next journey of expansion."
In the bubble, Clarendon's New York Liberty had worn "Black Trans Lives Matter" T-shirts, but Clarendon hadn't been explicit that those shirts represented his life. After the season, Clarendon told the WNBA and the world, becoming the first openly nonbinary and transgender player in WNBA history. Later, Clarendon shared that he had removed his breasts, and it retroactively addressed a tension Clarendon had felt since the summer.
"In the bubble, I was having a lot of my gender-expansive feelings, knowing I wanted to have surgery," Clarendon says. "That I wasn't able to be seen in my fullness and wholeness was actually really difficult."
But just a handful of months later, while feeling more like himself than he ever had, Clarendon was forced to face the fragility of his professional identity.
HOLDING BABY C against her hip, Jessica gingerly walked down the steps from the Barclays Center suite where she would watch the Liberty-Lynx game. She called Layshia over and held Baby C over the railing toward him. Layshia planted a kiss on Baby C's face once, twice, and they came back for one more. Layshia ran onto the court to finish the pregame shootaround. He said hello to Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve at center court.
As tipoff neared for the May 18 game, the Liberty returned to the locker room. It was Clarendon who emerged first to lead the team back onto the court. Despite not receiving much playing time -- a combined three minutes in the first two games -- Clarendon brought energy wherever she could. They clapped for their teammates, and celebrated big plays. "I played every role in this league except 12th man," says Clarendon, who averaged a career-high 11.5 points per game for the Liberty in 2020 and started all 19 games they played in. "So I thought maybe, 'Hey, this is a new year for me to be the 12th person on this bench and bring culture and energy. I was ready and prepared to play that role."
Led by a triple-double from Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty beat the Lynx 86-75; Clarendon didn't see a minute of action. A night later, Clarendon was waived.
"I was just as shocked as all of Twitter or people in the basketball world to be cut by New York," Clarendon says. "Particularly as someone who was brought in to help rebuild the team, as someone who's on a guaranteed contract, who's not a culture problem or a bad teammate and brings so much to the team."
As they packed up their Brooklyn apartment, Layshia looked over at Jessica and wondered aloud if this was actually it. Was this how his professional basketball career -- which had spanned 218 games across Indiana, Atlanta, Connecticut and New York -- would end? Unceremoniously filling empty boxes and feeling forced out, with so much yet to be accomplished?
But that fleeting moment at half court might have mattered much more than it seemed.
Days after Clarendon was cut by New York, the Lynx signed them to a hardship contract. She'd been in Minnesota for barely a week when she made her debut against the Connecticut Sun on May 30. He came off the bench to play more minutes than he had in three games combined with the Liberty. He finished with 12 points, and the Lynx got their first win of the season.
Still, there was someplace else Clarendon needed to be.
WEARING SHORTS, a long-sleeved shirt and sneakers a day after his debut, Clarendon got out of the car and felt unsure whether he could make the walk. George Floyd Square was only a block away. But everything felt heavy.
Clarendon put one foot in front of the other and approached the iron fist pointing to the sky at the intersection of East 38th and Chicago. She wasn't alone when she arrived at the sprawling memorial that honored the life of Floyd and others who have been killed by police. Groups of people milled about, looking at the murals, painted planters and messages honoring the loss of Black life.
Eliza Wesley (she/her), the square's gatekeeper, greeted Clarendon as she wandered around. "You play for the Lynx, right?" Wesley asked. "I know who you are."
In the early 2000s, Wesley had cooked for Lynx players who lived in the Residence Inn managed by her husband. They'd come over to Wesley's home and she'd serve them cornbread and greens, food that reminded them of home. "They liked the country food," Wesley says.
She still follows the Lynx, which is why she recognized Clarendon. "She's the only [WNBA] player that came out there," Wesley says. "She came out there as a regular, normal person. She was herself."
Wesley led Clarendon farther down Chicago Avenue, past the greenhouses. At "Say Their Names" cemetery, Clarendon saw rows of faux tombstones with the names of Black people lost to violence. Too many names. "So many I had never even heard of," Clarendon says.
This is the world in which Clarendon is raising their child, a Black bundle of joy Clarendon knows will experience racism because all Black and brown people do. It is this world Clarendon desperately wants to fix. "I view the world and people just as sacred as I do Baby C," Clarendon says. "There's no 'those other's people's kids' out there."
Clarendon's relationship with his own parents has run hot and cold. While she and her mother have a fractured relationship for reasons she isn't ready to discuss, Clarendon and her father have reconciled. "I just wanted him to love me for all of me and not just the basketball player," Clarendon says. "And he does."
Clarendon marveled at the intention of each part of the square. The iron fist made of debris from the uprising last summer. The murals. The chalk writing scribbled on the asphalt. The food pantry. The library in the shed on the corner of the old Speedway gas station. "It's the people who do this work," Clarendon says.
Organizing work -- the work -- is something 30-year-old Clarendon is considering pursuing after his basketball career ends. He also has thought about broadcasting, maybe coaching. Perhaps even taking time off to be a full-time caregiver for Baby C. "I don't want to run for mayor or anything directly in politics," Clarendon says. "But I do want to help people get free."
In the square, Clarendon took note of one particular planter. Stripes of pink, sky blue and white adorned the box, with a Black power fist on the side. Painted in black letters on the front were four words: "Black Trans Lives Matter."
"I feel very woman, and I feel very man. I feel both, and I feel neither, and I feel like all the gender expansiveness that exists in the world is in me. I think that's what the word 'trans' means to me too. It's such a beautiful word, and such a beautiful community that is full of resilience. And it ..."
"It just feels like magic."
Production by Very Rare Productions; Wardrobe styling by Whitney Michel; Prop styling by Domenica Bucalo; Hair by Cecilia Romero; Makeup by Sacha Harford; Cover: Jacket by Sandro, Shirt by Frame Denim; White suit: Tuxedo jacket by Todd Snyder; T-Shirt by Zara; Jeans by AG Adriano Goldschmied Jeans; Sneakers by Adidas Y-3; Necklace by Miansai; Rings (Camera left hand only): Pinky finger by KHIRY; Fourth finger by Miansai; Middle finger: (top) by Miansai; (bottom) by KHIRY; Light blue suit by Thom Browne; T-shirt by Saturdays NYC; Sneakers by Adidas Y-3; Eyewear by AKILA; Necklace by Miansai. Jessica: Sweater by Tory Burch; Pants by Zara; Shoes by Zara; Jewelry: Camera left-hand ring: Jennifer Fisher; Camera right-hand (middle) ring: Miansai; On Baby C.: Ralph Lauren. Basketball by HoloGear.