The WNBA's Pride evolution: 'We've learned it's authenticity that draws people in'

While interviewing to be WNBA president in 2011, Laurel J. Richie had a marketing question for Adam Silver, then the NBA's deputy commissioner. She thought she knew the right answer but wasn't sure what the NBA would say.

Richie, certain the WNBA needed to reach out to its LGBTQ+ audience, asked Silver if she would have the NBA's support.

"The fact that I felt like I needed to get that clarity from Adam, which I got, shows at that time I knew this might still be considered a risk by some people," Richie said.

In 2014, Richie announced a landmark decision: The WNBA would recognize Pride as an official initiative each June, the first U.S. pro sports league to do so.

Progress on LGBTQ+ issues is a key part of the history of the WNBA, and something for which the league has been an unquestioned leader in professional sports. But the WNBA also has had its growing pains with LGBTQ+ affirmation.

"There are players around the league who have identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community but have not always felt accepted or that the workplace was an inviting place to be able to share that," said Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas, drafted into the WNBA in 2011. "It felt at one time like they were afraid to share that part of our experiences. Now they're embracing it."

Last season, the Sun players and coaches gave a champagne toast to Thomas and teammate Natisha Hiedeman in the locker room after they had gotten engaged. During the 2021 playoffs, updates were given during games broadcast on national television on Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi's wife, former WNBA player Penny Taylor, who was about to give birth to their daughter. The WNBA champion Chicago Sky had married teammates in guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley.

Last December, Chicago's Candace Parker publicly announced she had been married for two years to Anna Petrakova, who was expecting their child. Phoenix's Brittney Griner was open about her sexuality from the time she entered the league. Griner currently is detained in Russia, and her wife, Cherelle, has been interviewed by national news outlets.

There was a time -- not even that long ago -- when none of these relationships would have been publicly acknowledged. Society has changed, and so has the WNBA. For Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, who came out as gay publicly in 2017, the WNBA's embrace of Pride was a part of her journey and also crucial to the league's future.

"What you don't realize when you're going through that," Bird said of the years she wasn't publicly out, "is how much it will mean to you to have your employer support Pride month. Over the last eight to 10 years, players have been more comfortable being themselves.

"Earlier, I think we fell into a trap with this idea that only a certain kind of femininity and sexual orientation sells. We've learned that it's authenticity that draws people in."

INAUGURAL WNBA PRESIDENT Val Ackerman recalls a very different environment in the 1990s ahead of the WNBA's launch.

"Culturally, there was not generally in society -- and certainly not in the sports world -- the openness to LGBTQ+ communities or the direct marketing to them that you see now," Ackerman said.

An incident at the 1995 LPGA Championship got more attention than the tournament itself, when CBS commentator Ben Wright told reporter Valerie Helmbreck of the Wilmington News Journal that "lesbians hurt women's golf" because, "when it gets to the corporate level, that's not going to fly."

The WNBA began play in June 1997, one year after the Defense of Marriage Act -- which federally defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and allowed states to refuse recognition for same-sex marriages that were legal in other states -- was signed into law.

The league tipped off about seven weeks after the famous "The Puppy Episode" of Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom in which her character comes out as gay, while DeGeneres herself was coming out in real life. The episode was a ratings success, but the show was canceled a season later amid criticism that it was "too gay," and DeGeneres has said she had to rebuild her career.

Against this backdrop, Ackerman said the league was not necessarily trying to hide its LGBTQ+ presence, but knew all fan bases would not embrace it.

"Starting a new league, what we wanted was to be welcoming to and inclusive of all fans," Ackerman said. "From a national standpoint, our focus was really about how we appeal to everybody. ... We left it to our teams to decide whether they wanted to do various theme nights, like working-women night, Pride night, girls' high school basketball teams night, etc."

Five years later when Bird was drafted No. 1 in the WNBA, she said the prevailing mindset was still that players who were perceived as heterosexual were most likely to be marketed.

"Nobody ever said it to me directly, but I understood," Bird said. "If you wanted endorsements, you had to look and present yourself a certain way.

"There are a lot of layers to this. There's how you felt society was viewing the issue, and how the early WNBA marketing promos wanted to present us. That was all different from how you felt around other WNBA players and in your day-to-day life."

Bird said she was open with teammates, coaches, family and friends early in her career, and said she didn't experience any negative reactions. However, she said other people, including media and sponsors, often just assumed she was straight.

"I think then, it felt easier to not say anything," Bird said. "So you just go along with it and think, 'I know who I really am.' But it starts to add up, and it's not a healthy way to live."

The relative invisibility of LGBTQ+ players also frustrated many who followed and supported the WNBA in the early 2000s.

"There was resentment, and rightfully so, from fans about the ways in which we helped to feed the narrative of keeping in the closet for fear of things like losing sponsors," said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, who entered the league as an assistant in 2000. "I remember thinking, 'The same people that we're worried about bypassing us because of homophobia are going to find any reason to do that because they're not supportive of women in general.'"

Still, Reeve said she found the environment more accepting and inclusive than in college basketball, where she had previously worked. She remembers Pride nights held by WNBA teams in places like Los Angeles -- believed to be the first pro sports franchise to officially recognize Pride month, in 2001 -- New York, Phoenix and Seattle.

"It kind of depended on what city you were in," Reeve said. "In my early years, I was in Charlotte. It wasn't happening there."

In February 2005, Donna Orender succeeded Ackerman as WNBA president.

"Was Pride celebrated and accepted then the same way it is today? No, but it was still cutting edge," Orender said. "There was probably more pushback from a small part of the fan base, but not from our core fan base."

Plus, players were moving the needle. After the 2005 season, four-time WNBA champion Sheryl Swoopes came out as gay. She wasn't the first in the league to do so -- New York's Sue Wicks was one of the earliest, in 2002 -- but Swoopes was the most prominent at the time, coming off her third MVP season. After the announcement, she got a sponsorship deal with Olivia, a cruise line that caters to lesbians.

Seimone Augustus, the No. 1 draft pick in 2006 who won four titles with the Lynx before retiring ahead of the 2021 season, was another prominent WNBA player who in 2012 came out publicly as gay. Swoopes and Augustus declined to be interviewed for this story.

But many other players were still hesitant. Among their concerns was the environment in overseas leagues, where many spend the bulk of the WNBA offseason. Belgium's Ann Wauters, the WNBA's top draft pick in 2000 and now a Chicago Sky assistant coach, wrote in Out For the Win in 2017 that she kept her sexuality hidden in places she played where it didn't feel safe to be out.

"South Korea, Russia and Turkey -- those aren't gay-friendly countries, but I adjust," Wauters wrote then, adding she saw a big difference between the United States in 2000 when she first played in the WNBA in Cleveland, and 2016 when she won a title with Los Angeles.

"Belgium has always been very progressive, whereas America in the beginning was not," Wauters wrote. "You could feel that they weren't ready for this."

RICHIE SAID WHEN Pride was made a WNBA initiative in 2014, there was strong buy-in from most of the WNBA franchises except one -- which she didn't identify -- that asked, "Are we sure as a league we want to do this?"

Richie pressed on.

"I remember having really important conversations with players about how they felt entering the WNBA and wanting to bring their full selves to the league," she said. "And there were LGBTQ+ fans who told me, 'We've been with the WNBA since its inception, but we don't always feel welcome.'"

In Richie's third season as WNBA president, Griner entered the league as something of a trailblazer. Even before being picked No. 1 in the draft, Griner spoke openly about being gay and got strong support from her new team, the Phoenix Mercury.

Griner spoke with ESPN last year about her memories of the WNBA draft in 2013, when she wore a suit in which she felt comfortable, and talked to fellow draftee Layshia Clarendon, who did the same. Clarendon has since come out as nonbinary and transgender. Another player, Atlanta's AD Durr, has also come out as nonbinary.

"One thing I regret about draft night is putting on makeup," Griner said last fall. "I wish I would have said no. But I felt like everybody made it seem like, 'You have to do this.' But I know now you don't have to. And I've stayed true to who I am."

The Washington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne, drafted No. 2 behind Griner in 2013, said she drew inspiration from Griner and came out three years later.

"I came into the league closeted," Delle Donne said. "By not sharing this with the world, it just felt like a huge part of me was not there. I almost felt like a robot at times, so I was just tired of that. This league has helped me grow in a way to be comfortable being out."

When the WNBA announced Pride as an official initiative, it was a milestone but still not fully embraced. That 2014 summer in San Antonio, the Stars had what felt to some fans like a half-hearted Pride night: a postgame discussion with the Athlete Ally organization -- an LGBTQ+ advocacy group -- but no official recognition of Pride during the game.

The Stars -- who have since moved and become the Las Vegas Aces -- had a player then, Sophia Young-Malcolm, who had publicly opposed marriage equality. Several LGBTQ+ fans in San Antonio told ESPN they didn't think the franchise had reached a comfort level in openly acknowledging them.

"I hate to say this, but I think the gay community is just used to being treated like that," one Stars season-ticket holder said. "In some ways, it's a slap in the face, but I don't think most of us have demanded anything different."

But by making Pride a leaguewide initiative, the Sun's Thomas said it "put pressure on every franchise to acknowledge it, to find a way to identify the holes in their organization and do better. The challenge is on the front offices and the league."

The leaguewide embrace of Pride also has helped foster unity among players about the intersection of racism, sexism and anti-gay sentiments.

"Eighty percent of our league is either Black or part of the LGBTQ+ community or both," Washington guard Natasha Cloud said. "This is our everyday lives, especially for me personally: I'm bisexual, I'm Black, I'm a woman. These are struggles I face daily.

"Unfortunately, I didn't have a role model. I think that's why I speak out so much. Then maybe I can change the life of one person, so they don't feel alone or lost. If they see themselves in me, that's a win."

Las Vegas guard Chelsea Gray echoed that sentiment.

"My rookie year I realized, 'We have sponsors who support this, and a league that embraces it,'" Gray said. "It was big for me in my life. Growing up, I really did not talk about this much at all."

BIRD IS ENGAGED to another high-profile athlete, U.S. women's national team star Megan Rapinoe. They've appeared as a couple in commercials, on podcasts and in magazines. Bird and Parker, both former No. 1 draft picks, currently star alongside NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry in a commercial for an automobile retailer.

Parker told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne earlier this year that part of what led to her publicly talking about her marriage to Petrakova was that she was no longer afraid of vulnerability or potential disapproval from others.

"I'm OK with people not being OK with some of the things," Parker said, "as long as it's what's best for me and my family."

Bird added, "If you're not being your true self, all you're doing is creating a character. You're just playing a part, and it's exhausting. You can't do that for your entire life."

Yet Bird acknowledged it is still harder for some LGBTQ+ players to be accepted as themselves, which Griner said she has always lived with.

"I feel like there's an image that people want to put out, or they want to see," Griner said last fall, "and if you don't hit that box, you get overlooked. I'm speaking from my personal experience and what I've seen in my life. I don't fit the box. How I dress, how I look ... I represent what a lot of people see as more masculine, and that's not what they want to represent their company or even to highlight Pride. They want something more feminine.

"Could I play the part and be something I'm not? I don't think so. People would be like, 'You're faking it.'"

Having allies has been crucial for the LGBTQ+ players in the WNBA. Swin Cash, Bird's former UConn teammate and good friend, supported LGBTQ+ initiatives when she played in the WNBA and continues to do so as vice president of basketball operations for the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans. Her counterparts in other pro leagues have taken notice of the WNBA's initiatives.

"When I took my job with the Pelicans, I had the NBA, the NFL, different pro teams all asking me, 'How did you guys lead? What did you do?'" Cash said. "To me, that says a lot about the W's influence. I broke it down: Here's where we were at this point in time. Here's how we knew that unifying was the only way to do it. Here's the hits we knew we were going to take.

"I think the league was ready when society caught up to the fact that all people should be treated equally. I watch this closely, having gay friends and teammates. One of the things I'm proudest of -- and Sue and I have talked about this -- is that she is able to live her life out loud."

Bird noted that Seattle teammate Breanna Stewart, the No. 1 pick in 2016, was comfortable last year publicly sharing news of her engagement and marriage to fellow basketball player Marta Xargay Casademont, plus the birth of their daughter.

"Stewie didn't feel like she had to come out with a big announcement the way others have," Bird said. "She was like, 'Here's my Instagram, this is what I'm doing, I'm happy.' It wasn't a big deal. Everyone liked the picture, went, 'Cool,' and moved on. I think that's a great sign of where we are in the WNBA."

CATHY ENGELBERT SPENT three decades in the financial sector at Deloitte before becoming WNBA commissioner in July 2019.

"It's been a long journey for the LGBTQ+ community in corporate America," Engelbert said. "I don't believe anyone can claim victory -- we all still have a great deal more work to do. We need to broadly advocate for more sustained examples of workplace and talent experiences that authentically and proactively encourage people to bring their whole self to work."

For the Sun's Curt Miller, the 2021 WNBA Coach of the Year, the league's progress on LGBTQ+ issues has meant a lot personally and professionally. As a collegiate head coach at Bowling Green, starting in 2001, and then Indiana, he said he was out in what he termed, "the women's basketball bubble: my administration, my players, my coaching staff, my community, the fan base.

"My partner at the time and our twin boys, I always introduced them at every function, they were very visible and a part of who I was," he said. "But it wasn't public nationally."

It wasn't until Miller was hired to take over the Sun in late 2015 that he opened up to Out Sports to tell his story to a larger audience. Earlier that year, the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision had legalized same-sex marriage.

"At that point, I was truly comfortable," Miller said, "and realized that I had really missed on a great opportunity to be more of a trailblazer and role model. More than ever, then, I began my journey to visibility."

As we near the end of Pride Month 2022, it's also important to point out that the WNBA's support of its LGBTQ+ players year-round is crucial. The recent opinion by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggesting that the court "should reconsider" past rulings such as Obergefell showed that even landmark battles that have been won might be litigated again.

The league's quarter-century-long journey on LGBTQ+ issues required work, persistence and for the world to catch up. But it also needs continued vigilance.

"What's changed in the league hopefully is a representation of things changing in the culture as a whole," Jasmine Thomas said. "There were those who pioneered before us. I'm grateful that has given us this space and this freedom.

"So many people before us in the league didn't get that. I'm glad we're able to live this way, but it did take a while to get here."