The WNBA celebrated their 25th Anniversary during the 2022 season. Not only was their birthday a huge milestone for women’s professional basketball, but the league’s growth has coincided with a growing acceptance of players that identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans.
Back in 1997 when the league first started out there was obvious pressure for the league to succeed. That meant the players had to present themselves more traditionally-dressed (see: feminine) often with polished nails and make up – this translated to many players that it wasn’t okay to be themselves.
While the WNBA’s rival the ABL acknowledged and embraced their Lesbian fanbase early on, it was clear that the WNBA hoped to reach a broader audience. The WNBA’s efforts into growing their audience was understood, but often the league’s actions alienated the diehard LGBTQ+ community.
We present this history to contextualize how sensitive the WNBA was about their appearance and the prevailing stereotypes about women athletes, masculinity and femininity and their sexuality. These stereotypes lead to being treated differently (discrimination) and ultimately has affected players’ careers on the court (rosters spots, minutes) and off the court (endorsements, contracts). Those concerns have somewhat softened over the years in the league, but still very much hangs over like a cloud.
I remember when the WNBA kicked off and though there was an assumption that there must have been gay players in the league, yet no player was open about their sexuality. Not until players like Latasha Byears and Sue Wicks were open about their sexuality did the WNBA have players that represented a good number of their fanbase.
To be clear, the Los Angeles Sparks’ Byears never came out in the sense that she sat down for an interview or announced it at a press conference. Byears was unapologetically queer and was never closed off about her sexuality.
“I’ve never been in the closet about nothin’,” Byears said to ESPN in 2006. “It’s hot in that closet also!”
The New York Liberty’s Sue Wicks was the first player to formally and publicly come out in 2002.
Byears and Wicks then Brittany Griner in 2013 paved the path for current players like Sue Bird, Layshia Clarendon, Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Courtney Williams, Dewanna Bonner and Elena Delle Donne to be comfortable enough to come out. These players now have the luxury of not only playing professional basketball in the United States, but that the environment has improved; enough that they don’t have to hide the fact that they have a wife or girlfriend from their fans. The WNBA has even launched a LGBT section of their site at WNBA.com/pride.
That level of acceptance wasn’t possible twenty-five years ago.
How Many WNBA Players Identify As Gay?
Even though some outlets have approximated of the percentage of LGBTQ players in the WNBA the real number will always be inaccurate as long as homophobia exists in all it’s forms. The true percentage of WNBA players that identify as gay or lesbian will always be determined by how accepting society of differences in sexuality and gender, and thus, how comfortable players are of coming out of the closet in the public eye.
That’s the case with our list too. It’s not comprehensive for that reason. We compiled this list because we know that the question of how many gay WNBA players there are and because there’s not a lot of reputable information to be had; it leads to stereotypes being perpetuated and biased opinions are taken as fact. We saw the lack of available research as an opportunity to provide information that is actually researched within the context of how culture affects the number of out gay and lesbian WNBA players.
Ultimately we believe this list of our WNBA players provides needed visibility and that LGBTQIA+ visibility will in turn allow future WNBA players (and their fans) to be comfortable coming out. So after some extensive research, here is a list of current and former WNBA players that have either come out and/or living authentically as part of the LGBTQIA+ community sorted by last name.
|Emma||Cannon||active||LGQ||Write Through The Night|
|Elissa||Cunane||active||LGQ||Write Through The Night|
|Candice||Dupree||active||LGQ||Just Womens Sports|
|Anneli||Maley||active||LGQ||Write Through The Night|
|Danielle||Robinson||active||LGQ||Write Through The Night|
|Destiny||Slocum||active||LGQ||Write Through The Night|
|NaLyssa||Smith||active||LGQ||Write Through The Night|
|Kate||Starbird||retired||LGQ||The Seattle Times|
|Victoria||Vivians||active||LGQ||Write Through The Night|
|Sue||Wicks||retired||LGQ||New York Times|
When we say the player is “out” that means that player has officially announced their coming out, are publicly married, have referred to their sexuality in an article, or has shared their personal life on public social media (Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and others).
If you’re counting, there’s 30 retired player on this list – that means 46 players on our list are active. It’s not a coincidence that more players are comfortable being out about their sexuality in 2022 than they were in 1997. That ratio represents progress and we expect this list to grow as the LGBTQ community is more widely accepted around the world.
As mentioned in this Washington Post article, queer athletes can be found in relationships with one another. That’s also true in the WNBA where All-Stars Dewanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas are engaged, former teammates Penny Taylor and Taurasi are married, current teammates Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot have also wed, Natisha Heideman and Jasmine Thomas are coupled up and Breanna Stewart and Marta Xargay have a child together.
We’ve done a pretty exhaustive search on the above list, but it is not 100% representative of the league’s different communities and identities because of the stigma and discrimination that can hang over a player when they come out.
What Percent of WNBA Players Identify As LGBTQ?
If the league’s W25 – the 25 greatest WNBA players of all-time in celebration of the league’s 25th anniversary – are an indication of how many LGBTQ players there are in the league then it’s 40%, but that’s not an accurate number. Those 25 player are just a sampling of the best players across the league’s 25 year history, and doesn’t take into consideration of all the players that have ever suited up. We need that number to determine the true number. To see the percentage of gay and lesbian players in the WNBA, go here.
The W25 are the WNBA’s superstars and greatest players. They’re paid the most money by the WNBA. They get the most media coverage. They get the most endorsements. They have a higher level of job security. All that said being one of the top players doesn’t exclude you from experiencing homophobia or the feelings of fear, anxiety and shame.
One of the W25, Angel McCoughtry revealed that after she came out in 2015, the international team that she was playing with in Turkey directed her to go back in the closet: “My last overseas team threatened my job if I didn’t write a fake letter on social media saying my relationship was a lie.”
McCoughtry posted on Instagram at the time that her leaving the team was contractual, but a site that covers European basketball transactions posted that Fenerbahҫe “released” McCoughtry on Feb. 18. The site has since removed that page.
Elena Delle Donne should feel empowered to be herself after winning the WNBA MVP twice, but she didn’t. “I came into the league and was not out, so over the years I was able to truly come into myself,” Delle Donne said. “I often felt like I was a robot at times because I wasn’t able to truly be myself until I was open and honest about my sexuality.”
“Just being me was hard, to be honest,” Seimone Augustus told the New York Times, explaining that she was bullied in high school. “Every day walking down the hallway it was like: ‘She’s gay. She’s gay.’”
Being bullied, having feelings of not being accepted for being gay or not fully coming out aren’t unique to WNBA players whatsoever. And every WNBA superstar that is out now including Augustus, Griner, Bird, McCoughtry, Candace Parker, Stewart, Katie Smith, and Jonquel Jones to name a few have all spoke to the glass closet they’re working against and homophobia that they’ve experienced that have silenced them.
Gay, Black and Female
We’ve focused on coming as gay or lesbian and haven’t even approached the subject from the cross section of the multiple identities that are at play. In addition to sexuality we should also remember that almost all WNBA players identify as female (gender) shouldn’t forget that approximately 80% of the league is Black (race) and as you read this know that each of these identities has faced (and is facing) discriminated.
Let’s acknowledge that being a Black woman already puts you at a major disadvantage when it comes to media coverage, endorsements and marketing opportunities. According to this study led by Risa Isard and Dr. E. Nicole Melton Black WNBA players are severely underrepresented in the media even when they’re the most-accomplished players in the league.
[Black WNBA players] won 80% of postseason awards, including: Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, and Sixth Woman of the Year. And they are championing social justice advocacy. Yet the media gives them half the play. Literally. Despite the accolades and the fact that 80% of the players are Black, the three names most mentioned by the media? White players.
By also then identifying as Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Queer or Trans Black woman, well that pretty much takes all offers off the table. This is what happened with 2021 league MVP Jonquel Jones. After making the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, Jones came out in pants and short sleeve shirt. Next year, The Bahamas Telecommunications Co. decided not to renew her endorsement contract even though her on-court performance in both the United States and internationally had improved across the e board. “The only difference is that I’m openly out and dressing differently,” Jones told ESPN.
Being at the intersection of being Black, queer and female puts you at a significant disadvantage. Sue Bird dumbed down how racism, sexism, and homophobia comes together to work against the WNBA in an ESPN interview: “To be completely blunt, but also kind of simple, soccer players generally are cute little white girls.” Bird said “And I think basketball players, we’re all shapes and sizes. It’s 70-80% Black women, a lot of gay women. We’re tall; we’re big. And I think there’s just maybe this intimidation factor with that. People are quick to talk about it, judge it, put it down. And soccer, you just don’t see that just based on how they look.”
You can see why choosing to come out as LGBTQ+ isn’t a simple decision as “just be yourself” – especially if you’re a Black woman. It adds another heavy layer that affects how you’re viewed. How many endorsements you get. How much the media covers you. Your post-career opportunities. At the end of the day as a queer Black woman you get way less money for objectively doing your job better.
The Wubble Steps Up
Whether straight or gay, the great thing about the WNAB is that they’re unified in their support of one another – not only in terms of women’s sports, but in gender equity, racial justice, and issues impacting the LGBTQIA+ community as all three hit very close to home.
In terms of social justice, there was no league in the United States that did more than the W after George Floyd was murdered (and the league’s players have stepped up many times before that). When the WNBA went into their respective bubble in 2020, the players playfully named it the “Wubble” and that season wasn’t so much as who won the championship, who won the MVP or the typical on-court accomplishments, but will be remembered for the players using their voice to bring visibility to injustice, discrimination and lack of equality. The Wubble was so active on those fronts that ESPN created a documentary about the atmosphere that was created in their own self-contained movement.
Though there is a lot of internalized and systemic homophobia in the WNBA to unpack and remove, it’s no surprise that the league goes big during Pride month. “It’s important for there to be events during Pride Month,” Danielle Robinson said at a recent Pride Month event. “Our league is very inclusive and supportive of its players, so to be able to help so many people in our own markets and communities is an honor to have that platform and be able to give back in the way that we can.”
As mentioned above, we don’t know the exact percentage of WNBA players that are LGBTQIA, but in researching players there are plenty of active and retired players that are heterosexual, have husbands and/or consider themselves to be “straight.” Here’s a short NOT COMPREHENSIVE list of those active and retired WNBA players that identify as straight.
|Erin Alexander (Brown)|
|Pollyanna Johns Kimbrough|
|Susan King Borchardt|
|Katie Lou Samuelson|
|Val Whiting (Raymond)|
It’s worth mentioning that in researching this article, we also found that at least 50 former WNBA players are working as coaches or staff for colleges, high schools, NBA or WNBA – most of whom didn’t have very much personal information available.
We’ve listed some of the league’s LGBTQ players and put together a small sampling of the league straight players, but the longest list might be of ot of well-known WNBA players where there’s not a lot of information on their relationships. Some of the those more well-known players include Alana Beard, Dawn Staley, Tina Thompson, Arike Ogunbowale, Kayla McBride, Natalie Williams, Sylvia Fowles, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Ticha Penicheiro, Teresa Weatherspoon, Shoni Schimmel, Nikki Teasley, Tina Charles, Bridgette Gordon, Emma Meesseman, Dena Head, Mwadi Mabika, Sheri Sam, Penny Toler and dozens of others. We purposely made that a long list, but I wanted to emphasize the amount of popular players where we don’t know very much of their personal lives. It’s extremely unusual to be so well-known yet this basic information isn’t available.
If the lack of online information isn’t just for general privacy concerns, we can safely assume that much of that dearth of information is to protect their own safety, the well-being of partners, their families and careers. This is why LGBTQ equality is important. This is why pronouns matter. This is why gender roles are hurtful. Visibility begets visibility.