About a decade before NBA player Jason Collins and NFL prospect Michael Sam came out publicly, then-reigning WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes became the most high-profile team sport athlete to announce she was gay.
“Hopefully, this will not have a negative effect on the WNBA,” Swoopes said in 2005.
The league, which will tip off its 20th season on Saturday, has actually openly embraced the LGBT community that has made up a significant portion of its fan base from the start. As a result, players in the WNBA — perhaps more than in other professional sports leagues — feel comfortable being themselves.
“A few years ago, just talking about LGBT issues or people — anything that had to do with it — was so taboo and I definitely didn’t hear much about it, but being in sports, you’re surrounded by athletes [and] everyone’s different,” Mystics forward Stefanie Dolson said in a podcast interview about her recent article in ESPN the Magazine about being an LGBT athlete. “… Now, it’s almost trivial. You bring it up and there’s no concern. There’s no discomfort with talking about it anymore.”
In the article, which appears in this week’s WNBA preview edition of ESPN the Magazine, Dolson addresses her own decision to come out publicly and how happy she is to play in a league that dedicates an entire month to celebrating LGBT pride.
“I take pride that the WNBA is on the right side of history,” Dolson said, as told to ESPN writer Katie Barnes. “There are leagues that don’t touch on it at all, and that’s disappointing. There are other more established leagues that get more coverage than ours, and by taking a stance on equality, they could affect a lot of change. Sports have a special power to do that.”
Brittney Griner didn’t fear the same negative repercussions as Swoopes when she came out publicly in interviews two days after she was the No. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA draft. One year later, the WNBA became the first pro sports league to launch a campaign to market specifically to the LGBT community.
Dolson, who has dyed her hair purple, danced with the WWE’s Prime Time Players and once gave President Obama bunny ears, lives by the motto, “If they’re going to stare, they might as well stare at something fun.” The former U-Conn. star and third-year pro said she feels “called to lead an authentic life” to let girls know that it’s okay to be themselves.
Already out to her family and teammates, Dolson came out publicly in February by posting a photo on Instagram of her girlfriend kissing her cheek.
“Before posting, I thought about what people might say because this photo made it clear that we’re together, but then I realized that the reactions of others didn’t matter to me,” Dolson told Barnes. “I wanted people who are fans and supporters to know who I really am.”
And the response?
“It’s honestly been all positive,” Dolson said on the podcast. “There may be a couple responses in the comments that aren’t positive, but for the most part fans haven’t said much other than just being happy for me, they can tell how happy I am. Teammates in the locker room have been extremely supportive. They’ve all met my girlfriend and they’re just happy to see me in a good place in my life.”
In a Twitter Q&A moderated by Associated Press women’s basketball writer Doug Feinberg on Thursday, Dolson said the response to her article, which led the homepage of ESPN.com for part of Wednesday, was much the same.
— stefanie Dolson (@bigmamastef) May 12, 2016
When asked when she thinks other professional sports leagues will catch up to the WNBA in terms of their openness about sexuality, Dolson was brutally honest.
“I have no idea,” she said.
Dolson and the Mystics host New York at Verizon Center on Saturday at 7 p.m.