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A real story of love and basketball: WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson are engaged

Brittney Griner, the star center of the Phoenix Mercury and last year’s top WNBA draft pick, proposed to her girlfriend, Tulsa Shock forward Glory Johnson last week. The couple announced the news with posts on their Instagram accounts over the weekend. They recently celebrated their two-month anniversary.

In the caption for the photo above, Griner, 23, wrote, “Last Night was a Night to Remember I became the happiest person on this earth! (almost pass out but when that one word came out I came back to life) Me and my baby @missvol25 are in it for Life!”

That something like this could happen — and to widespread positive reception — was not always a given in the WNBA, which used to shy away from its reputation as a league with a large lesbian fan base and a disproportionately large number of lesbian athletes. In 2009, the Washington Mystics eliminated the kiss cam from games, the better to head-off arena-wide broadcasts of lesbian kisses, sparking consternation from bloggers like Pat Griffin. In 2002, lesbian fans protested the New York Liberty when they felt the team was actively ignoring them.

Earlier this year, the WNBA announced it would actively start marketing to its gay fans, with teams and athletes participating in Pride events.

“For a long time they were happy to have those lesbians fill those seats in the stands, but not willing for a long time to embrace the fan base,” Griffin, who is also the author of “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbian and Homophobia in Sports,” told the Associated Press. “I attribute that to the homophobia, fear that somehow acknowledging the fan base would encourage other fans not to go to games. What they’ve learned is that the fan doesn’t keep other people from going to games.”

Now, two WNBA players have announced their impending marriage.

Griner has been famously forward about her sexuality since leaving Baylor, where she played basketball under coach Kim Mulkey. In a 2013 ESPN the Magazine profile by Kate Fagan, Griner spoke of the culture of silence Mulkey instituted at Baylor. Griner was not to come out publicly because university officials, including Mulkey, worried it would hurt recruiting. She lived in what many call a “glass closet”; she would bring her college girlfriend to events, but elsewhere, both online and offline, Griner was expected to live under a cloak of ambiguity.

In her memoir, “In My Skin,” which was released earlier this year, Griner addressed the ostracization she faced starting in middle school because of her height (she’s 6-foot-8), her sexuality and even charges concerning her gender, which followed her into college. She was critical of Mulkey as well.

This kind of thing started happening all the time. Somebody would come up close, in my space, and call me names. They’d say things like “What are you, some kind of freak?” Or they’d walk by and say to each other, real loud, “Better watch out-she’ll make you gay!” They were constantly making fun of how I looked and dressed, how I walked and talked. I’m not sure I can express exactly how I felt in those moments, because I usually went numb. When you’re on the receiving end of insults every day, they chip away at your self-esteem. No matter how much you try to ignore it or tell yourself it’s just kids being stupid, you can’t avoid the pain that comes with it. You get to a point where you imagine everyone is looking at you and thinking there’s something wrong with you. 

Griner casually came out in interviews with Sports Illustrated and USA Today last year, and has become something of a prominent advocate for gay athletes.

“I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality,” Griner told Sports Illustrated. She added: “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way.”

After her experiences at Baylor, the WNBA’s biggest new star has found a community and a league where she feels comfortable being herself — a place where it’s no big thing when her girlfriend shouts her out on Instagram as her #wcw (woman crush Wednesdays).

“I am 100-percent happy,” Griner told ESPN last year. “When I was at Baylor, I wasn’t fully happy because I couldn’t be all the way out. It feels so good saying it: I am a strong, black lesbian woman. Every single time I say it, I feel so much better.”