August 21, 2005

Different For Lesbians

The Glass Closet

At 5-feet-11 and 203 pounds, Latasha Byears epitomized the power in power forward. She used her girth to set body-crunching picks that freed up Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie to score. On defense, she snatched rebounds and dogged the opponent's best shooter. If a player physically rubbed her or a teammate the wrong way, Byears exacted payback, committing hard fouls while helping the Sparks win back-to-back championships.

Then, in June 2003, a few weeks into the team's drive for its third WNBA title, Byears was dealt a blow of her own: She was accused of sexual assault following a party at her Marina del Rey condo.


Latasha "Tot-o" Byears (Mark Boster/L. A. Times)

Less than a month later, a similar allegation would be leveled against Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant by a Colorado hotel worker. The athletes shared more in common than the specter of a criminal trial. They also worked for the same corporate family, an L.A. institution that would treat the two ballplayers one famous and the other relatively obscure very differently.

The Los Angeles Lakers stood by Bryant. The team's general manager, coach and fellow players publicly supported him throughout his arrest, teary declaration of innocence at a televised Staples Center news conference and court appearances. NBA Commissioner David Stern said that Bryant should "absolutely" continue to play until proven guilty.

In contrast, as a police investigation was opened, the Sparks wasted no time in releasing Byears. She hoped to be picked up by a different team, but the woman who had worn the number 00 on her uniform found zero interest among the other WNBA franchises. She took a series of odd jobs, including a stint slinging JC Penney merchandise in a Buena Park distribution center that lasted seven hot, boring days. "It's not that the work was bad," Byears says. "I just couldn't take it. Playing basketball is what I've been doing since high school, and it's all I really know how to do."

In some ways, the uneven treatment of Bryant and Byears speaks to the obvious: Bryant is a marquee player so famous beyond the arena that, like Arnold or Oprah, he is widely known by only his first name. He sells millions of dollars' worth of tickets and merchandise for a big-time sports franchise. Byears generated no discernible income for an unprofitable enterprise, and she had already made some other missteps on and off the court. What's more, in its effort to project a wholesome, family-friendly image, the WNBA is more sensitive to bad press than is the NBA, which could field a pretty decent All-Star team of players who have rap sheets.

And yet the 32-year-old Byears believes her particular predicament stems from something other than her largely unheralded status as a player or her reputation for unladylike behavior. She's convinced she has been ostracized for another reason: She is gay.

[ ... ]

The WNBA keeps a strong lesbian fan base, as well as its lesbian players, in what the University of Minnesota's Mary Jo Kane calls "a glass closet." Everyone knows they're there, says Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, but no one wants to open the door.

Michael Messner, a sociology and gender studies professor at USC, agrees: The collective understanding in the WNBA is that if you're a lesbian, you'd better hush up about it. "It's OK to be who you are, but it's not OK to talk about it, and bring a male to the team party," Messner says.

Posted by ronn at August 21, 2005 08:48 AM

That last sentence by Messner should read "It's OK to be who you are, and it's OK if the Sparks make money by having Lesbian Day at the Game or Pride Day at the Game (or whatever they call them), and it's OK if we make money off the bulldaggers, but by God, we're all straight! Look - Sheryl Swoopes' husband and kid sit in the sidelines! And look at Swin Cash? Isn't she just bonerrific? Yep, we're straight. Straight, straight, straight. La la la la la, I can't hear you..." Posted by: Cecily [TypeKey Profile Page] on August 22, 2005 09:17 AM
I use to have heated debates with an ex about this. Lesbians are a huge fan-base; without them, the WNBA would collapse. Yet my ex thinks lesbians should not be catered to in any way. And she feels that any lesbian player should remain in the closet or lose her spot on a team. *sigh* Posted by: ronn [TypeKey Profile Page] on August 22, 2005 10:04 AM
Interesting post. I was a season ticket holder for the NY Liberty from the inaugural season, and chose not to renew when they treated Teresa Weatherspoon, one of the few players to ever play in every Liberty game, the team captain, and one of the top guards in women's basketball, like dirt. They offered her a non-player contract, meaning she wouldn't be playing in NY, and couldn't be traded to another team without major action. Eventually, L.A. took her and Tamika Whitmore. I know for a fact Weatherspoon is a lesbian, and I've always had suspicions about Whitmore and other players. What's also interesting is that the proven-straight Black players like Lisa Leslie, and homophobe Sheryl Swoopes are heavily promoted; White lesbian players like Ann Wauters, get slightly less promos, or players like Sue Wicks, who are older and have less to lose, come out, and retire shortly after. Black lesbian players, out or not, get no love, especially if they're butch. Forget the "We Love Lesbians Days" at games. I'll watch a game on tv rather than give in to the racism and homophobia. Oh, and in New York, the Liberty's great white hope is assumed-straight Becky Hammon, a nice White girl from Oklahoma. Posted by: DMFinNY [TypeKey Profile Page] on August 25, 2005 10:07 AM
I cannot believe that this discussion is taking place in 2005 America! Just play the game please Posted by: owukori [TypeKey Profile Page] on August 29, 2005 08:33 AM
Except Latasha Byears can't play. Because she's a lesbian. I can't believe anyone would be that naive and/or would want to bury their head in the sand in 2005 given all the facts and contradictions. Did you even read the story? Posted by: ronn [TypeKey Profile Page] on August 29, 2005 11:01 AM
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