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Tuesday, May 28, 2013
What does it mean to be an openly gay athlete?

By Kate Fagan

Over the past two days, Brittney Griner has learned that you're never really done coming out.

The former Baylor women's basketball star and the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft says she has been open about her sexual identity for several years now. At the very least, she didn't seem to be shy about dropping clues. She posted this picture for the NOH8 (No Hate) Campaign in March and has included the word "equality" in her Twitter bio almost since the day she joined the medium in December 2012.

But on Wednesday night, the audience of people in the know grew exponentially when SI.com released a video in which Griner makes a casual reference to being "open" while answering a question about gay athletes in sports. Her comments became an immediate news story, spreading and being linked to across the Internet and framed as a kind of coming out by Griner.

All of which begs the question: What exactly does it mean to be an openly gay athlete?

Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, spent a good chunk of Thursday telling various media outlets that Griner's comments weren't really news, per se, considering that her client was already out. In fact, a few hours before Griner was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury on Monday, the 6-foot-8 center spoke candidly to USA Today about her sexuality and the bullying she endured when she was younger.

But USA Today didn't frame it as a coming-out story -- the headline was "WNBA's Griner ready to evoke change, test NBA waters" -- so the article didn't become a separate news event.

Think about that for a moment, because there are lessons to be learned here when it comes to changing the dialogue around gay athletes in sports.

Kagawa Colas said Griner never planned on a coming-out announcement once she left Baylor because she believed that living openly and answering questions honestly would, in itself, reinforce her truth. (Keep in mind that Baylor is not exactly a gay-friendly institution. The school has student policies against homosexuality, and university president Ken Starr was the legal mastermind behind California's Prop 8, the ballot initiative that overturned gay marriage.)

"I've always been really open about my sexuality and who I am," Griner told espnW. "I never thought a big coming out was necessary."

The thing is, gay people often feel like we're coming out over and over again, long after the first time we acknowledge to ourselves and to other people that we're gay.

I first came out a decade ago when I was a basketball player at the University of Colorado. (Of course, I wasn't a big deal like Griner, so there was no news coverage of my life-changing revelation.) And yet I still feel like I'm coming out several times a month, in different work and social interactions. What happens is just a reassertion of who you are, offered to each new person entering your life, so that incorrect assumptions are avoided.

The media will happily spread the word for Griner. But not everybody reads everything, and some people will miss this "news" about her, which means she will occasionally find herself coming out again, even if it's just in passing references. She will also be asked to weigh in on most gay issues from now until gay issues stop becoming a thing all openly gay athletes must weigh in on.

But do gay athletes need to acknowledge their sexual identity to a news organization to officially be considered gay? Because -- and here's another news flash -- there are plenty of gay athletes who live their lives openly on a daily basis. They just haven't said it on camera or held a news conference to announce it.

Yes, as the number of openly gay athletes grows, and as more are willing to acknowledge their sexual identity with the same sense of ease that Griner does, the more they will all help create an accepting environment. But there are also plenty of female athletes who haven't -- and won't -- make a big announcement. And part of the reason they won't is because of the dialogue ("What a shocker!" written in sarcastic font) and splashy headlines that still accompany these stories.

You can bet other gay athletes are watching the conversation around Griner and weighing the positives against the negatives in deciding about their own potential coming out.

In recent months, all eyes have been turned to the NFL, thanks to stories that a gay player -- or group of players -- will soon step forward publicly. And when that happens, the news will be carefully orchestrated.

The reason is simple. As Griner learned this week, we haven't yet reached the point where living your life openly as a gay athlete spares you the headlines.