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After embracing LGBTQ+ fans, the WNBA is embraced back

While more fans discover the league, there's been one demographic that has been loyal to the league for a long time as they say they feel seen by it.
After embracing LGBTQ+ fans, the WNBA is embraced back
Posted at 5:35 PM, Jun 30, 2023

Inside of a crowded pub, fans of the Seattle Storm cheer for their team as they play against the Minnesota Lynx. 

While their team is down, they're still excited, filled with hope for a miraculous comeback. 

The optimism stems from a deep devotion to their WNBA team, because some say it's easy to love a team in a league that loves you back. 

"You can see them putting in the work and that is what's so important with allyship," said fan Emily Combs, who has been a basketball fan since she was a kid. 

"The fact that there's queer people represented in the staff of the teams as well, like a lot of coaches, a lot of staff members are also queer. It's so important for young people to see that and they be like, 'I can be a basketball coach one day,'" she said. 

Storm fan Kathy Hopkins watches her team with a group of friends. She says she felt accepted by the WNBA as a fan before she felt accepted by the rest of the country.

"To go to a WNBA game and have a Pride night, it's like seriously, you know and they've been doing it before all of the legislation happened with people like myself actually able to get married legally," said Hopkins. 

The bar Rough and Tumble, owned by Jen Barnes, prioritizes showing women's sports, and shows many WNBA games. 

"[The WNBA] actively went and marketed to the queer community and particularly the lesbian community. They created a space that was not just welcoming, but where women who identified as queer were wanted," Barnes said. 

Her bar has become a haven not only for women's sports fans, but for fans who identify as LGBTQ+. She says she has seen the impact that visibility in the league has had on herself, her peers, and to athletes. 

"I've heard from so many players over time that having their employer welcome them as players really changed a lot, and I think that too has really added to the welcoming nature of the WNBA community," said Barnes. 

According to data by OutSports, 1 in 5 WNBA players are publicly out. That's potentially more than any professional sports league in the world. 

SEE MORE: Girls dropping out of sports spark concerns and conversations

However, it wasn't always so welcoming. When the WNBA was formed in 1996, according to the Athletic, the league was trying to market the players to male audiences. There were even makeup classes for players. Women married to men were the center of ad campaigns, and bisexual, lesbian and gender-nonconforming  players felt pressure to hide their true selves. 

"You've heard some of them talk about having, not necessarily a double life, but not as comfortable at home with being who they are," said Pokey Chatman, the assistant coach for the Seattle Storm. 

Over time and after star players were empowered to be out, like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, Chatman says the league began to change.

"I think every year since then, the league has sort of been a leader in terms of that safe space that they're providing for the community," she said. 

The WNBA's acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community ended up creating a safe haven, a place where people who didn't fit the typical mold of a sports fan felt like they could be themselves.

"Being one of those persons where in my life, there were times when it wasn't safe for me to be out, it is such a breath of fresh air to be able to see this now," said Hopkins. 

In the WNBA, identity is so welcomed that now, coming out or showing pride, isn't a big deal, it's just the norm. As viewership of the league and its talent rises, the fans and coaches hope that the WNBA's brand of acceptance becomes the norm in all of sports.

"You can't fake what you feel. And when you come to this environment, it may look different, but the feel is gonna be warm. The feel is gonna be for everyone, and it's undeniable," said Chatman. 

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