There are few things more complicated than the way women athletes challenge conventional gender norms, and few aspects of conventional gender norms more fraught than sexuality. One of the stereotypes that was instantly attached to the WNBA (and one that persists to this day) is that all its players are LGBTQ; in spite (or perhaps because) of how often it was a punchline, and in spite of the fact that arenas were full of queer fans from the very first season, it took years for an active player to be open about her sexuality.
Sue Wicks, who played for the New York Liberty, was the first — and as much as she tried not to make a big deal about it at the time, that fact still, somewhat unfairly, defines her basketball legacy instead of — as she says she’d prefer — her hook shot. Wicks, now an oyster farmer on Long Island, took the time to speak with me for a New York Times piece on the history of the WNBA and activism; below is an edited version of our conversation, including insight into her own decision to come out and the way she sees the league’s activism today.
Natalie Weiner: You hold this title: First active WNBA player to come out. But obviously you played basketball for a long time before that happened. How did players talk or not talk about their sexuality in those early days?
Sue Wicks: It’s so funny because it was less than 20 years ago, and I would say people didn’t talk about it. People were very concerned about image and being perceived a certain way. Honestly, I think that’s part of the makeup of a lot of athletes. You are your parent’s favorite child. You are the “teacher’s pet,” you are the “community pride.” You do just like to be liked, starting when you’re a kid looking for a “Hey, good job, nice pivot move.” So when an athlete speaks up, that’s going against years of conditioning to please people.
It’s especially true with women athletes. We worked very hard, especially my generation and the one before that, at community relations, at increasing attendance at games. As a woman, you were always very aware of the need to be a world-class athlete while smiling and never letting them see you sweat, or expressing anything assertive in the most assertive of businesses. They’d like to see you do it smooth and gracefully, and barely break a sweat or make a grimace. I think women do try and achieve that, even if it’s subconsciously.
We try to learn, as women, how to be heard without turning off a population that hates assertive women. I hate to use the word hate, but it’s still one of those things that it almost puts a damper on people’s ability to hear. All they can think is, “Oh, boy. What about her hair?” You have to get through a lot of things before your message gets out there.
NW: Yeah, it’s always a matter of whether someone actually wants to hear it or not, and some people don’t want to, and so they won’t. Pre-WNBA and in the early days of the league, was there an active pressure to not talk about LGBTQ issues?
SW: Well, there was always this question: How are we going to market women’s sport? And their answer was, “Well, they need dresses and makeup.” This is not a long time ago. This is the ’80s. I see some of the pictures, and it’s comical because the players are so awkward. They would never wear that dress, they would never wear lipstick, and you can see they’re just miserable.
When I got to the WNBA from playing in Europe, it was obvious that there had been a lot of thought about how they were going to sell the league to the middle of America. They wanted to appeal to everybody, and in that was family values and families coming to the games. That’s how it was promoted, and I wouldn’t say it was subtle because every advertisement featured family in the stands and that type of thing. They showcased the girls that had husbands or kids, or other family ties. And it certainly was a true representation — it’s one facet of the league, and it was the one that they were selling then.
Fast forward, I was watching one of the first televised WNBA Drafts after I retired. One player that was chosen had on a three-piece suit, and her hair was short. She was such a beautiful human being, because she was 100% authentic. She was sitting in herself. This kid took my breath away. You could see the pride she had in the way she walked across the stage. She was moving through this life the way that she was comfortable. So that was the arc of what women’s basketball felt like.
NW: What was behind your decision to come out to the media?
I was in New York City [playing for the Liberty] when the debate was still on about gay marriage. Different groups were determining if I could be married, if I had rights as a citizen here, so of course I was involved. It was the backdrop of my social life then. But I was never asked the question, even though I lived openly. No reporter would ever ask that question in the locker room.
Then I had an interview with Time Out New York, and the interviewer was like, “I’m sorry to ask this question. My editor is really pushing me.” I was just like, “Yeah.” In my personal life, there was so much work and sacrifice and conversation with people working on social justice for the LGBTQ community, that if I’m asked that question, even though I was already open about it, I would never not answer the question.
But after that, I got a bunch of requests to do stories with magazines and profiles. We were on a playoff run, and I had the option in that moment. The PR person said, “Do you want to do these?” And I was like, “You know what, it’s too much attention away from our team.” I did my statement, and that was it. I didn’t want to be a spokesperson, because that’s all I had to say about it. At the end of the day, I Google search myself and the first thing I see is that I’m gay [laughs]. Not basketball. Which is fine.
NW: I also read that there were lesbian fans of the Liberty who felt like they weren’t being acknowledged by the team, and that they staged a “kiss-in” and other protests just to get official acknowledgement. Not because anything specific had happened, they just felt they were being ignored.
SW: Oh, certainly. They were doing the kiss-in to identify themselves because they felt they weren’t represented — when they showed the crowd on the Jumbotron, they felt that the cameras were trying to paint a different picture of who was in attendance at that game, rather than acknowledging that lesbians made up a big part of the fan base. Even if they had just made up a fraction of the fan base, you want to represent your fans and show them all. I heard many times that they felt the camera avoided them, so much so that it seemed intentional.
NW: It’s interesting to see how some of the teams seemed to do a 180 once they realized that there was money to be made. I know it’s a little bit cynical, but…
SW: I mean, I hate to be cynical, too. But so many polls have been taken, so many test groups have been tested, that when you see the gay pride now, it’s all corporate. Like, “We can gain this whole segment by showing that we like these people, and we’re not going to offend the other part of our base, because we’re right in that moment. Plus, we can still seem edgy even though the messaging is five to 10 years late.” We’re already past what they’re celebrating, if you get it, but at this point it’s already been market-tested. And that’s not just the WNBA, that’s everything.
NW: I think a lot of people are worried that the same thing is going to happen with Black Lives Matter, and that the impact of that message, which is obviously positive and necessary, will be neutralized by the fact that it’s being leveraged by corporations for their gain.
SW: I mean, I feel a certain betrayal to talk about that. But with Colin Kaepernick…I guess like anybody, I love the long-suffering person that just stands there and loses everything, because they’re talking about ideals and what’s right. And then Nike turns around and monetizes it. I have to tell you, that was a sad moment for me. Everyone else was very excited to exercise their politics through commerce. But I was bummed out because it felt like it derailed part of it. Like, “Oh, my gosh, this is now a marketing strategy.”
Now with both [the NBA and the WNBA]….it’s corporate no matter what, and they’ve done a lot of research that says, “This is the direction to go in.”
NW: Did it surprise you that it still took a few years for more WNBA players to come out after you did?
SW: No, I’m not surprised. I remember after that the majority of players that came up to me and said, “Wow, that’s really cool you did that,” were straight. I think we were still in a moment where…the gay players were probably afraid, like I was going to out them next. It was just still not talked about.
It wasn’t a moment in time of everyone coming out and saying, “I want to show my authentic self to the world.” There was no upside to it. There was no feedback saying, “This is a good idea.” Instead the feedback was like, “What’s your game? Why would you do it?” So, it took a while before the NBA would have float in the gay pride parade [laughs].
NW: Was there some negative reaction as well?
SW: Not directly to me, but I remember someone in the PR department at the WNBA said, “She just wants attention.” And I was the person that didn’t want any attention — I was so focused on the team, and not wanting anything to interfere with our mission of trying to win a championship.
That one bothered me. It was just such a throwaway stupid statement, because we all worked overtime promoting that league. Interacting with fans, doing every event — every single day we were doing something in the community to promote and support that league, and to always be accessible to fans no matter what, and to have positive messaging.
Not because we were…told to, but because it was our life. It was so important, and we wanted that league to be around as it is right now, 20 years later. It was doing everything to preserve, protect, nurture, promote the league. I certainly didn’t want to do anything to hurt it.
NW: That’s a really interesting and important point: the idea that because the WNBA is perceived to be in a fragile position, that it’s something that needs to be protected, then you can’t challenge any norm or rock the boat. I write a lot about jazz, and it’s kind of the same thing. The idea that it’s endangered, and if you say something’s wrong with it — like “Jazz is pretty sexist,” or “Jazz is not welcoming to LGBTQ people” — then you’re threatening the very existence of the thing.
SW: The threat to the whole existence of the league by taking a stand. Like you’re saying, the WNBA is perceived as so vulnerable. And there is that menacing, like, “Well no one watched anyway, and I’m certainly not going to watch now.” Like that’s your punishment. And quite frankly, that’s why I love seeing the players standing there and their faces when they have their arms locked together, or they’re doing their messaging, or you hear Renée Montgomery or Maya Moore speak. I feel so much pride in these strong, beautiful women.
NW: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was the history of the WNBPA. Based on what I read, it looks like in 2003, David Stern threatened to cancel the season which would have functionally shuttered the league. Were you in any way connected to those early CBA negotiations?
SW: I was for, but only for the first one. All we wanted was healthcare. That was our big thing. And also some type of 401(k). We weren’t talking about anything else at that moment because our contract was so baseline, I think it started at $30,000 or $35,000, and we had no benefits. If you got hurt in the offseason training, there was nothing. So those early negotiations were from players like me that were already in their thirties and were just like, “Well, let’s get healthcare.”
I think those first negotiations were kind of easy because the league and the lawyers that we negotiated with were like, “Well, we left those things out in the beginning so you’d have something for your first CBA,” probably. So I think that was a no-brainer for them to move forward with that.
I love that ultimately there was hardball involved. We’ve seen it in every major sport: there are shutdowns, there are threats. But I think with women’s basketball, my generation was like, “We are on thin ice. The floor’s going to fall out from under us.”
We were happy when we saw the lights were on every morning, that we could come back and practice. We were never certain. I think that also meant every game we played, we were giving 100% because we were so happy to be there. But there was the nervousness every morning whether it was still going to happen.
NW: Now that there are players who are married to each other, that being open about their sexuality is considerably more accepted, do you feel like you were a trailblazer, to use a cliché?
SW: Do you feel I did? I don’t know.
NW: I think so. I mean, somebody had to take that leap — even if it didn’t feel like a leap, even if it felt like stating the obvious.
SW: Going back to what I was saying earlier, when I say I’m proud of the players now, I think it’s because I was proud of myself in that moment. I feel connected a little bit with [their work], because that’s my experience as a woman athlete. We’re playing the game, but unfortunately we’re also always fighting for social justice.
I remember early on in an interview, someone asked me, “When will this league be a success?” and I said, “When we change the adjectives that we use for women and men; when we stop thinking that being aggressive is such a negative for women, and get rid of all these adjectives we put on women to actually just push them down, to make them insecure, to make them quiet.”
There’s just that undercurrent of social activism that’s built into the pie with women’s sports, because we are constantly fighting to do this, and there’s no two ways about it. It’s only since the ’70s that it’s been a trend to be able to be an athlete and even then, you had to “do it like a lady.” There is an activism to this, just to liberate your own human person.
It sounds hyperbolic, but there is always that slight undercurrent that you’re fighting for the freedom to just be your human self. I mean, why do we have to fight for that?