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‘I know who I am’: Brittney Griner’s radical existence

Revisiting the early career of one of basketball’s biggest stars through her 2014 memoir, and why her story resonates today.

Washington Mystics v Phoenix Mercury
Brittney Griner
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As another Pride Month comes to a close, we reflect on the struggles, the triumphs and the unapologetic presence of the queer community. We reflect upon the work that is being done, the work that still must be done and we call out the oppressors that still stand in the way of queer liberation.

Pride was born of a riot led by queer and trans women of color. No matter the erasure of pivotal figures like Marsha P. Johnson, no matter the almost patronizing Pride rainbows decorating police cars and brand-name products for one month a year, what we celebrate as “pride” today stems from fighting for the right to exist without persecution, to resist the oppressors — often those same entities clad in rainbow gear for one month a year — that historically pushed for queer nonexistence and show no signs of stopping.

And those are just what the prevailing, still-timely themes are in Brittney Griner’s 2014 memoir In My Skin: navigating one’s identity in a world where one’s very existence as a queer Black woman invites hatred and vitriol, and the ongoing resistance that is asserting oneself in this pseudo-evolving yet intensely hostile world.

In My Skin, which Griner co-wrote with Sue Hovey, is a conversational work, as Griner tells us about her home life, discovering basketball in high school, her coming-out experience and how she first learned to own her identity. She recounts the period in high school where she temporarily moved out of her family home after her father learned she was gay, and how she balanced his antagonism and overbearing protectiveness with his unending support of her basketball career. She tells us about her close relationship with her mother, her quiet rebellion off the court in college, how her best friends moved to China with her for her first professional season overseas.

San Antonio Stars v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

But first, there was Griner’s college career. Much of the book takes place at Baylor University, as her WNBA career was only a year old when In My Skin was released, and a great deal surrounds Griner’s close, yet tumultuous, relationship with the head women’s basketball coach, Kim Mulkey.

By now, the anti-”homosexual acts” policy in place during Griner’s time at Baylor is as much a part of Griner’s history as it is Baylor’s. After verbally committing to Baylor as a high school junior, she told Mulkey she was gay, and Mulkey’s response was less than encouraging.

“I remember she said, ‘Big Girl, I don’t care what you are. You can be black, white, blue, purple, whatever. As long as you come here and do what you need to do and hoop, I don’t care,’” Griner writes. “She basically did that whole thing people do when they’re trying to seem cool with [being gay] but don’t really know how to talk about it.

“I told her I didn’t want to be one of those athletes who worry so much about managing their public images that you never really know who they are in the inside. I know who I am, and if you get to know me, you know what’s in my heart.”

Mulkey’s acknowledgement doubled as a tacit agreement for Griner to never bring up her sexuality again, and her reflections on this throughout In My Skin express her frustration as she went through her formative years “behind closed doors,” as she says.

In an interview with ESPN just after the 2013 WNBA Draft, Griner further explained, “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned [being gay], people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.” Despite the program’s storied success, the main fear was — and might very well still be — that going to Baylor meant giving in to the progressively shifting opinions toward accepting queerness as many athletes’ reality.

This policy specifically banning “homosexual acts” was dropped in 2015, two years after Griner graduated and publicly came out as a lesbian after being taken No. 1 in the draft. But at other NCAA Division I universities, these policies are still in place. Brigham Young University’s Honor Code prohibits “homosexual behavior,” including “all forms of physical intimacy,” and Abilene Christian University goes even further with a newer ban on same-sex dating.

At the federal level, a revised version of the Higher Education Act could pave the way for further discrimination against LGBTQ+ students by not penalizing religious universities for enacting policies that follow their religious beliefs.

On the court, further adversities emerged as Griner did on the national stage, when during her sophomore year of high school, the famous “High School Girl Dunker” video hit the internet.

“I was feeling pretty good about my body,” Griner writes. “I was getting stronger, and being an athlete gave me a sense of focus.”

But alongside positive remarks about her professional future were comments along the lines of, “You sure that’s a girl?” — except many more pronounced and contemptuous, demanding proof of her gender as they derided her accomplishment because she’s tall, because she’s Black. As if Black women aren’t allowed to be Black women anymore because they choose to use their bodies to play sports.

And then, her freshman year at Baylor, there was “The Punch,” Griner’s admittedly inappropriate reaction to a hard foul against her not being called that resulted in her two-game suspension.

Horrific “jokes” about domestic violence — the “men shouldn’t hit women!” variety — played alongside the same tired “accusations” of there supposedly being a man participating in a women’s basketball game. And because the target of her punch was a white woman, the jokes turned racist, too.

When Grayson Allen purposely trips opposing players and is punished, as one would hope a player with a history of blatant fouls would be, he isn’t misgendered, dehumanized, made out to be a vicious caricature of his entire gender or race. He’s just a guy, a talented player, who made a mistake. Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski said as much as he defended Allen on national television during his 2016 suspension following his third tripping incident of the year.

Griner can throw a punch, admit she badly messed up, attend counseling to control her anger, serve her suspension and apologize to the woman whose nose she broke, but the stereotypes that always surrounded her don’t disappear after she atones for her mistake. Because for Griner, “mistakes” aren’t seen as mistakes in the way they are for Allen — they’re character flaws.

These are the realities of being a Black female athlete. Like Caster Semenya, who has faced inappropriate comments and sanctions surrounding her gender since she started outrunning other women, and the response to whose existence has prompted controversial, not to mention transphobic, new rules in track and field.

Or Serena Williams, who has experienced a lifetime of body-shaming for having larger muscles than other tennis players and who is routinely compared to Maria Sharapova, a lean white woman whose comments about lifting “more than five pounds” being “unnecessary” for a tennis player were widely interpreted as a racist critique of Williams’ appearance (though, at the end of the day, Williams owns a 19-2 record against Sharapova).

These cases — not to mention those targeting actual trans women athletes of color — illustrate that the level of understanding behind these insults always comes second to any attempt at racism. For Black women, this means keeping one’s composure at all times and trying not to play too aggressively, all while asserting the dominance that is expected of them by the majority-white coaches whose attention they must attract in order to succeed at progressively higher levels of their sports.

”I sometimes worried about looking so powerful,” Griner writes of her final Baylor home game in the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Before the game, the Baylor radio commentator had playfully challenged her to record three dunks against Florida State, since no woman had ever done it before. “You think guys ever worry about that stuff?” she asks. “I’m afraid to dunk because people might think I’m too strong.”

She threw down those dunks — all three of them — to the wild applause and congratulations of her teammates, fans and coaches who had supported her over the years.

NCAA Women’s Championship Game - Notre Dame v Baylor Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The worry of looking “too powerful” is, too, a real one. Blackness is pathologized, criminalized, especially when it intersects with a certain type of queer masculinity. When Griner and her then-fiancée Glory Johnson were arrested in 2015 and charged with domestic violence after a fight, the two narratives that emerged surrounded Johnson, the smaller, more feminine victim, and Griner, the tall butch lesbian with a history of violence.

Their dual seven-game suspensions from the WNBA weren’t undeserved.

But just a year before, US women’s national soccer team goalkeeper Hope Solo was also arrested and charged with domestic violence. Instead of an immediate suspension, as in the cases of Griner and Johnson, the National Women’s Soccer League allowed her to play the rest of the 2014 season.

Again, the prevailing narrative wasn’t one that furthered homophobic or racist violence. There were those who pointed out the double standard in Solo’s case compared to that of former NFL player Ray Rice, whose career effectively ended after he knocked out his then-fiancée in an elevator. Others, though, saw a feminine white woman, a victim of a vicious system, because how could a delicate white woman ever hurt someone? After all, she isn’t a six-foot-eight, deep-voiced Black athlete with dreadlocks.

When it comes down to it, though, that’s who Griner is, and the body she’s got. Finding peace with these minoritized intersecting identities is why her story, her radical existence, still resonates. It takes scores of emotional labor exclusive to queer Black women for Griner to overcome systematic pressure that prioritizes the comfort of a white, heteronormative society, rather than letting her thrive on her own terms. Griner’s story is a multilayered one of resistance, of one’s body and identity being up for grabs, up for comment, yet finding success against these odds.

“I stand out in the world, and I love that about myself,” Griner writes. “I didn’t always feel this way, but I’ve come to discover that the more I embrace who I am, the more I connect with other people. And the more I connect with other people, the more I learn about myself.”

Resistance, pride of identity, beating the odds — and then, self-acceptance. Radical on their own, but for a Black queer woman athlete at the edge of the world — with an unashamedly powerful dunk — it’s practically revolutionary.