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Did Brittney Griner save your life, too?

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Instead of eating a fistful of pills on April 29, 2013, I wrote my coming-out letter and came out as gay. As Pride 2018 winds to a close, I hope my experiences will remind others why visibility, representation and coming out still matter.

The 2012 ESPY Awards - Press Room
Brittney Griner kisses her Best Female Athlete trophy at the ESPY Awards on July 11, 2012 at Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. She was still in college at the time.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

TRIGGER WARNING | The content in this essay is not right for all readers. It contains themes that some may find difficult, triggering or objectionable, including: suicide planning, self-harm and homophobia (including slurs). If you feel there may be even a slight risk that you may be harmed in some way by this material, please stop reading right now.


el lunes 29 de abril 2013

“This was just a few days ago,” said Saúl. The needle pierced the thin skin of my ulna with an excruciating sting. “What happened?”

I’d expected this question, because tattoo artists — at least the ones I’d worked with in the past (including Saúl) — seemed eager to learn the reasons behind the permanent alterations they were hired to make to another human’s skin. To my skin, which bore the scars of self-hating violence.

I relaxed into the buzz of the tattoo gun, a soothing, almost meditative hum.

“Something good,” I responded, finally. “Something good.”

If you’ve ever lived a lie — especially one decades in the making — the day you start living in truth is worthy of commemoration. For me, that day was April 29, 2013 (el lunes 29 de abril 2013). Thanks to WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, this auspicious date became a tattoo on my left arm rather than a date engraved on my tombstone.


Options

The cement floor was gritty from blown-in dirt and dust. I kept the two doors open all day, for the cross breeze. Otherwise, the place — a back-house cottage in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles — was an oven. Two bottles of Xanax surrounded me on the bed, and I was reminded of the business at hand — decisions to be made, a grim ultimatum:

  • Option A: Come out as gay.
  • Option B: Eat a heap of Xanax tablets.

No, Option C was not an option — I’d been through the entire alphabet already, and back again. And saving this for tomorrow also would not do; I’d lived a lifetime in the closet, one tomorrow at a time.

I had also married and divorced a man.

Before that, I had tried praying and worshiping my way into heterosexuality, via more than one religion. I also bargained, a lot, with the most frequent self-promise being a commitment to come out as gay after I met someone special and entered into a serious relationship. Yet, no matter how hard I wished this into existence, it didn’t come true, and years flew by with my freedom hinged on the mere possibility of something as unpredictable as love.

Photo credit: Tamryn Spruill

I didn’t know how many Xanax tablets it would take to kill me, but I poured them out and counted the pills to discover a total of 73: the year of my birth, and the number under which, via this odd twist of fate, I would die.

(Taking one-half or one-fourth of the prescribed dosage of Xanax had left me with this stash.)


A few homophobes walk into a South Carolina barbershop

And, just like that — in a life in which nothing came easy or happened like in the movies — the phone rang. It was my dad, the person who had introduced me to the game of basketball and, to this day, remains the only other sports-obsessed person in the family.

“What’s up, Tam?” he asked. He had an odd tone to his voice, and he didn’t call often, so I knew something was up.

“Nothing much,” I said. “Typical workday.”

I quietly put the pills back into their bottles.

“I won’t keep you cos I know you’re busy,” he said. “But have you watched SportsCenter at all? Did you see that news about Ol’ Griner?”

He had nicknames for many of the WNBA players: “Ol’ Griner” for Brittney (with Old being a term of respect). “That Atlanta gal” for Angel McCoughtry. “That feisty one” for Diana Taurasi.

And, of course, I’d heard the news. I’d watched the SportsCenter segment online a thousand times and read every related article I could find about Griner coming out as gay. For me, this was bigger than anything she had done on the basketball court, but I hated her for it. I hated Brittney for doing on an international stage what I lacked the courage to do within my personal circle of family and friends. I hated her for reminding me of my inner torment.

I hated that her coming out was met by indifference, by some. And I hated that people embraced that indifference as evidence that the world had been healed of homophobia, making it unnecessary for people to come out anymore, at all — which simply was not true.

Most of all, though, I hated myself — for being gay, for failing to convince myself that I’m not gay, for being a coward.

“I read about it online,” I said. “You should read the nasty comments people are writing.”

It was the words of our fellow Americans in the comments sections of articles about Griner that led me from thinking about suicide, to making a plan, to being prepared to carry it out.

People who did not know Brittney Griner hated her for existing, which meant they’d hate me too. Without knowing a thing about the person that I am — the way I care for people and animals, my unending thirst for knowledge, the type of educator I am, my education and work accomplishments, the ways I bring art into the world, how I help vulnerable populations through volunteerism or money, my ability to find art or joy in the minor details of life and help others to find that art or joy too — people would view me as disgusting, a low life, worthless, all because I was born gay.

“It came on the TV when I was in the barbershop,” my dad said. “You should have heard those guys. Guys my age, and some older — supposed to be men — calling Ol’ Griner all kinds of names. I said, ‘She didn’t ask to be born. She didn’t choose to be born how she is. God made her who she is, so who are we to judge?’”

I was stunned, almost to the point of silence, as a jumble of thoughts clanged inside my skull: See? The world is homophobic, so you can’t come out ... and ... But Pop stood up for BG so maybe he’s not homophobic anymore?

“I feel sorry for her,” I said. But it wasn’t pity I felt for Brittney Griner, but sadness about what she has had to endure as a result of being born and living a life.

“Brittney? Don’t feel sorry for her,” Dad said, chuckling. “Ol’ Griner? She’ll be okay. She is brave.”

Again, stunned.

But I mustered some words and asked how the homophobes in the barbershop responded to his lamentations of their manhood and character, to which Pop replied: “What could they say for themselves? Nothing!”

“I told them, ‘You’re the elders. You’re supposed to be sharing wisdom, not tearing people down. If she was my daughter, I would love her even more. More.’”


Who was this man, and what had the aliens done with my father?

By the time I was born, my father was well on his way to a distinguished military career, and he raised my sisters and me to be his “little soldiers.” There was only one way to do things in our household, and it was our father’s way.

And the athletic boys at school called skinny boys faggots.

And when I told a female classmate during recess that I liked the pink bra she was wearing (visible through her white Izod), she screamed at me in front of all the other kids, What are you doing looking? Girls aren’t supposed to look!

And I had listened to people in various workplaces use the words so gay to insult things they found odd or different, to call gay women lesbos in a derogatory context. Granted, I did challenge this language, but I did so without revealing that I, too, was a so gay lesbo. With people assuming me to be heterosexual, it made it easy to determine which environments were safe for coming out and which were not. Sadly, most were not — even in so-called progressive major cities like New York.

In my childhood home, my beloved Sergeant Major father regularly spoke at the dinner table about his underlings, often referring to those who came up below average in their tasks as sweet, or having sugar in their pockets.

So I had been raised homophobic.

I, too, had used this language to describe gay people and transgender people behind the closed doors of home. I wouldn’t learn for a long time that this type of speech was hate speech, and that making fun of someone for their differences was unacceptable, no matter what those differences happened to be. It would take longer, still, for me to align the homophobia on which I’d been reared with the contempt I held for myself. And even longer to understand that I’d been trained to hate gay people and, therefore, to hate myself, and that the stepping stone to the path of healing began with self-acceptance and self-love.

If she was my daughter, I would love her even more, he had said.

I considered that my dad may have changed his ways, that he perhaps knew all along that I was gay and, by standing up for Griner to the barbershop bigots he had been standing up for me, too. I pondered the possibility that he told me about this situation as a way to invite me out of the closet.

But I couldn’t be sure, and I didn’t want to be wrong, so I swallowed a Xanax pill to quell my anxiety, and I told my father I needed to get back to work.


‘Don’t hide who you really are’

But, what if I was right?

What if my father had changed and was prepared to accept me as I am? What if the opposite of my fears came into fruition?

The afternoon was getting away from me and I had an important decision to make:

  • Option A: Come out as gay.
  • Option B: Eat a heap of Xanax tablets.

I sat down at my computer to write. But instead of cranking out the suicide note I’d been mentally writing throughout the previous week, I wrote this:

Coming-out letter, page 1.

And then I wrote two pages explaining the week — Griner coming out, the barbershop bigots, my father’s defense of Ol’ Griner in the barbershop, the pills, everything.

And then I attached the three-page PDF to an email addressed to friends and family, clicked SEND and started doing shots of whiskey while nervously awaiting responses — information on whether I’d have a lot less people in my life moving forward.

When the replies started coming in, they were mixed.

One of my sisters felt angry and betrayed, while the other expressed concern about how I might be treated by the family moving forward. A few friend (especially the gay ones) were enthusiastic and overjoyed, while others (mainly heterosexual women) were shocked, yet tried to be accepting. A religious friend took the opportunity to quote scripture about homosexuality being a sin, despite the fact that it had been much more likely he would receive a suicide note than a coming-out letter.

To the friends who continued to love me and embrace me as before: My gratitude knows no bounds.

My father replied with a phone call and there was joy in his voice. He said he was happy I was finally “freeing myself up” from this burden. “All I want is for you to be happy, and to be at peace.”

Naturally, I asked him if he had known all along I was gay, or at some point, and whether he had told me about the occurrence in the barbershop as a way to help me out the closet.

The answer was no.

He said he had no idea.


Visibility saves lives

My mother never responded to my letter.

I had to call her to discuss it, and it was clear from her wavering voice that she was disappointed, if not upset. To this day, my mother refers to anyone I’m dating as “your friend,” e.g. “Did you go to dinner with your friend?” But, mostly, my dating life is just not something my family is willing to discuss. It’s a topic everyone omits. I get to be a daughter and sister and an aunt and writer, but I don’t get to be a complete person with a love life — not around them.

Because I am often still assumed to be heterosexual, I continue to deal with homophobia on a regular basis as well. Sure, there are people who will be very up front with their hatred for LBGTQ people, whether in real life or online, but most people are covert about it. They say stuff only if they assume they are not in the presence of an LGBTQ individual (the way a racist may assume it’s okay to use the N word around other white people).

In these situations, especially with strangers or people I don’t know well or, in fact, may never see again, I usually don’t say anything. But my silence is not out of cowardice, but safety. In situations where a man has hit on me, often I lie and say I’m seeing someone — intentionally omitting that the someone would be a woman, which has led to problems in the past. Being threatened with rape by men with fragile egos — being on the receiving end of threats that he would “turn me straight” — inspires lots of creative solutions for navigating life.

So, this is why it matters that Brittney Griner came out as gay.

This is why it matters than Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe became the first gay couple to grace the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue.

Photo credit: Tamryn Spruill

This is why no one should treat a person’s coming out with indifference or apathy, and it is why Pride celebrations need to be refocused back towards the original message of the holiday. Yes, anyone who comes out should have pride in their strength and courage. But life is still not easy for many LGBTQ people in this society. The Pulse nightclub massacre happened a few years after publication of Griner’s memoir, In My Skin. Hate crimes have increased steadily against this population in recent years, and people commit suicide every day because they could no longer live with the torment of being in the closet or they came out and were rejected, abandoned or disowned.

Not only is the work not finished, it is just getting started, and it should not end until every person feels safe to live authentically. Furthermore, it must persist throughout the other 11 months of the year.


Further reading

Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe become first gay couple featured in ESPN’s ‘Body Issue’

WNBA dominates all sports leagues in celebrating Pride month