Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lessons Sheryl Swoopes Is Teaching Us

Sheryl Swoopes has announced that she is engaged to a man. This news might be confusing to some people who remember that Sheryl revealed that she was a lesbian in 2005 in an interview with LZ Granderson of ESPN. Prior to this public announcement, she had been married to a man and had a son with him before they were divorced.

I remember that, in 2005, Sheryl stated that she believed that her relationship with a woman was a choice and that she did not believe that she was born a lesbian. This created some consternation in some parts of the LGBT world where it is often accepted orthodoxy that we were all “born that way” as Lady Gaga sings it to us. Some folks believe the claim that we are born gay is a good argument for why we should not be discriminated against: After all, if we are born that way, how can discrimination based on an innate characteristic we have no control over be fair?

On the other hand, many anti-LGBT rights activists insist that being LGBT is a choice, not unlike choosing to drink too much alcohol or using drugs or stealing merchandise from a store, and is more akin to an additive unhealthy behavior than a sexual orientation. If you believe sexual orientation is nothing more than a behavioral choice, it is easier to think that, with a little counseling, prayer, change of scenery or, in the old days, a little electro-shock “therapy” you can change your sexual orientation if you reallllllly want to. Of course, it’s a one-way street; only changes from homo to hetero are celebrated. This argument is often based on an assumption that being heterosexual is the default orientation, being lesbian, gay or bi is an aberrant behavior. Also, I’d like to ask any heterosexual folk about there: When did you choose to be straight?

I believe that the “born that way” argument is not a strong position from which to fight for equality. I have no idea if LGBT people are born that way or choose who they are or some combination of factors. No matter how we get to where we are, we have a right to live our lives according to our own sense of what is true for us and we have so many different truths.

I was thrilled when Sheryl Swoopes came out as a lesbian in 2005. I was not one of the LGBT community who was upset by her not adhering to the LGBT orthodoxy that we are all born “that way.” I was thrilled, not because it was another woman coming over to our team, so to speak. I was thrilled because Sheryl Swoopes, as an African-American woman and as an accomplished athlete, is such a great role model for young people. Countering stereotypes and invisibility is an important part of what LGBT athletes and coaches who choose to be public about who they are help us to do. That is what I was happy about in 2005.

I think sexual orientation is way too complex to be characterized in simple either/or ways: We are born the way we are or our sexual orientation is a choice. It also leaves out a huge number of whose sexual orientation does not depend on the gender of the person they are attracted to. Bisexual people are open to relationships with people of any gender. Maybe Sheryl is bi. I don’t know. I have a feeling she, like many people, might be uncomfortable with all of the labels.

I do know that what I fight for as an LGBT rights advocate, in or out of sport, is that every one of us should be free to live our own truth and be respected for whatever that is. Some of us identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual. Some of us are more comfortable with other ways of describing ourselves: same-gender loving, two-spirit, queer and many other equally valid descriptions of our personal truth. Others identify as straight or heterosexual, that’s fine too.

The point for me is that, no matter what our personal truth, we must learn to respect the personal truth of others. Whether we identify as gay, straight, queer, lesbian, bisexual or something else, we should all have the right to legal and social recognition and protection, both individually and for our relationships, both in and out of sport.

Sheryl Swoopes, in choosing to be public about her relationships with men and women, reminds us all that sexual orientation is not simply about being “born that way” or making “a lifestyle choice.” I hope that her personal journey has made her an advocate for equality for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That is what I hope for the LGBT community. For Sheryl, hope she is happy and I wish her well.

A hat tip to Cyd Zeigler and for bringing this to my attention.


Anonymous said...

Finally Pat, I disagree with you on something. Yes I think that we should respect everybody's own self identification etc. AND I think that Swoopes, (being a public figure) does have some responsibility here above her own self. It is part of the privilege that comes with being a celebrity. Personally, I never once thought that she was gay. But I don't know her.. just never got the vibe from her. Instead I got the visiting straight woman sick of men vibe from her. Her work for the LGBT community is to be applauded. AND I think that her not addressing the topic of going back to straight life AND then jumping right back onto the privileged hetero band wagon of marriage just isn't going to sit well with lots of folks and does add to the trivializing of women and womens' sexuality.

Pat Griffin said...

I appreciate your point of view, Anon, but I still come down on the side of honesty and living your truth no matter if you are a public fiqure or that your truth is a little confusing to many people. Peace.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely live your truth, agreed. Just don't forget about the LGBT community that took you in, embraced you and supported you while you were here. That's all I'm saying. Swoopes decides her sexual orientation. AND there is a responsibility with being celebrity. Don't forget about the community that supported you while you go back to the community that blew you off when you came out.

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cost per head said...

It is a great lesson about choosing and Congratulations to her for marriage