Sheryl Swoopes: Becoming Out
Sheryl Swoopes is arguably the finest female basketball player ever. No, check that, actually there is no argument, as a five-time all-star, three-time MVP in the Woman's National Basketball Association (WNBA), and three-time gold medal Olympian, she is the best. So when she came out of the closet recently, there was excitement in the gay and lesbian community about a high profile public figure declaring herself a lesbian.
Her story was featured in a recent ESPN magazine article where she said about her sexuality: "I didn't always know I was gay. I honestly didn't. Do I think I was born this way? No. And that's probably confusing to some, because I know a lot of people believe that you are."
The notion that people attracted to the same sex might not be wired that way from birth is more than confusing to some gay activists. It makes them indignant. When psychologist Bill Maier of Focus on the Family suggested the exact same viewpoint to the Washington Times several months ago, Ron Schlittler officer with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays said in reply that such views advance "baseless fears and misguided claims about [homosexuals]."
No word from PFLAG on the Swoopes coming out.
The Swoopes story reminds me of one of the first columns I wrote about sexual orientation. Writing in 2003, I noted that the character Dr. Kerry Weaver on the television drama, ER, had gone from straight to gay in about one season. I wondered why change from straight to gay was accepted by gay activist groups who say sexual orientation cannot change. Had her character gone from gay to straight, the show might have been denounced as portraying an unscientific view of sexual orientation. After all, major mental health groups all say sexual orientation is unchangeable. I was attacked for using a fictional character to illustrate a change in sexual orientation that, critics say, cannot happen in real life.
Now comes Ms. Swoopes saying that she does not believe she was born gay. Moreover, she said in the ESPN interview: "I've been married, and I have an 8-year-old son. Being with a man was what I wanted. When I got divorced in 1999, it wasn't because I'm gay."
So she became gay?
Apparently so. As one who studies how people resolve sexual identity conflicts, her story is fascinating. She told the Houston Chronicle that she and her husband divorced for the same reasons that many people do: "Probably for about the last year, year and a half of my marriage we were just going in different directions. It got to a point to where I knew it was over with and really didn't want to do anything else to make it work." As she told ESPN, her divorce wasn't due to a conflict over being gay.
In fact, she told ESPN that before she fell in love with her partner, Alisa Scott, she had not entertained any attractions to women. Before her current relationship, Ms. Swoopes said, "The thought of being intimate with her or any other woman never entered my mind. I've had plenty of gay friends I've hung out with, but that thought never entered my mind."
I suspect there will be those who say she was in denial about her "true" sexuality but they would need to explain away most everything Ms. Swoopes said about herself. As far as bisexuality goes, Ms. Swoopes was asked directly by Cyd Ziegler of Outsports.com if her marriage really means she is bisexual. Ms. Swoopes answer: “Nope, I'm not bisexual.” She told Outsports.com that she began thinking of herself as gay after commencing her relationship with Scott and several years without feelings for men.
Ms. Swoopes has a different way of explaining her change. Her belief now is her friendship with Ms. Scott after her divorce was catalytic for the emergence of sexual feelings. About the transformation, Ms. Swoopes said to the Chronicle, "Maybe it was just the fact that I needed that comfort. Or maybe she was there for me to talk to and I just got very comfortable being around her. Talking to her, seeing her spirit ... things evolved from there…"
Gay political groups may be ambivalent or worse about Ms. Swoopes story. Like PFLAG’s Mr. Schlittler, they often are quite hostile to those who describe changes in sexual identity. Since polls show support for gay political objectives is higher among people who believe same sex attraction is inborn, she may feel some pressure to change her story or her view of it.
Ms. Swoopes says she now feels free to be able to tell her story. Having gone from straight to gay, she might well understand the story of someone who has gone from gay to straight. Perhaps in an ironic twist, her coming out story might add credibility to an aspect of human change many experts and activists say cannot happen.