In the sports world, 2020 was the year of the bubble. But the bubble didn’t just protect athletes from the virus raging beyond its confines. For many WNBA players—nearly 70% of whom are Black—it was a crucible moment. In the midst of a pandemic and protests against police violence, the players’ union insisted that the WNBA dedicate the 2020 season to social justice, amplifying the voices of athletes who wanted to use their platforms to speak out in the bubble and on the court.
But the experience of the bubble, coupled with the WNBA’s ongoing advocacy work, was emotionally draining for some players—especially for guard Layshia Clarendon, who was also grappling with a deeply personal matter. “Struggling with gender dysphoria is really difficult, and it was weighing on my mental health a lot, on top of being in a bubble,” says the nine-year WNBA veteran, who is the first openly trans and nonbinary player in the league. “I was wrestling with whether I wanted to have surgery or not.”
While in the bubble, Clarendon—who uses he, she, and they pronouns interchangeably—decided to move forward with top surgery in January. But as a professional athlete in a women’s league, Clarendon wasn’t sure how their peers and WNBA leadership would respond, or what the impact might be on their career.
“We’re the most progressive league, but we’ve had homophobia in our league,” Clarendon says. “We’re still humans and people. We still breathe the air, even though we’re these amazing, progressive Black women [who] are on the forefront. I know our shit still stinks, so I was definitely afraid of some of that transphobia coming out because it’s in all of us.”
The league was ultimately supportive of her decision—both publicly and behind closed doors—but Clarendon says that was only because she advocated for herself. “It took a lot of emotional labor,” she says. “I had some friends who were like, ‘This isn’t your burden to carry.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it is because I want to keep my job. Who else is going to do it?'” Clarendon brought her friend, transgender athlete Chris Mosier, into initial discussions with Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBA’s Players Association, who eventually helped broker a conversation with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
“Thankfully, Terri is amazing,” Clarendon says. “She didn’t always have the right terms or the words. She would stop and speak very slowly and intentionally and be like, ‘Okay, let me understand this,’ and ‘What’s the difference between this and that?’ And then she became my biggest advocate and ally.”
As Clarendon was navigating those conversations, one of the things they felt strongly about was securing workplace protections through some kind of new policy. Sports leagues are, after all, inherently exclusionary institutions, typically split along binary gender lines. How could Clarendon ensure they would have a place in the league as someone who didn’t fit neatly into that binary? “What if I just wanted to use he [and him pronouns]?” Clarendon says. “Is the WNBA ready for that?” But Jackson pointed out that introducing policies could actually have the opposite effect, much like testosterone-based testing for female athletes. “[We’re] seeing them pop up in some other sports leagues, but they end up being rigid parameters,” Clarendon says.
If Clarendon is stretching the boundaries of what it means to be an athlete in a women’s sports league, the same could be said of how he’s shaping the WNBA’s activism. (It’s impossible to deny his impact on the court, too: After Clarendon was unexpectedly cut from the New York Liberty in May, he was signed to the Minnesota Lynx almost immediately and helped secure the team’s first victory of the season.) In 2020, Clarendon took the lead on pulling together the WNBA’s new Social Justice Council, handpicking its members and choosing three pillars to focus the group’s efforts: health and public safety, LGBTQ awareness, and policy advocacy.
The WNBA has always been a hotbed of activism, in no small part because so many of its athletes are queer or women of color or both. But the WNBA’s reputation as an outspoken, progressive league has crystallized over the last year, between athletes sitting out the 2020 season to devote their time to advocacy work and the WNBA’s vociferous criticism of former Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler (who players also helped oust from her Senate seat in Georgia)—and the broader public is finally taking notice.
“I think it’s important we’re leading and getting the credit for leading because so often, we have been forgotten or marginalized in doing this work,” Clarendon says. “Us continuing to be at the forefront—that is social justice.”
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