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Hoops and kisses: the New York Liberty has a lesbian coach and a lesbian star player--but is the team shunning its lesbian fans? (Sports).

Lesbian fans of the WNBA's New York Liberty want a little respect. After all, they make up nearly 40% of the people at Madison Square Garden during the team's home games, according to some estimates.

So why shouldn't they demand to see some lesbian faces on the Jumbo-Tron screen every once in a while? Maybe some team members could attend a community event for lesbian fans? And how about having the Liberty recognize New York City's annual gay pride celebration? Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, it is. In the Liberty's six-year history, fans say, management has not even once tipped its hat to lesbians, the team's mainstay fan group.

"It's a double standard," says Ady Ben-Israel, a lesbian fan of the team. "They want our money and support, so why can't they acknowledge the lesbian fans filling the stands?"

As this year's season drew to a close, Ben-Israel and a group of other fans who work on New York's annual Dyke March had finally had enough. Calling themselves Lesbians for Liberty, the group staged a kiss-in--standing up and kissing each other during every time-out at the Liberty's August 2 matchup with the Miami Sol.

Then on August 11, Fan Appreciation Day, they passed out hundreds of "Thank you, lesbians" cards, praising gay gals for "supporting women's basketball since its beginnings," "showing us there are many ways to be a woman," and "for your courage and strength even through adversity."

Liberty management issued a press release after the kiss-in: "The New York Liberty enjoys a relationship with our fan base that is the envy of the WNBA," the statement read. "Reflecting the diversity of New York, our games bring together all facets of the city, including the gay and lesbian community." But by press time management has failed to respond to the lesbian fan group's request for a meeting. (The Liberty also failed to respond to a request for comment from The Advocate.)

Still, there's little question that Lesbians for Liberty are getting the attention the group hoped for. The kissers have been featured on local TV news, in The New York Times, and on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, among other media outlets. In turn, the women's smooches added spark to the already fiery issue of homophobia in sports. "Forget about openly gay athletes," they seemed to be saying. "Is America even ready for openly gay fans?"

"All we want is a little recognition, comparable to what other groups of fans get," says Cathy Renna, news media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and a Liberty season-ticket holder. "If lesbians aren't part of the gestalt of the WNBA, I don' t know who is."

Of course, homophobia plagues more than just the WNBA. "We've noticed a trend at GLAAD that the issues of gays and sports are regularly popping up all over the country," Renna says.

In fact, the Liberty isn't even the only WNBA team attracting attention for what fans say is an antigay attitude. Orlando Miracle fans staged their own protest in August upon learning that Pat Williams, senior vice president of Miracle owner RDV Sports, sent a letter in an envelope imprinted with the company's return address in opposition to the city's proposed antidiscrimination ordinance.

But there are a couple of key reasons that the Liberty finds itself at the center of this storm. First, the team has resisted acknowledging its lesbian fan base while other WNBA teams, such as the Miami Sol, Los Angeles Sparks, Sacramento Monarchs, and Seattle Storm, have openly marketed to lesbians. (Even major league baseball teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs, and the Atlanta Braves have held "gay days" for fans). And second, and perhaps more curious, the Liberty has ignored lesbians while two of the top women with the team--general manager Carol Blazejowski and star player Sue Wicks--are openly gay.

Blazejowski, who still holds the Madison Square Garden collegiate scoring record, men's or women's, for one game, with 52 points--set in the late 1970s for what is now Montclair State University in New Jersey--came out in the 1999 Liberty media guide. She simply mentioned that her family includes her partner, Joyce, and two children.

Then in May the team's 6-foot-3 forward, Sue Wicks, came out of the closet. Asked "Are you a lesbian?" during an interview with Time Out New York, she answered "I am" without hesitation.

Blazejowski and Wicks both have shied away from further discussions of their sexual orientation or personal lives, but the simple fact that they are out at all may be keeping the team's management from reaching out to lesbian fans, says Helen Carroll, coordinator for the Homophobia in Sports Project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. A former basketball coach and an athletic director herself (at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., from 1988 to 2000), Carroll says the team likely is trying to avoid the appearance of "going overboard" on the gay issue.

"And perhaps they want to show New York that they're being nondiscriminating by making Family Night and Father's Day for all the fans, without singling out gay fans," Carroll says. "But it just doesn't play out that way."

Carroll says she fully supports the kiss-in, which she calls a "last-ditch measure that already has raised awareness around the country of the gay-lesbian fan base." And she hopes others will be enlightened by the NCAA's move earlier this year to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy and by the Women's Sport Foundation's plan to launch an antihomophobia campaign later this year.

"Homophobia has been separating the power of strong women for years and years," she says. "We need to establish an atmosphere that takes away that fear."

Lesbians for Liberty spokeswoman Ady Ben-Israel is hopeful too. Even though the kiss-in has so far failed to get her group a face-to-face meeting with Liberty officials, she says that at the very least, it started the fans talking.

"We've gotten some great E-mails, like, `I'm a Latino heterosexual male, and what you're doing is fabulous,'" she says. On the other hand, she says a woman who sat behind her during one game said, "I don't want to explain to my daughter what a lesbian is."

Some of the most negative response has come from other lesbians, who, according to Ben-Israel, fear that drawing attention to the Liberty's lesbian fan base will hurt the team and the WNBA. "We've had E-mails calling us `whining,' `infantile,' and `ugly,'" she says.

But the Lesbians for Liberty are going to continue their campaign for recognition, and they say they won't stop until the team responds--for instance, by asking Melissa Etheridge to sing the national anthem before a game.

"They couldn't live without us," Ben-Israel says of the Liberty, "so they shouldn't take us for granted."



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Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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