Was Swoopes born a lesbian?

main feature sherylsOK, I have held off writing about this for a week because I wanted to see how the daily sports press and the weekly magazines handled a tricky style question at the heart of this story.

This is not, of course, what most people would call a religion story. However, we live in a day and age in which it is almost impossible to write about sexuality — period — without raising religious, moral and cultural questions.

Thus, I want to raise this as a question for the Associated Press Stylebook committee: Is WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes a lesbian? Or is she bisexual?

It is perfectly legitimate to ask if anyone needs to answer this question. However, it is an interesting question in terms of science and in terms of moral theology and, sooner or later, it is going to be an interesting question at the U.S. Supreme Court. It is a question that has popped up in politics and in religion news.

If you have read the first-person ESPN essay that began this national coming-out story, you know that Swoopes said some very interesting things.

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.

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. I’m three years older than my ex-husband, and I matured a lot faster than he did. …

I’ve had plenty of gay friends I’ve hung out with, but that thought never entered my mind. At the same time, I’m also a firm believer that when you fall in love with somebody, you can’t control that. Whether it’s another woman. Whether it’s another man. Whatever.

So was Swoopes a lesbian when, as a pregnant married woman, she was used as a heterosexual poster child by a professional sports league that has always wrestled with its gay-friendly image?

If, in the near future, Swoopes broke off her relationship with her female former coach and fell in love with another man, would she still be a lesbian? Or would she be bisexual? Is there a moral, scientific, theological or legal difference between these two conditions? Does bisexuality exist? Or, as the Kinsey Report said, is human sexuality a spectrum of behaviors and, in many cases, not a matter of either-or?

These questions only matter if you believe that, in journalism as in theology, the meaning of the words we use actually matter.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    If someone who is Episcopal now–but once Catholic–bi-denominational or are they Episcopal? If they leave the Episcopal church and become a Catholic again, are they still Episcopalian? Should we insist on labelling them Catholic even though they don’t believe they were born Episcopalian but attend the Episcopalian church now? More importantly, should we deny protection from religious discrimination since it is a “choice” an not innate?

    If Swoopes described herself as a Lesbian, than she is a lesbian? When seh described herself as a married mom (I doubt she declared herself as straight), she was a married mom.

    The coming-out experience for gay men and lesbians is different; Swoopes just adds to the public perception that has been widely dictated by gay men. For anatomical reasons, young men experience sexual response differently, so a 12 year old boy is going to have a very different perception of his sexuality than a 12 year old girl. When the feeling of “difference” is combined with a sexual response, that may translate differently in men and women.

  • Scott

    Not sure what your point is Michael.

    She doesn’t believe that she was born gay. And she says that she didn’t always “know” she was gay which would imply she was “gay” before she knew it. Also she probably thought of herself as straight at some point.

  • Michael

    I’m not sure any of that really matters, Scott. If she says she’s a lesbian, why would we spend time trying to find another way to describe her. She describes a journey to identifying as a lesbian that is probably not unusual for women and esepcially non-white women–although not necessarily reflective of all gays and lesbians.

    Yes, it varies from the typical “script” that homosexuality is something you are born with. OTOH, many gays and lesbians have had some sort of sexual relationship with people of the opposite sex, even if they believe they were born gay. That doesn’t make them bisexual; that makes them human.

    I think my religion example is a good one on a few levels. First, it questions the assumption that “choice” or “innate” should matter when it comes to discrimination or intolerance. Secondly, it goes to question why we need to label people’s identities beyond what they currently describe themselves. Terry has discussed one being Baptist, abandoning the Baptist church, and now being Orthodox. Should we describe Terry as “Baptist” since that’s how he started? Or should we describe him as “Orthodox” because that’s his chosen faith system that could possibly change in the future. That he once dabbled in being a Baptist doesn’t make him a Baptist now.

  • http://followingfrodo.blogspot.com Gord

    I have always subscribed to the spectrum model of sexuality (long before I knew that Kinsey suggested it). So few things in human life are black/white, why should sexuality be? The challenge is to live in comfort with the gray.

    And in that case I think that labels become un-useful fairly quickly.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Are you familiar with theories of how color is perceived by various cultures? One popular model has it that cultures start out with two color words, meaning roughly “dark” and “bright”. Later on, they start seeing red as a separate color, and come up with a word for it. Then green or yellow, then blue, and so on.

    I think there’s something like this going on with perception of sexual behaviors. Lots of people think of bisexuality as just being another kind of gay, just like most English speakers think of azure as just a shade of blue.

  • Scott

    I suppose that when it comes to intolerance it doesn’t really matter what one is called or how one describes one’s self. I don’t think that we’re discussing intolerance. As to your second point, if a Mormon labels themself as a Christian I may take issue with that. Now of course it doesn’t really matter what I think in regards to whether he is a Christian or not, but when certain words are used to describe someone they carry with them some weight. I call someone a Mormon (or a baptist or reformed or whatever) because they believe certain things theologically speaking. If they change what they belive then certainly they have the right to call themselves whatever goes along with what they are, but if they call themselves by a name that is commonly used for people who believe A and they act as though they believe B then there is a problem.

    Sexuality is a somewhat different kettle of fish. While I agree that it is best viewed as a spectrum, when we address it using language there has to be some sort of understanding as to what a particuilar word means, particularly when that word is used in the media. So take the word lesbian. I would take that to mean a woman who is sexually attracted only to other women. That is how I would use it if I were writing about a lesbian and how I would interpret it if I were reading about one. If I had to attach a label to Swoopes then based on what she has said I would call her bisexual, since she seems to be sexually attracted to both sexes. Of course I don’t have to attach a label to her thank goodness.

    We label people for reasons both good and bad. When I write I like to try and use labels only to clarify and only when absolutely necessary for describing someone. So in my opinion labels aren’t “un-useful”, they are quite useful and a little over used. Words have meaning and when used in a public forum, it’s nice for those meaning to be standard.

  • Michael

    If I had to attach a label to Swoopes then based on what she has said I would call her bisexual, since she seems to be sexually attracted to both sexes.

    See, I don’t understand why. She’s not bisexual, she’s a lesbian. At least, that’s how she describes herself. There are bisexuals who self-identify as bisexual, so are we going to quiz them about the proportion of people they have slept with to make sure we are labelling them correctly.

    I agree that “words have meaning” and that we have to have standards. The problem, of course, is we don’t have “standards” when it comes to deciding who is gay, straight, bisexual, or a lesbian. When we are confused about what those standards are, why not just rely on what people say. Or use the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association would suggest, which would be however someone describes themselves, that’s their sexual orientation.

  • Michael

    Sorry about the blocking problem.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    I agree with Scott. I think Terry’s point was style and word use, nothing else. People who make their livings with words should be nit-picky about the words they choose. There is a difference between “lesbian” and “bisexual” and “straight.” The words designate the endpoints and the in-between of a Kinseyan continuum.

    On the other hand, Sheryl Swoopes doesn’t make her living with words. How far should journalists accommodate her perhaps inaccurate word choice in her self-description? Do we ask for clarification, “Ms. Swoopes, are you saying that you are now attracted exclusively to women, but before you were exclusively attracted to men?” She’d be justified in responding “MYOB.” With perhaps an expletive or two inserted.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    I think Michael and I are on more-or-less the same sheet of music; unfortunately our posts crossed.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Was I-am-a-gay-American McGreevy bisexual when he begot the “two lovely daughters”? Is he now?

  • webwalker

    As an unfortunate New-Jerseyan, I can assert that what McGreevy said about himself while the spotlight was on him matters not at all. He has a long record of wrapping himself in what ever flag is at hand and in this case it was a rainbow one. I think the more interesting story was what his wife was feeling as she stood next to him as he told the world that he was a “Gay American.”

    So in short, I don’t know or care what McGreevy was or is…merely that the words don’t map to the facts when the disgusting spin-machine-that-was-my-Gov. got involved.

  • Stephen A.

    Was Ellen’s female lover “lesbian” when she went back to men? What about when she goes back again?

    I’m kinda with the liberals here. Why do we care? This is all quite a big performance for some people for whom performances are what they DO, after all, while the rest of us little people go on with our lives, slightly amused at their confusion and supposed inner turmoils.

    From a reporting point of view, people are what they say what they are – except when they’re not. And then it’s our job to add those few explanatory paragraphs at the end of the story, “In 2001, she proclaimed she was no longer gay…”

  • tmatt

    Oh my. It is rare that one gets to disagree with Michael and Stephen A at the same time.

    The “let them define themselves” option is not how U.S. law covers civil rights issues. Well, it is, but only on one subject — religion. Otherwise, civil rights has been granted only for conditions or states in which the causation is known — gender, race, age, handicap, etc.

    This is why the Kinsey concept is so important and it is one reason that the U.S. Supreme Court has hesitated on the question of granting sexual orientation protected civil-rights status. What is homosexuality? What is bisexuality? What are the causes — plural? Can the condition change or evolve? To what degree is choice involved?

    These are all crucial questions that are at the heart of the legal, cultural and theological questions THAT THE PRESS claims to be covering.

    Sorry. The words have to have definitions.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    Terry, you are correct in terms of both law and precision, I think.

    But we were also addressing the issue of the use of words by an amateur. Probably not relevant to the topic of your post, but there it is.

    Getting back to Michael’s citation of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, how does their preference to allow self-identification to pass unquestioned interact with legal issues? If we allow self-identification in terms of religion, and also allow religion to be a protected class in law, why can/should we not do so in terms of homosexuality?

    And, just to throw a small bomb, what would that privileging of self-definition mean in terms of how Queer Theory’s ideological rubber meets the road? Especially if self-identification as non-straight functions as a civil rights marker?

    Could this be why a number of prominent African-Americans think that homosexuality is not a civil rights issue?

  • Michael

    Actually, under civil rights law, the “perception” of being disabled or “too feminie or masculine” does gain you protection under either the ADA or Title VII, respectively. So if Cheryl Swoopes is living with a woman, whether she is a lesbian or bisexual, she is “perceived” as a lesbian and therefore can be the object of discrimination using the same theory.

    In addition, if we protect discrimination based on sexual orientation, it makes no difference whether she is “bisexual” or a “lesbian” since either would be protected, just as men and women, whites and black are covered by Title VII.

    As Matt pointed out, cviil rights protecteion doesn’t insist on immutable traits in all cases (religion), and being a “protected class” clearly doesn’t require immutable tratis, even if it does not rise to the level of a classic “civil rights” protection. For equal protection purposes, whether it is a choice or innate is completely irrelevant.

  • Michael

    If we now going to not permit people to “self-identify” their sexual orienataion because we hope to illuminate an alleged legal or political point, I offer this scenario:

    A prominent California Republican Congressman announces he is marrying in the ultimate symbol of heterosexuality. Do we ask him, despite his alleged heterosexuality, whether he is in fact bisexual given the perception that he has had a long-term romantic relationship with a man? If he insists he is straight, do we still insist on calling him bisexual since all evidence–he lives with a man and they appear to be romantic–suggests that he has had same-sex relations and therefore cannot be “straight?”

  • Stephen A.

    Yes, this is a legal thicket.

    However, it seems pretty obvious to me that if someone says “I’m homosexual,” and that’s relevant to the story, then I as a reproter should take that at face value.

    In Michael’s interesting example, I suppose the hetero can be ‘faking being gay,’ but for what purpose?

    And yet, Anne Heche (the unnamed lover in my Ellen example) said recently that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions that she’s straight ‘just’ because she’s married to a man. The husband must love reading that in the papers. Likely not.

    I don’t know, but I suspect, that in hate crime cases, it doesn’t matter whether the victim self-identified him/herself as gay or not. It’s only the motives of the attacker that count. So I don’t see how that really plays into this.

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  • Jon

    Most Lesbians claim they chose their lifestyle, and were NOT born that way! It’s only the public organizations that have agreed to have a party-line about “being born this way”. It’s all part of a strategy to enlist Americans’ sense of fairness.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Jon, you must know different lesbians than I do.

    Actually, I know far more bisexual women than lesbians, but more gay than bisexual men. I’m not sure what’s going on there. It may be related to the fact that even straight women in our culture are more physically affectionate with each other than men are with other men.

    Anyway, in my experience, lesbians generally seem to believe that they’re that way by birth, not by choice. However, sometimes young bi women in the throes of their first or second same-sex crush will think that they’re lesbians.

  • Michael

    It’s all part of a strategy to enlist Americans’ sense of fairness.

    See, and here I thought it was a response to Conservatives who were pushing an agenda laden with bad science, bad research, and bad faith.

    Sexuality is complex. Unlike Terry, I don’t think it really matters whether you are born gay or choose to be gay when you are strung to a fence in Wyoming, forbidden to make medical decisions for your committed partner of 30 years, or denied a job because the boss’ church says God hates gay people.

    For Swoopes, it may have been a choice. Or maybe she believes it was a choice, but she was actually a lesbian the whole time. Or maybe she is protecting her child. Or maybe she is protecting her family. Or maybe it was really a choice.

    Unless we are prepared to ask the “are you really straight” questions of alleged heterosexuals, defining other people’s sexual orientation seems like a fairly rocky road,

  • tmatt


    Please do not try to read my mind. You are not good at it.

    Also, like it or not, the legal status of protected group status for the elderly, racial groups, the handicapped, etc., is not on uncertain grounds at the U.S. Supreme Court. And as for the civil rights status — chosen — of religion, that seems to be an issue you need to discuss with Thomas Jefferson, not me.

    Please do not attribute deadly motives to people’s beliefs in the future on this blog. OK?

  • Michael

    My sincere apology. Bad copyediting–not an attemp to mindread–was at fault.

    When I just reread it in context (this is why I need copyeditors), I realized how bad it sounded. Sincerely, it wasn’t my intention to imply you were indifferent to discrimination or crime. This is why I should reread before posting.

    Our disagreement is over whether it matters even on a political or legal level whether sexual orienation is innate or chosen. I did not mean to imply those disagreements shaped your view on how to treat gays and lesbians.

    Again, I seriously apologize.

  • tmatt


    Thanks for the note.

    Frankly, I do oppose the concept of thought crimes because I think they will come back to haunt progressives in the future, some how.

    Murder is murder. Abuse is abuse. Punish the guilty. If a gay man murders an ex-gay man, I don’t think it’s a hate crime. I think it’s murder and the guilty should be punished to the extent the law allows (although I oppose the death penalty).

    Where we disagree is that I don’t think you can have law based on a self-definition model for a condition or state that becomes the hook for special protection status. The lawyers will eat that alive.

    I believe that the science, at this point, points toward this fact: sexual orientation is a mystery and an ever-changing one on top of that. The court is going to have to rule on that someday. The justices keep ducking that issue.

    However, at GetReligion, the key is whether MSM journalists can find a way to cover your side of the debate and mine accurately. I hope you do see that as the major thrust of this blog.

    Thanks again….. tmatt

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    So does the NLGJA “standard” mean that they, unlike so many “activists”, repudiate calls to “out” people who are alleged to be lying about their “real” orientation? (As well as the currently Politically Correct insistence that every boy and every gel that’s born into this world alive is either a little homo or a little hetero?) Or does it mean that someone is “gay” or “bi” because he says so, but not “straight” because he says so?

  • http://www.biresource.org Sheeri

    Actually, it does make a difference. You never hear about famous folks coming out as bisexual. It’s possible McGreevey was bisexual — and in that case, wouldn’t it left his wife being betrayed ONLY by his cheating, instead of by his sexuality?

    There are many many bisexuals out there who don’t realize the word bisexual applies to them, because the media portrays bisexuals as sluts, mentally unbalanced people, etc. So it does matter, for every bisexual out there who craves a role model.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Sheeri, do the media portray bisexuals (and identify them as such) at all? I can’t think of any cases offhand.

    It’s as if the entire concept is alien to them, as if the Kinsey scale were a simple binary.

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