I knew that star WNBA player Layshia Clarendon is widely known as an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ and black communities. Then I came across an article she wrote in 2015 for The Players’ Tribune, “Keeping the Faith.”* Written in response to NFL player Arian Foster saying in an ESPN The Magazine interview that he doesn’t believe in God, Clarendon’s article began simply, with the following two sentences: “Arian Foster doesn’t believe in God. I do.”
At a time when proudly announcing you’re a Christian can automatically pigeonhole you in a box you may not want, and then to say you’re also LGBTQ can make you a target for everything from shaming and shunning to outright death threats, especially if you’re a professional athlete. One of the most troubling divides in the U.S. today is between those proclaiming a far-right evangelical version of Christianity and the LGBTQ community. Many gay people are devout Christians but the view of rabid evangelicals decrees that like it or not, gay people are sinners who are “doomed to hell.”
From her written essays and our conversation, I discovered a strong young woman I admire greatly, one who is unafraid to advocate for her beliefs but who is also filled with love, empathy, understanding and compassion. Clarendon is a bridge across this seemingly irreparable Christian/LGBTQ divide because she speaks her truth from a place of love instead of anger and fear. Fortunately, she has hasn’t bought into Old Testament religious rhetoric of punishment, hell’s fire and damnation, instead accepting and living the inclusive spiritual message of unconditional love brought by God’s son, Jesus Christ, the one from whom Christianity took its name.
At age 26, Clarendon knows exactly who she is and what she came to do in our shared world. In typical fashion for this straight-shooting starting point guard for the Atlanta Dream, she’s doing it by speaking out, by being an activist for social change. This self-described “rebel with a cause” has said: “I identify as black, gay, female, non-cisgender and Christian. I am an outsider even on the inside of every community to which I belong. My very existence challenges every racial, sexual, gender and religious barrier.”
Although Clarendon isn’t transgender, her deep faith and ability to walk in the proverbial shoes of others also makes her a powerful advocate for the transgender community, challenging the LGB portion of the community to remember and acknowledge the T portion. Describing herself as a gender-nonconforming queer person, she’s experienced what happens to those who don’t fit within social norms. For example, she’s been called “sir,” had TSA call a male officer to do a security pat-down on her and had women walk out of women’s restrooms thinking they’ve accidently walked into the wrong one. She says “That’s what small boobs, a short haircut, boyish jeans, and androgynous boots will get you.”
While she finds these incidents of misidentification upsetting, what really gets to her is the ongoing reminder that our society is ruled by a binary mindset concerning gender and sexual identity that has absolutely no room for those who don’t fit entirely into one mold or the other. The same holds true when it comes to the rigidly-defined social roles and expectations for men and women. Vowing to share her own story because too many survivors suffer in silence, Clarendon has joined with Athletes United, a recently formed initiative enabling athletes to share their personal stories of sexual assault and offer support for women and men who are also lucky survivors.
Saying that as a sexual assault survivor “I walked alone in my shame for years,” Clarendon shared how surprised she was to realize how the culture around sexual assault victims and survivors had influenced her own perception of what had happened to her. “The truth is: none of us are immune to the social misconceptions around sexual assault. There is no immunity, only awareness. Because I didn’t want to face this, I walked alone. Isolation is a place where shame thrives,” she wrote in an essay for Mic. Talking about the blame that society places on victims, she says “I’ve learned that it’s important to speak shame aloud because its survival depends solely on secrecy, silence and judgment.”
While Clarendon has her life together at a relatively young age, it didn’t come about without a lot of struggle and self-reflection, trying to figure out how she fit into her varied communities. Born into a Southern California bi-racial family that is also athletic, her parents thought being gay was a moral sin. When her older sister Jasmine came out, Clarendon says it upset the whole family. Her dad, a high school basketball referee quit going to Jasmine’s basketball games at Pepperdine University while Layshia was in middle school. That experience wasn’t lost on Layshia who already knew she was gay. As a result she struggled through years of trying to reconcile her strong Christian beliefs with her sexual orientation.
While a standout player at UC Berkley, Clarendon attended The Way, a non-denominational, predominately black church where the focus included social justice issues in addition to lessons on faith. Finally she was able to merge what had originally appeared as differences and inconsistencies into a larger vision for her life. She now uses her voice in the service of those without one, speaking out not to attack and demean but to support and inspire a vision of diversity and inclusion in others. Her recognition of her Christian belief is the core of who she is and everything she does in life. In her own words from her Esquire essay, she asks each of us to become involved as well.
Not everyone is an activist. Not everyone has money to donate. But we can listen. We can all spend time around people who are different from us in order to better understand their issues. Listen to those voices in your own spaces. Understand ally as a verb, not just a noun. Have the courage to interrupt transphobic language. Advocate for gender-neutral restrooms anywhere you can. Respect people’s gender pronouns. Amplify trans voices. If we all spent a little more time together, it would change the world.
And to that, I personally say Amen!
* Keeping the Faith” by Layshia Clarendon is reprinted with permission from The Players’ Tribune: www.theplayerstribune.com
By Connie Wardman
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