Lesbian Identity in Sports and Athletics

Smith College Project

Mariah Burton Nelson

In addition to the fear of losing endorsements, professional athletes also faced the possibility of discrimination and even the loss of their career. Mariah Burton Nelson experienced this when a reporter outed her to her coach, and she was subsequently fired from the Women’s Pro Basketball League, the first women’s professional basketball league in the United States.

In 1979, Nelson attended a Gay Pride parade in San Francisco when she ran into a reporter who had interviewed her just a week before. Although Nelson was proudly out in her personal life, she was reluctant to come out on a professional level, as her coach of the San Francisco Pioneers had been homophobic and anti-feminist in the past, and professional women’s sports were more generally unaccepting of lesbians and feminists. However, shortly after the Pride event, Nelson’s coach told her that he was firing her, telling her that she wasn’t tall enough. She then informed him that she was the tallest person on the team, and he responded by telling her that she wasn’t quick enough. After being fired, she tried out for the California Dreams, a Los Angeles-based team, where she made the team but was almost immediately traded to the Dallas Diamonds. Before even moving to Dallas, the team fired her for being too aggressive off the court, which brought Nelson’s career as a professional athlete to an end.

Mariah Burton Nelson, left, playing basketball in the 1970s. Nelson was fired from the Women’s Pro Basketball League after being outed as gay by a reporter.

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