June is a celebration.
A time to celebrate identity, inclusion, and liberation. And we just watched one of the most exciting NBA Finals in history. There’s a happiness in the air. Yet, it’s heavy, too.
Because across the world, during Pride, the week of Juneteenth, WNBA icon Brittney Griner is being unjustly held in Russia.
Why? Authorities allege she was caught with vape cartridges that contained hashish oil. She was taken into custody Feb. 17, a week before the invasion of Ukraine. She’s yet to have a trial. Her stay was recently extended until at least July 2.
It wasn’t until a little over a month ago that the American government finally, officially classified her arrest as wrongful detainment.
For a lot of Black women in America, especially queer, Black women, the slow reaction to bring Griner home has been a hurtful reminder of the ways in which they are erased.
In 2020, almost 100,000 Black women and girls were missing, accounting for about a third of the nearly 270,000 missing women and girls reported. How many did you hear about? Racism and sexism already make it so Black women are discriminated against at higher rates.
Griner’s detention in Russia is putting that disparity on display.
“I am worried that if something were to happen to me, the US wouldn’t care,” says Amarachi Umez-Eronini, a native Nigerian and Watertown’s director of statistical programming and biostatistics.
“I think she is a masculine-presenting woman of color, and her life, unfortunately, may not be seen as valuable as other Americans. This is speculation of course. But I face this concern when I travel to Nigeria.”
Griner, a Black, queer, woman, seven-time All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, should never have had to play in Russia in the first place. But American inequities led the Phoenix Mercury center to supplement her income by playing with Russian team Ekaterinburg.
The average NBA player makes about $5.4 million. For the WNBA, that number is just $120,600. This stark disparity is why so many women play overseas.
Kathy Delaney-Smith has been at the forefront of fighting for women’s equity in sports since Title IX was first signed into law. Back then, the legendary Harvard women’s basketball coach filed lawsuits for practice time and uniforms and never quit standing up for women.
“I have witnessed firsthand how ugly the world is and how ugly it can be to players like Brittney, the staring, the rumors, the discrimination,” Delaney-Smith says. “I am glad people are going public with it and starting to use their voices and the NBA and WNBA are using their power. We should be doing more.”
The Boston Celtics wore “We Are BG” shirts at practice prior to Game 2 and made her freedom part of the press conference. Grant Williams coordinated with the WNBA players association to make it happen and support wearebg.org and the petition to bring her home.
After 40 seasons and an Ivy League record of 630 victories and 11 conference championships, Delaney-Smith retired this year. But she’s not done fighting injustice.
Griner’s detention, she says, is heartbreaking.
“This has been a huge sadness on many levels,” Delaney-Smith says. “We don’t live in an equitable world. I am hoping to start a foundation. People don’t even know what we are entitled to in Title IX. And then you have to have the confidence and courage to speak up because there are consequences to speaking up, but it’s time. Maybe that’s why I am retired, so I can do this work.”
Monday, State Department officials met with members of Griner’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, to discuss efforts to secure her release.
For Dréa Hudson, it’s the kind of action she needs to see.
“What is it going to take to get her out of there?” asks Hudson, a Boston branding and marketing expert. “We need solutions. It makes you think about what could happen to you. She is a figure to the WNBA, a figure in the queer community, a figure in the Black community. She is being held unfairly. There is a Russian-Ukrainian war. Is this a political ploy? Why can’t they get her out?”
It’s complicated and scary. With the war, the nuances of identity, and the complications of negotiating, we do not know how long this could take or how much the United States is willing to sacrifice.
Another American citizen, Paul Whelan, is a former Marine. He was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage in June 2020 and sentenced to 16 years. With both he and Griner being held unfairly, it seems their cases could be tied together.
Freedom never comes easy.
Umez-Eronini says liberation is a higher hurdle for queer women of color.
“We have to constantly work over and beyond in all areas of life to be heard and seen,” she says. “I think the largest change will require more from America than it’s willing to give.”
When we say, “We are BG, we are Brittney Griner,” it’s about recognizing the injustice of her being held captive in Russia and the ways women, Black women, and specifically Black queer women face oppression in the states, too.
Free Brittney. Free us all.