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What Sheryl Swoopes' Engagement Means: Understanding the Role of Identity and Combo Guards

The idea that at any given time, a person's sexual orientation is a function of their current romantic relationship erases bisexuality completely, misunderstands how identity works, and simply misses the point.
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This year, Sheryl Swoopes, the three-time WNBA MVP and the first player to be signed with the league when it was created, announced her engagement to a man. This announcement comes six years after she received a lot of media attention after coming out when she announced her relationship with then-partner Alisa Scott.

Since her announcement, some people have questioned her sexual orientation. The news of her engagement has prompted some negative coverage and reactions that accuse her of, essentially, not being gay anymore. One headline calls Swoopes "NSGAA," or "not so gay after all," suggesting that because Swoopes isn't currently in a same-sex relationship, she was never "really" a lesbian or she is "no longer" a lesbian. The problem is that this approach relies solely on her current relationship status to define her identity.

It's a popular way to conceptualize sexual orientation, but an entirely incorrect and harmful one. The idea that at any given time, a person's sexual orientation is a function of their current romantic relationship erases bisexuality completely, misunderstands how identity works, and simply misses the point. This conflation of a person's current romantic relationship with their identity is a big part of why the "B" in LGBT has remained virtually invisible in the sports world and in the broader culture. Even as Sheryl may choose to not use a label of any kind, it is time to know that bisexual people -- yes, even in sports -- are a reality and valued members of our communities.

Interestingly, as I've found myself defending Swoopes in the wake of her announcement, I've noticed that the argument is shockingly similar to another point of controversy in professional basketball. In order to understand Swoopes' identity in a way that can envision this type of fluidity, you have to understand the role and value of a combo guard.

A combo guard is a guard who combines skills associated with both a point guard (excellent ball-handling and an ability to make plays and set up teammates to score) and a shooting guard (primary scorer on the floor). A combo guard is often listed as a point guard, but does not play as a pure or typical point guard.

For a long time, there was a stigma attached to the position in the NBA. Combo guards were generally regarded as guys who played point because they were too short to play shooting guard. The idea was that being a combo guard is somehow a failure to be either an effective point guard or an effective shooting guard. It wasn't until the success of Dwayne Wade forced people to see that there is value to a guard with versatility that the NBA came around on the combo guards.

The WNBA, on the other hand, was quicker to embrace the concept, which may have been due to the leadership of Swoopes and others in the league, who perhaps understood better than many people who being capable of succeeding in two positions should be understood as its own unique role instead of simply being derided as not being fully something else.

To be sure, not every person who has a significant same-sex relationship and a significant different-sex relationship identifies as bisexual. For example, some people who identify as straight previously had same-sex relationships that simply do not affect the way they identify. And many gay and lesbian people came out only after years of different-sex relationships, including marriage. Likewise, not every guard who exhibits a combination of skills is a combo guard.

Consider the WNBA's Sue Bird, the All-Star who plays more like a point guard who can shoot better than a combo guard, and Swoopes herself who, while clearly a shooting guard, is a highly skilled play-maker who can control the pace of the game. Or the NBA's Isiah Thomas, who holds the Detroit Pistons' all-time record for scoring, but was probably the best true point guard in the league in an era boasting Magic Johnson and John Stockton.

But it's a mistake to think that we can take a snapshot of a person's relationship at a given moment and assume we can tell their identity, just like it's a mistake to think we can take a snapshot of a person's role on a court at a given moment and determine their position. We don't ask for that type of rigidity in basketball, and we cannot ask for it in identity.

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