“Being Black and Non-Binary Is My Superpower”: Layshia Clarendon on Race, Gender, Social Justice and the WNBA

Layshia Clarendon is a 7 year WNBA veteran, and currently one of the leaders of the young New York Liberty. They are also proudly queer and non-binary, using they/them, he/him, or she/her pronouns. Sports Are From Venus writer Dani Bar-Lavi had the opportunity to chat with Layshia about what it’s like to be the most visible non-binary athlete in sports, and about the outstanding advocacy and activism work he’s done as a member of the WNBA’s Social Justice Council, and as the First Vice President of the WNBPA.

Dani: Thanks again for joining me, Layshia. Just to go right into it, I know you use they, he, or she pronouns; and that you consider yourself, to quote an article from a few years ago: “Black, gay, female, non-cisgender, and Christian.” I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your gender?

Layshia Clarendon: Uh, yeah. (Laughs.) It’s really interesting because that quote…at the time, I knew that I was not cisgender, but I didn’t know that, like, we didn’t quite have the language. I think that article was five years ago. So we didn’t quite know that “trans” could be an umbrella term, like we know now, and that includes like non-binary people. So, that’s been a little bit of the evolution. I always knew I wasn’t cis, but I didn’t have a label or a term to know what I was, so that’s kind of a cool evolution now. That we have language to name identities now, especially in the way we can talk about pronouns. 

And how does your gender identity intersect with these other parts of your identity you mention in that quote?

Specifically a lot of the ways those things intersect in my life…Being black, and obviously all the weight and pressure and oppression that can come with that. And then, being non-binary and everything that can come with that. Being read as a woman and everything that comes with that. Being queer and dealing with the homophobia and everything that comes with that. It’s kind of always just the triple-layer effect of dealing with those different identities. Navigating this straight white world a lot of times those identities can feel a little, um, crushing or the weight can be a little heavy. 

It’s also my superpower, I think it gives me a lot of unique perspective. 

I really like how you put that. That it’s difficult living at intersections of oppression but also, as you said, it is your superpower. That’s great.

You talked a bit about navigating ‘this straight, white world’. I wanted to know if you could speak a bit more specifically to being queer and non-binary in professional sports? Obviously the WNBA is a progressive league, but we both know that even in very progressive spaces there can be a lot of ignorance surrounding gender queerness and gender nonconformity. 

Yeah, I think I’ve seen the league evolve just from my 7, 8 years that I’ve been in it now. From when we were just having like, ‘Equality Nights’ to now having full-blown, very openly celebratory Pride Nights, depending on what kind of market you’re in.

I’ve seen an evolution internally among players, too, I think. There were a couple of incidents early in my time in the league, where there were still a lot of players who were, like, homophobic or didn’t want to celebrate that side of the identity of players in our league. Specifically straight, black women who were kind of trying to silence the queer black women. So that’s something we dealt with, within our own community. 

But I think where we are now, there’s been a lot of progress. I think we’re really good on the queer issue, but I think we still have a lot of room to grow with the gender identity issue. And that’s for the whole country.

And, specifically, the WNBA [has a lot of room to grow] for the non-binary people. It’s just a learning curve that a lot of people just haven’t had exposure to. Because it’s not simply pronouns, I don’t wanna reduce non-binary or trans people just to like; “You’re just your pronouns! That’s how you’re inclusive, just say the right pronouns and then that means you’re good!”. 

There needs to be a general education and understanding around what it means to be non-binary, or trans, or different ways gender identity can show up for people. And how evolving it can be, too, it’s not a stagnant thing. I think we just have a ways to go with that. To educate ourselves, like this league always does, and then I think we’ll be leaders for other people. 

And what steps would you like to see taken by the league towards that goal of being educators on this?

So we have something we’re trying to do with the Social Justice Council, like, having a conversation with [transgender rights activist] Raquel Willis, who we’ve recently been on a Zoom with, as one of our Advocates Advisors. So that, I think, is a great first step. To bring someone who’s an expert in the field in to talk to us, to teach us. I think that would be phenomenal. I think any type of training you can do that is led by black, queer, trans/non-binary people, as the leaders in this space, is a really good first step.

I think being inclusive with our pronouns. I’ve heard like Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who works for the [league] office, like this was like last year, and she asked me, when I was in the office: “Laysh, what pronouns do you use?” And that made me feel like, so seen and whole and like: “Wow, Taj is thinking about this?”. So, little things like that can also make people feel like, seen and whole. And then our ESPN broadcast partners have been great, like, I’ve heard them use they or them for me on the broadcast, too, and I think they’ve done a really good job of trying to evolve the language and make sure they’re representing people accurately. 

Yeah, I’ve noticed that too about the ESPN broadcasts and it’s made me very happy. Especially considering, you know, on certain other networks I won’t name, there can be an issue to even pronounce names right. 

(Laughing.) Yep!

Related to what you were speaking about in terms of listening to black, queer trans non-binary individuals. Obviously a huge part of this season’s been about standing with the Black Lives Matter movement and Say Her Name, for you and for the whole league. Could you speak to the focus the Liberty has put on Black Trans Lives, and the violence that black trans women face?

Yeah, our organization’s phenomenal because we’re so like–We have Alesia [Howard, Director of PR & Communications], Shana [Stephenson, VP of Marketing], and Keia Clark, who is now our CEO, who are so forward-thinking, so…everything that black women are. They really lead the way for us, which is really helpful as a player because they just get it and they do the work. And so, it’s not having to help educate and push the team, our team is already so progressive. And of course, we expect that, because we’re in Brooklyn, we’re in New York, with a really deep history there. Our team just does a really good job. I can’t rave about that enough. 

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Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins Jr. sports a ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ shirt postgame.

One of our two shirts that we made sure to do this year, which you’ve probably seen the whole coaching staff wear, is ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’. And that’s something the players really pushed for and our staff agreed, “Of course we should do this.” It’s something we’ve had conversations about: Making sure if we’re saying “Black Lives Matter” that the most marginalized black people, which are black trans women, are being highlighted. So that’s been a focus. 

And then, still through the rest of this season, we within the Social Justice Council will be highlighting a black trans woman who was a victim of police brutality or violence, so that’s coming up on our calendar. I have some awesome shoes I’m gonna wear, and we’re gonna do some more specific programming around the very unique and specific violence that black trans women face. They’re being murdered in such gruesome, hateful ways. And there’s still such a lack of understanding of why that community is being attacked so viciously. And that’s something I’m always advocating for. If we’re not all screaming about how this is unjust we’re all missing the point. 

I think that’s very well said, yeah. With the ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ shirt, it’s 2020 and it shouldn’t be a surprise, but still, seeing that all over the media availabilities for the Liberty has been a really great surprise.

Yeah, cause you’re still not quite seeing like…Within sports right now, you’re seeing what’s still safe. Like, it’s safe to kneel, it’s safe to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt. It’s safe to wear Breonna Taylor now, even for the men. But you’re not seeing what this league does, and what the Liberty is doing specifically–we take it a step further. Like, you’re not seeing people wear a Black Trans Lives Matter shirt in sports still to this day, when that’s the community that’s being dramatically affected. Because it’s still not the safest form of activism, and that’s where I think we always lead the way.

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. It’s been awesome to see the extent to which WNBA players and teams have been able to push the league, and the rest of the sports world, forward on trans issues.

Speaking of which, the state of Idaho’s ban on transgender athletes playing with athletes of their gender, HB500, was blocked by a federal judge this week. While this is a temporary block, ultimately pending the ruling in Hecox v. Little, can you speak a bit to why this is an important victory for the trans community?

It’s huge. It was like a bittersweet victory, of like, “For now it’s blocked”. But like, first steps. 

The fact that they want to stop kids from playing sports is just…I still can’t wrap my mind around it. It’s so important. I’ve learned so much from playing sports. Very few people are going to be professionals, like, playing sports from a young age. But what you learn from being a part of sports, like, the resilience, the ability to try something new, the sense of community and belonging, being a part of a team. The fact that we’re excluding young people based on their gender identity is just disgusting, it sucks and it’s really hurtful. I can’t imagine. 

Like, as I’ve kind of come to terms, or peeled back the layers of knowing I’m non-binary now. Had I did that when I was younger, and not been able to play sports? Not even because I made it professionally, but like, all the things I learned. Life lessons through sports. It’s really disheartening, the fact that we’re attacking people based on biological essentialism, and all of the misunderstandings and misnomers around the binary and stuff, it’s really sad. It’s just become a political issue, and very real young people are being affected by adults grabbing for power. I don’t know what’s more heartbreaking than that.

And so, the fact that right now, trans youth will not be denied playing sports in Idaho is just amazing. And we’re gonna keep fighting and showing up for them, and not let kids like that be erased. Because that’s what people are trying to do in the state of Idaho, and actually a lot of states right now.

Absolutely. It’s so important for us as a trans community to know there’s a place for us in sports.

And you’re probably, I would say, the most prominent non-binary athlete in the world right now. What example do you hope to set as a role model for other genderqueer and gender nonconforming athletes?

Ooo, that’s a good one. I think the example is that like, showing that we exist. And we’ve always been here. And we’re not going anywhere. We haven’t always been seen, or represented, but we’ve always been here. Ultimately, my biggest form of activism is just showing up authentically and giving other people around me the light and the freedom to hopefully show up and be their full selves. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Special thanks to Layshia for their time and their insight.

For more thoughts and opinions from Dani, check out their author page or their Twitter.

Image Source: AP Images

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