On May 8 at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort in Phoenix, WNBA star Brittney Griner wed WNBA star Glory Johnson.
In place of the traditional "for better or for worse," Johnson penned her vows (h/t the New York Times) with a nod to what most would agree to be representative of the absolute worst in a marriage: "I promise to be the Whitney to your Bobby, the Bonnie to your Clyde, the Ike to your Tina."
Nearly nine months had passed since the couple became engaged. Two weeks had passed since they were arrested on assault and disorderly conduct charges. And one week into the future, the newlyweds would each receive a record seven-game suspension as punishment from the WNBA.
Within a month, Griner would be the one bucking marriage tradition, taking an about-face interpretation of "till death do us part" all the way to court. She filed for an annulment on June 5, just one day after Johnson joyfully announced being pregnant with the couple's child.
If the gossip columns that exploded with annulment news and views can teach us anything, it's that when it comes to an intimate relationship between two people, we can never really know what goes on between them. Not even if those two people are in the public eye—and not even when police reports are filed and independent investigations are concluded.
Which brings us right back to what remains grievously important about this evolving story: the issue of domestic violence.
Griner and Johnson, as we know, are not the only players whose names have surfaced in the discussion of the WNBA and domestic violence.
Deanna "Tweety" Nolan, Malika Willoughby, Chamique Holdsclaw and Jantel Lavender were all allegedly involved in domestic-violence incidents during or after their WNBA careers. That such a list exists prompted some to wonder why the WNBA was not among the representatives from professional sports teams that Congress called to Capitol Hill in December to discuss domestic violence.
But are we really all that surprised? Are any of those names you think of when someone brings up athletes and domestic violence? To many, that list would appear to be victims' names because they're all women.
This is in part because of how intertwined the notion of intimate partner violence is with gender identity and gender norms. Some organizers see a problem in the decades of framing domestic-violence advocacy as a "battered women's movement," as it was described in a 2013 article—"A Same-Sex Domestic Violence Epidemic Is Silent"—from the Atlantic. It pays here to be redundant: Not only is a battered woman obviously female, but she is also assumed to be heterosexual and in a relationship with a man.
The wife of an NFL or NBA player? Sure, she can be a battered woman. The boyfriend of a WNBA player? Hmm, he can be laughed at.
The WNBA-playing wife of a WNBA player or any other same-sex couple? To properly address this, according to Osman Ahmed, research and education coordinator at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, needs additional training. And you guessed it: There are few resources to get help.
Ahmed told me that when police arrive to find two same-sex partners in conflict, there are "many issues" and that "dual arrests occur quite often"—or the police simply "arrest the more masculine-presenting partner."
The latter could be due to another issue Ahmed raised: that even the use of the word "domestic" to characterize the violence is considered problematic. As an anti-violence organizer serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Ahmed explained that in his field, the "deliberate usage of [the term] intimate partner violence" helps "to expand the issue into LGBTQ communities."
In an interview with Sports Illustrated published two days before her pregnancy announcement via Instagram, Johnson said she was under the impression that she and Griner were arrested because they were both women. In the same article, police Lieutenant Scott Benson said his department's policy relies on dual arrests only when officers are unable to determine who the aggressor is.
Based on WNBA President Laurel Richie's description of the injuries, Griner seems to have inflicted more physical damage, but it was Johnson who allegedly initiated physical contact. And it was Johnson's sister who called police and framed the incident as a tussle. It seems premature to assume one is the abuser and the other is the victim.
But in the SI piece, Johnson characterized her own role in the dispute as a defensive one, saying she was "just thinking of protecting herself." A separate injury report describing the severity of Johnson's injuries appears to back that claim, but it's important to note that one of the two experts SI interviewed felt it prudent not to make an assessment, having not been directly involved in the case.
But assessments and assumptions make a healthy portion of what we've heard—and made—in the six weeks since police involvement brought the issue of same-sex domestic violence to public light.
And what for? To what end? Did we all become trained professionals when no one was looking?
Until the May 15 statement on the suspensions of Griner and Johnson, a search for "domestic violence" on the WNBA's website yielded a column called "Raising Awareness of Domestic Violence" by former Charlotte Sting center Clarisse Machanguana, who last played in 2002. The undated essay (likely written in 2001, the one year she played for the Sting) presents a clear thesis: "Here in domestic violence, it's all about the victim."
The decidedly heteronormative tone Machanguana takes—all the victims are "her" and "she," while all the abusers are described with male-specific pronouns—is curious because, well, Machanguana was a player in the WNBA. If there's any locker room where domestic violence in the LGBT community might be discussed, it very well should be one of the 12 inhabited by WNBA franchises.
But Machanguana isn't necessarily being irresponsible in her choice of pronouns; the domestic-violence advocacy literature she draws from explains why ("most domestic violence is committed against women by men") and then proceeds accordingly ("this booklet will refer to victims as female and abusers as male").
It would be nice to be able to note here that because of the successful gender-specific framing of domestic violence, women everywhere are well-protected and the tastemakers of male-dominated industries are using their influence to set clear examples of humane conduct.
But for now, it's the WNBA's ball.
The groundbreaking suspension—a clear departure from the NBA's policy of waiting for a felony conviction to take action—is still notable for its commitment to education and counseling. But as conflicting facts continue to emerge, it's hard to know if it will stand up to scrutiny around whether both players deserved equal treatment in the first place.
And it's hard to know whether Griner and Johnson will stand up to scrutiny themselves. What they say and what they do matter.
But perhaps not as much as what the league says and does.
The WNBA's newfound what?
Tune in June 22 for the first-ever nationally televised LGBT Pride game.
And that visibility could not be more needed. In the overview of its 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (the first of its kind), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begins, "Little is known about the national prevalence of intimate partner violence" among same-sex couples. Mental-health professionals, organizers and activists agree that both internal and external pressures have made it hard to grasp the scope of the problem.
But halfway down the page of the overview, the other shoe drops: "Sexual minority respondents reported levels of intimate partner violence at rates equal to or higher than heterosexuals."
If that statistic shocks you, you're likely not alone. When asked about public awareness of the pervasiveness of domestic violence in the LGBT community, Ahmed said the mainstream is "lagging way behind." He also described the near absence of "public education campaigns" and the exclusion of LGBT-focused prevention campaigns in favor of those that serve heterosexual women.
If what has to come next, as Ahmed explained, are more programs for education and awareness, cultural competency training for police and other first responders and, most importantly, funding to see such programs through, then perhaps something impactful can come out of this tragic situation.
And with all the finger-pointing toward this sport and that sport, this organization and that conglomerate, this gender identity or sexual orientation versus that one, nothing is so clear as this: It is not men's sports that have a domestic-violence problem or women's sports. As Richie, the WNBA president, has said, "Violence has no place in society, in sports or in this league."
Perhaps from this point forward, both Griner and Johnson will be able to lead from behind and exemplify that—no matter who they fall in love with next—violence has no place in the homes we willingly share with those we love best.
Megan Livingston (@seebeckeeblack) is a freelance writer and musician living in Baltimore.