INTERVIEW: Layshia Clarendon and the toll of trailblazing
The nonbinary WNBA star opens up about trauma, time off, and making the league more trans-inclusive.
Hi, friends. It’s transgender awareness week, and it’s (unsurprisingly) been a rough one. Texas just unveiled a deluge of anti-transgender bills it plans to pass during the 2023 legislative session; Ohio is currently debating gender-affirming care for trans youth in its state legislature; and former President Donald Trump included multiple attacks on transgender people in his speech launching his presidential campaign for 2024.
As if that’s not enough, the New York Times celebrated the occasion by publishing yet another of their notoriously disingenuous deep dives into trans healthcare, a genre that Lauren Theisen at Defector refers to as “hysterically pitched concern pieces.” You know, the type that treats trans people, particularly trans youth, as a concept to debate rather than actual human beings.
Here at Power Plays, we’re going to celebrate a bit differently: With an exclusive interview with point guard Layshia Clarendon, the first openly trans and nonbinary player in the WNBA.
But before we get to the main event, I want to send love and support to all of my trans readers. And, because transphobes keep using the notion of protecting women’s sports as a way to advance anti-trans laws and sentiments, I want to stress yet again that trans people are not a threat to women’s sports. Period.
If you happen to be new to this newsletter, or new to the topic of trans participation in sports, here are a few previous editions of Power Plays that dive deeper into the topic. I hope you’ll take some time to read them, because we’re all still learning!
If you want to donate to a good cause, might I recommend the Layshia Clarendon Foundation? Clarendon launched the organization this year, and it “grants access to life-affirming healthcare and wellness services for the trans community through education, advocacy, and direct financial assistance.” Pretty incredible.
Also, a reminder that all of the journalism here at Power Plays is funded by paid subscriptions. Thanks for making this work possible!
Okay, readers. Let’s do this.
Layshia Clarendon on the gift of time, trans inclusion in the W, and properly supporting social justice advocates
A few months ago in Miami, at the Athlete Leadership Summit hosted by Athlete Ally and Adidas, I had the privilege of moderating a conversation between Layshia Clarendon and NCAA athletes from across the country. It was a gift to hear Clarendon speak to students about her experience as an LGBTQ athlete, and give advice on making campuses a safer place for the LGBTQ community. That conversation wasn’t recorded, but, afterward, Clarendon was kind enough to talk with me one-on-one. I’m so excited to finally be sharing that interview with you all.
Here’s where I take a stab at quickly summing up their bio: Clarendon was a standout point guard at Cal before being drafted ninth overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. He’s a nine-year WNBA vet, a 2017 WNBA All-Star, and 2018 World Cup gold medalist.
Before the 2020 season, Clarendon opened up about being trans and nonbinary, and started publicly using she/her, he/him, and they/them pronouns. In January 2021, Clarendon had top surgery. Around the same time, they became a parent when their wife gave birth to “Baby C,” which is what they call the baby on social media.
Clarendon has also been extremely involved in the WNBA players association, serving as the organization’s first vice president and on the bargaining committee that helped the players secure their historic contract back in 2020.
This year has been a challenge professionally — she was waived by the Minnesota Lynx prior to the start of the 2022 regular season, and didn’t play in the WNBA all year long.
When we caught up in Miami, they opened up about a wide range of topics, including their unexpected time off this summer; how the WNBA can make the league a more trans-inclusive space; how to improve the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA); and their on-court plans for the future. Clarendon was so open and generous with her time and truths, and I know you will love hearing more of his story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Power Plays: Let’s start with this: How are you doing?
Layshia Clarendon: I’ve had the gift of time and space this summer, which has been really beautiful. So as hard as it was to be ripped away from the sport, and all of the emotions that came with that, it's been a slowing down and a nourishing.
I feel like I have the space to really pour into myself and my family and just heal from the last few years of all the social justice work, and how traumatic it really is. I think that's a really missing key piece that people don't talk about enough: How hard this work is, how draining it is, and the cost.
“I think that's a really missing key piece that people don't talk about enough: How hard this work is, how draining it is, and the cost.”
PP: The 2020 bubble season has almost been romanticized in a way, but you’ve been so open about the difficulties involved. What really went into those triumphs?
LC: You can hold two things: Thank God we got to play that season, it was amazing. The other side of it is the toll it took on your mental health – of working every day in the midst of a pandemic, playing every other day, living in a hotel, sharing [common] spaces with the referees, the GM who traded you, the coach who was terrible to you. There were so many awkward elevator rides!
Even getting the bubble season off the ground was very taxing, due to the number of meetings we were having about the pandemic and our safety. Remember, there was no vaccination, we were getting tested every day. There was so much fear and anxiety around what covid could do to you. My wife was pregnant at the time, and I left her. So there’s just that weight, which I think you can't really even truly process in the moment because you're compartmentalizing, you're trying to survive it.
And then, what happens after that? What about aftercare? The bubble happens, and then you go home. I had top surgery. I had a baby. That’s a lot.
Then the next season just happens and you go through more. There’s all these anti-trans bills, those are terrible. The world’s still on fire, right? There’s still a pandemic, there are more variants. So it’s not like you did this thing and you got over it like, “Wow, we climbed this mountain!” There's no reprieve from it, particularly with our league the way we're getting centered in the social justice movement.
I think the question is: How do we create more infrastructure to do the work that we're doing for the players to be supported? So that's monetarily, even. The union now gives a stipend to people who serve on the executive committee.
PP: Oh wow, I didn’t know that! So that stipend is for all players in leadership positions in the WNBPA?
LC: Yes, we give them to the executive committee and player reps. We do this because it's really important to show up and give your time and energy. It's not a lot of money, but it's a gesture; it's something. We don't have one for the social justice council yet. But I think there should be one for that as well. You ask people to do social justice work out of the goodness of their hearts, like joining these DEI groups, right? But you ask them to do it without actually giving them resources to do the work and compensating them for their time, their energy, their intellectual property, and their emotional strain.
So I think that the next step for the W is, how do we give this work the infrastructure and support it needs? You want it to be grassroots-led, so that's why being player-led is really important. But it can't be only on the backs of the player. It can’t be at our expense.
“I think that the next step for the W is, how do we give this work the infrastructure and support it needs? You want it to be grassroots-led… [b]ut it can't be only on the backs of the player. It can’t be at our expense.”
PP: Right – you have full-time jobs! How would you like to see the league better support players and the social justice initiatives you care about?
LC: I'd like to see a soft cap (laughs). It’s a justice initiative!
PP: It really is!
LC: Particularly around pregnancy, this is a social justice issue.
You do the CBA, and then like you do with any contract, you see how it works practically. So we did one, it was great, and now, pregnancy doesn't count toward the roster space. But it does count towards the cap, and we know because of the hard salary cap, that it does end up tying up a roster spot.
So, how are we amending rules to be more practical moving forward, so it does actually help and support everybody? Because when you pay for a player's salary, it's ultimately hurting the other players. It's benefiting that one player, which it absolutely should, but it shouldn't come at the expense of the rest of their teammates now not having another body when we already only have 11.
PP: Absolutely. I know a similar thing can happen with injury. Has there been talk about implementing anything akin to an injured reserve?
LC: We’ve been fighting for it.
But specific to the justice issues, I think having a dedicated staff of folks on it, and then a budget around it, which can be small, can be a gesture, but just something to say, we’re not going to exploit you.
And then, is there a corporate sponsor who wants to specifically fund the justice initiatives? I think that it’s important to give directly to these causes, because they're often under-resourced. And of course, our league is under-resourced. It's a social justice initiative because it’s a women’s league!
PP: You’ve been a trailblazer in so many ways, particularly when it comes to trans inclusion in the WNBA. You were the first players to use pronouns that weren’t exclusively she/her, the first to have top surgery. What advice would you give the WNBA to help it become more gender expansive and trans inclusive?
LC: I think healthcare is really behind. It’s still very binary, and that’s really hard. I remember when I was initially just saying “top surgery” to our New York [Liberty] doctors, they were like, “Huh? What? Double mastectomy?” And I'm like, “Yes, but it’s called top surgery.” It's specific to trans people, versus maybe someone who has cancer and is having a double mastectomy because they need their breasts removed for medical reasons.
So I think language is really, really important, and doctors should be educated about it. It happened again in Minnesota too. I loved our team doctors, they were great, but I went to one doctor just in Mayo Clinic, a dermatologist who I was trying to see for my scars at the time, and he was like, “Oh, did you have cancer?” It's literally in my chart that I had top surgery! It says that I'm trans, it says all my things. The language is so hard and so harsh. Your body is already so subjected [to scrutiny] as a trans person, and so on display and commented on. When you're going to a doctor, it's already really hard; to have a doctor who isn’t affirming and doesn't understand [makes it worse.]. Within the sports space, I didn't have doctors who knew that language. They knew sports language, but they didn’t know gender language.
“I think healthcare is really behind. It’s still very binary, and that’s really hard. I remember when I was initially just saying ‘top surgery’ to our New York [Liberty] doctors, they were like, ‘Huh? What? Double mastectomy?’”
PP: Would you like to see the players association do more advocacy around that?
LC: Yeah, and the league. As much as we do DEI trainings with the teams, they should make sure the medical staff is trained. When AD or someone else is talking about issues of being nonbinary, how are you addressing them? Or when you’re doing a pap smear and all of that, are you being very mindful of what that could feel like for trans people? Medical care is so transphobic, and so I think we can be more proactive with training people, specifically in the W where you do have gender-expansive people.
If you're a team doctor for a WNBA team, you should be trained on Black women's skin and their body and their hair, and on gender-expansive language and care. I don’t know if we even had gender identity as part of our medical paperwork. It’s very behind, to the point that I was trying to find maybe even a doctor outside of the team for my own primary care that I could have a better experience with.
PP: Finally, I have to ask: Do you still want to play?
LC: I do, yeah. It's been a hard year to take off. It’s made me question a lot of things, like the dedication and time and energy that I put into this game. Particularly coming off such a good year, then this happened. Are you safe anywhere? How much do I want to give to this when this can happen? And having to think about a child and all that definitely adds to it. Having to uproot our family was really fucked up.
Now I’m just making decisions with eyes wide open about the industry and the location of where you would play. I've always been open to role and salary, because those are flexible and they're different depending on what situation you're in, right — like, I took a pay cut to be in Minnesota. I just want to be a part of a good team and have a chance to win and have fun and be around good people. Those are the most important things.
[Editor’s note: This month, Clarendon announced that they will be joining the Athletes Unlimited basketball league in the spring of 2023. In an interview with Jackie Powell over at The Next, Clarendon said they plan to use this opportunity to remind WNBA GMs what they can do on the court, saying, “I’m trying to get a contract.”]
Thanks so much for supporting Power Plays, talk very soon!