In Conversation: Layshia Clarendon’s Impact on and Beyond the Liberty

Late Wednesday night, sports reporter Kate Fagan shared the news that the New York Liberty had waived Layshia Clarendon, and the team confirmed it Thursday morning. Clarendon hadn’t seen much playing time in 2021, but their involvement in the league and their off-court activism have made them an incredibly important part of the WNBA community. And for fellow nonbinary people in sports, like Nets Republic’s Christine Salek and Dani Bar-Lavi, Clarendon’s presence and openness alike are inspiring and monumental. Clarendon could land somewhere soon, but the effect of her waiving remains difficult to process, basketball aside. On the day he was waived, Christine and Dani discussed how Clarendon has impacted them.

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Christine: So, this sucks. What were you doing when you found out that Layshia had been waived? What were your immediate feelings?

Dani: I was actually watching one of the few MNBA games I’ve made time for this year, the Lakers-Warriors play-in. But obviously as soon as other Nets Republic people started talking about Layshia being waived, I muted that game and started furiously checking for confirmation. I actually didn’t believe it at first, partially because I cope using denial, but also because it wasn’t from one of the usual WNBA news breakers. So yeah, my immediate feeling was skepticism. But once that passed and I realized I was looking at a legitimate source and not a misunderstanding, I was sad. It feels like a friend moving away, kind of. And I was kind of afraid. I want to be really confident that Layshia is going to be picked up right off waivers because I believe in his value as a point guard and as a leader.

Christine: Yeah. From discussions I’d seen between Nets Republic writers, I knew Layshia being waived was a possibility, but I wasn’t ready to believe it yet. It still feels very… transactional? Just seeing the way people have been talking about it like any of the other waived players we’ve heard about at the start of the season, offering hypothetical “if not Layshia, then who?” type of analysis. I’m not up to speed on why this particular move makes sense basketball-wise, aside from the fact that they had to let go of someone to have roster space for Natasha Howard.

Dani: I’ve had difficulty with seeing people go right into analysis mode, too. And it’s always hard seeing a great person talked about in terms of roster spots. That’s something I’ve struggled with more and more as I’ve attended pressers and actually gotten to know these players as people. It’s definitely even harder to see it with Layshia, between that familiarity you develop in media sessions and what their presence has meant to me in terms of making me feel I belong in the WNBA world. Then add in all they’ve accomplished as an activist, especially last season… well, it’s more than basketball, and this move can’t be reduced to just “why it makes sense basketball-wise” because the impact is so much bigger than that. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want Layshia to be “off-limits” for basketball logistics discussions in the fandom just because they’re nonbinary; that’d be problematic in another way entirely. Maybe this just indicates a wider need for nuance and empathy in the way we talk about players being released in general.

Christine: I think about that, too. Obviously, Layshia knows the drill, having been in the league for so long—it’s business. There’s not enough room for everyone at all times. Sometimes the nonbinary player gets waived. But when you’re a nonbinary fan watching it happen, or whatever any player represents when it comes to your attachment to the league… it’s still hard.

Dani: It does raise the question of how many organizations in this league are actually are ready to have an environment where a trans/nonbinary athlete could thrive. The answer should be 12, but we all know it’s not.

Christine: We sure do.

Dani: But like, it would be devastating to me and I think the whole nonbinary WNBA fandom if she wasn’t rostered for an extended amount of time. Symbolically, it’d just feel like a huge loss to not see them out there, in a jersey, being an athlete and staking out our space in sports. Another fear is, like, what if without Lay’s voice, the Liberty lose some of the progress they’ve made in terms of trans/nonbinary inclusion and advocacy? The Liberty’s trans positivity is a huge part of why I’ve been proud to rep the team as both a fan and as a journalist. I don’t want to be alienated from that.

Christine: Me neither. Even knowing she could get picked up right after clearing waivers, or even rejoin the Liberty at some point. The anxiety of them perhaps getting picked up by another team, one that hasn’t had an openly trans player before, was and is probably my most prominent feeling. Still, having a nonbinary player on the Liberty while we’ve had it has been really positive for me, and I know for you, too. What did it mean to you to get to interview them last year?

Dani: It meant the world to me. I was still pretty new to covering the WNBA when we did that interview. The Wubble was immensely busy for the whole WNBA, and I knew how busy Layshia was particularly between her duties with the Social Justice Council and the WNBPA. Plus, he was trying to lead a Liberty team that was struggling to rebound from Sabrina Ionescu’s ankle injury. I was thrilled and really honored when I heard back that they could carve out some time. I felt way out of my depth—I was just some random 23-year-old that no one had ever heard of and I was going to interview a WNBA player! But when we actually spoke, you know, Layshia was Layshia. They were incredibly nice, chill and easy to talk to, really receptive to all of my questions.

Christine: Pleading/that’s so sweet/jealous emoji here. Please tell me more.

Dani: The thing about interviewing someone like Lay who’s so smart, and who knows what he’s about so deeply, is that you quickly come to realize they’re doing all of the hard work for you just by being themselves and being honest. Very quickly it just became two nonbinary sports gays talking about what it’s like to be in that world, which, even if I hadn’t recorded and published it, would have been so, so valuable to me and my journey as a writer. I said on Twitter the morning after he was released that conducting that interview was the moment I realized I belonged in the WNBA space, both in terms of “I’m good enough at writing to be here” and “I’m allowed to hold space as a nonbinary person in sports.”

I know I sound like a fan-they, but I am!

Christine: FAN-THEY!

Dani: Yup! I just came up with that, too, I’m very proud. I wrote fanboy, deleted it quickly, then wrote fangirl, went “eh.” Then I wrote “fan-they” and went, YUP.

Christine: Anyway, that’s the coolest that you got to have that experience. I’ve never spoken to Layshia, but I’m glad the vibe I get from her social media is so similar! And I’m glad you decided not to hoard all that goodness for yourself, because I remember reading that piece when it came out and tearing up a little. I was just starting to come out more publicly around that time, and I didn’t expect to get to read something so uplifting and joyful about nonbinary people in sports! I was going, wait, is this for me? Who told them I needed this?

Dani: I think that’s around when we “met” for the first time?! I’d have to double-check, but that sounds right to me. If so, that’s another reason I’m glad I wrote that!

Christine [smiling on the inside]: What you said earlier about him doing so much by being honest and himself—that’s how I felt when he shared the news of his top surgery at the beginning of this year. I cried! They didn’t have to share that with us at all! And the acceptance I saw from all over the basketball community, including and especially their Liberty teammates, meant a lot to read. Especially in this shitty year, where there’s a new anti-trans sports ban every 30 seconds.

Dani: Their top surgery announcement and the positivity of the reactions to it was so, so heartening in—yeah, as you said, just a really difficult year for us in sports. It was this huge wellspring of joy, and I’m so glad Layshia chose to share that joy with us. That’s another reason the Liberty’s release on Thursday caught me so off guard, I think. Between their top surgery and that amazing Sports Illustrated cover story from Britni de la Cretaz, there’s just been so much positive media momentum for them. As journalists, and as people, we want clean narratives. Putting my basketball analyst hat way to the side, what I really wanted was to see Layshia come out and thrive in New York this season, rocking that sick seafoam Equality jersey. It’s hard to let go of that fantasy, that image. And obviously, Layshia will be back and will continue to be an icon on her new squad, but still. It’s hard to adjust.

Christine: I agree. It felt like the stage was set for her to thrive in Brooklyn this season. The support was there. The pronoun guide in the pregame media notes sticks out to me. When I reached out to the team with some constructive criticism of how they’d done it the first time—singling Layshia out, looking like “the trans one, and everyone else”—the team rep got back to me right away and made the change to list everyone. And even though Layshia’s no longer with the team, the complete pronoun guide lives on!

Dani: Your impact!!!! But yeah, that’s the kind of thing that assuages some of these concerns. We’ll just have to see if the team keeps it up all season, and then next year, and so on.

Christine: Yep. That’s something I worry about, just as a trans person, for when Layshia lands somewhere new. Little things like that. I’d love if every WNBA team included a pronoun guide with their pregame notes, just to normalize it, rather than beginning the practice if they get a trans/nonbinary player. The only other place I’ve seen pro players’ pronouns in an official capacity is with OL Reign in the NWSL—one of their players, Quinn, is also nonbinary. But it’s just a small thing I want to see everywhere, following these teams’ leads, without trans people having to push for it ourselves. It felt safe to me, in a way, knowing Layshia was accepted by the Liberty to the extent of the team itself wanting to make sure members of the media got their pronouns right. And the thing about her being the only out trans player in the league is that we don’t know how other teams will approach something so simple, but so important.

Dani: Yeah, I do trust Layshia to advocate for himself and know she’ll push forward whatever organization picks them up with regard to trans inclusion and SO many other sociopolitical issues. But it’s kind of exhausting envisioning them having to constantly repeat the process of educating and reforming wherever she goes, every time she’s traded or signed, year after year. At a certain point, real, genuine inclusivity needs to be the standard. You look even to the immediate future, and you don’t want to see, for example, Oregon redshirt junior Sedona Prince having to exert a ton of effort their rookie season advocating for herself wherever they land in the draft.

Christine: Exactly. The shift has to be permanent, not incidental. If you’re only going to acknowledge trans athletes when they’re right in front of you, you’re not in a position to effect lasting change. More generally, it feels like people too often default to the idea that being in proximity to trans people and not being terrible to them is a form of allyship. Meanwhile, we’re left to do all the work that the “allies” won’t. That has to change.

Also, I adore Sedona.

Dani: Sedona and their tiny girlfriend give me life.

And yeah, that’s so well put—it can feel like cis people have goldfish brain about us sometimes. That’s kind of the fear with Layshia being off a roster for even a few days, he’s our torch bearer in the WNBA.

Christine: “Torch bearer”? Too soon.

Dani: Oh my god. Layshia, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.

But I guess the question is, in the worst-case scenario where a spot doesn’t open for Layshia this season, will the WNBA be able to keep up what they’ve accomplished in terms of trans inclusion? Or even more than that, expand what they’ve accomplished?

Christine: I’m excited and terrified to find out, you know? The image of [Liberty head coach] Walt Hopkins wearing his Liberty-branded Black Trans Lives Matter shirt (one I also own) last season was fantastic. I hope he wears it again. That’s one small thing. I feel like at this point, my expectations for the WNBA aren’t too different from what I want from anyone else, and that’s basically just not to forget trans people exist. The bar is so low, but that’s where “terrified” comes in. I’m worried about being forgotten as a fan if there’s no “representation” for me in this crucial way. And that’s obviously not Layshia’s fault for not being a better basketball player or whatever. I know they’ve left their mark in what they’ve done so far. I just want it to continue because it’s the right thing to do. And then when he’s back, whether that’s right as we publish this or next month or next season, things will be all that much better.