As news of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia broke in early March, Black lesbians, queer women and athletes took the lead in steering advocacy efforts for her release. There were rallies and virtual prayer vigils. There were hashtags and petitions. There were meetings in the nation’s capital and letters to President Joe Biden.
Griner had already been in Russian custody on a drug charge for more than two weeks when her detention finally made U.S. news. Organizations that had little Black or LGBTQ representation were hesitant to take action, recalls Paris Hatcher, the founder and executive director of Black Feminist Future. But a #BringBrittneyHome campaign instantly mobilized on Black Twitter, and queer organizations like Hatcher’s drove the campaign.
Dawn Staley, head coach of the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, kept a running tally on Twitter of the number of days Griner had been held, asking her more than 155,000 followers not to forget about the player’s detention.
“We know that organizing works,” said Hatcher, who noted that keeping this case front, center, and visible was crucial.
Nine months later, that grassroots activism — partnered with the unrelenting efforts of Garner’s wife, Cherelle Griner — has led to the basketball star’s release, in a rare, historic diplomatic prisoner exchange.
On Thursday, Biden announced that the two-time Olympic gold medalist was on her way home to the United States. She had recently been moved into a Russian penal colony, according to news reports, facilities known for their brutal living conditions and forced labor.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after Russian officials said she was carrying vape cartridges with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in prison for drug charges in August.
During Thursday’s press conference, Biden stood alongside Cherelle Griner and said the basketball star would be home within 24 hours.
“Today is just a happy day for me and my family,” Cherelle Griner said, “so I’m going to smile right now.”
The Biden administration secured Griner’s release in exchange for international Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, a dangerous former Soviet military officer who has been called the “Merchant of Death.” The deal did not include the release of Marine Paul Whelan, who is being held in a Russian labor camp on a 16-year sentence on charges of espionage, which the U.S. disputes.
Even before her detention, Griner had become a rising icon in Black and queer communities. She has long been a vocal social justice advocate, from wearing Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of her jersey to becoming the first openly gay athlete to strike a deal with Nike.
Many immediately viewed her captivity as a Black queer feminist issue that underscored how deeply rooted anti-Blackness and LGBTQ hostility permeates national borders.
After hearing about Griner’s detention, Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, started combing through news reports on the case, picking out pieces of information that might help rally folks around the cause. One report said Griner’s bed wasn’t long enough for her nearly 7-foot-tall frame. York used her State Department connections, whom she worked with about domestic equity issues, to advocate for a new, bigger one. She said her efforts were a success.
Advocates said the injustices began before Griner touched down in Russia. Griner, who played center for the Phoenix Mercury, worked overseas to supplement her WNBA earnings. In Russia, she earned over $1 million per season, more than four times her WNBA salary, according to The Associated Press.
For many, the pay inequity that saturates professional sports is an overlooked issue at the center of Griner’s ordeal. While the WNBA’s average salary was about $120,600 last season, the NBA’s average was $5.4 million, according to NPR. The gender pay gap is a battle the U.S. women’s soccer team successfully fought, securing a deal this spring to eliminate it. Women in tennis and other sports continue to face wage disparities.
Griner’s story also highlights the pervasive disparities in policing and incarceration, advocates said. One-third of women in U.S. prisons identify as lesbian or bisexual, according to a 2017 report by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
Although Hatcher is celebrating the win that is bringing Griner home, she says the case is a grim reminder of Black queer women’s place in society.
“Who gets access to the full protections of the United States government?” Hatcher questioned. “Who is seen as needing protection? Who is seen as a priority?”