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“Lesbian walks into a bar…”

Could be the opening line of a bad joke—or a description of a typical halftime at a Washington Mystics game. The bar is the Acela Club, located on the second level of the building now known as Verizon Center, the WNBA franchise’s home court.

Even before the second quarter of the June 25 Mystics–Connecticut Sun matchup ends, the room is getting crowded with fans. By all appearances, this crowd’s as gay as the 1890s. Postcards advertising the theatrical run of Walk Like a Man, described as a spoken-word play of “[s]tories of the lesbian experience,” have been placed alongside Mystics rosters at every table. Sizewise, the bar crowd hits its peak near halftime’s end. You can count the number of male patrons on one hand and have a couple of fingers left.

“It’s the same every game,” says Juanita Deans of Bethesda, who counts herself as a lounge regular. “That’s the place you go at halftime, to see everybody and catch up.”

The crowd filling the seats beneath the Acela in the arena’s lower bowl on this night numbers only about 7,000, even though the opponent is the best team in the Eastern Conference. The turnout is much smaller than the typical attendance of years past. But its demographic makeup appears to be about the same as it ever was, dominated by two groups: fathers with their daughters and lesbians with lesbians.

Still, the crowd’s size isn’t the only change this year. The lesbians in the stands say they feel welcome—for the first time, even.

“I think we did feel like the team, the organization, was taking us for granted,” says Deans, a lesbian activist and Mystics season ticketholder since the inaugural 1998 campaign. “But this year, everything’s changed. The whole attitude is different.”

Coincidentally or not, Mystics management is very different this year, also. At the beginning of the 2005 season, Abe Pollin sold the squad to Lincoln Holdings, a group headed by Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, and Lincoln immediately made BET co-founder Sheila Johnson a new partner and the Mystics’ president. The new management team had little time for rejiggering for last season. But among Johnson’s first orders of business before the 2006 season was reaching out to local lesbians in a way her predecessors did not.

“We’ve noticed the difference,” says Cathy Nelson, vice president of development for the Human Rights Campaign, which counts itself as the nation’s largest political organization dedicated to lesbian causes. “[The Mystics] now show an appreciation for their entire fan base. That’s new.”

There was at least one episode during which the old regime exhibited what lesbians at the time took to be homophobic tendencies. At the beginning of the 1998 season, the team had a regular game-day promotion called “Couple of the Game,” in which various pairs of fans who appeared to be romantically linked would be shown on the arena’s big screen during a timeout, and the pair that got the loudest applause won a meal at a local restaurant. The same promotion was held at Wizards and Caps home games. Despite the presence of so many lesbian couples at Mystics games, only male-female pairings ever won the free food. And then halfway through the season, the promotion was changed to “Fan of the Game,” but only at the Mystics events. To show displeasure, some gay pairs began bringing their own cardboard squares with “Couple of the Game” written in magic marker, posing in protest during timeouts.

There was also zero outreach to gays, many say, despite the obvious and loyal lesbian hordes.

“At the beginning, I really think [original Mystics president] Susan O’Malley shunned any sort of outreach to the community, because she just had too much on her plate building the new franchise,” says Chris Vera, a Mystics season ticketholder and former player for the University of Maryland women’s team (1982–1986), as she sips a martini inside the Acela Club. “But then she never came around. There was nothing.”

Despite the apparent disses, and through mostly losing seasons, lesbians continued to support the Mystics, which for several years was the biggest draw in the entire WNBA. (Hence those embarrassing “Attendance Champion” banners hanging from the Verizon Center rafters.)

But that support was waning before Johnson’s takeover. Among the defectors was Nelson. She says she stopped going to Mystics games in 2004, after having season tickets for the first six years of the team’s existence.

“I think there were many, many lesbians who were season ticketholders who had been loyal for many years,” says Nelson. “Before, we did all the reaching out. But the combination of losing seasons, higher ticket prices, and the fact that the community didn’t feel valued as a fan base all contributed to a lot of people not renewing season tickets.”

But Nelson’s back on game nights this year. What turned her around was the high profile that Mystics management had shown at the Diversity Best Practices Conference, an annual get-together for gay-and-lesbian causes held in D.C. There, Nelson ran into Curtis Symonds, a longtime associate of Johnson’s who was named the Mystics’ chief operating officer in August. Symonds was at the gathering to conduct Mystics business.

“We’re trying to say we are inclusive to our family, we appreciate them coming out and supporting us, and we want them to know we appreciate them,” says Symonds, explaining the appearance at the diversity conference and confirming that it was indeed part of the organization’s new effort to show the love to lesbian fans.

After the conference, the Mystics subsequently made players available for a reception honoring the Human Rights Campaign and have donated memorabilia to raise money for various lesbian-related charities.

“The new owner and management team have really been open about acknowledging that lesbians have been an important part of their fan base,” says Khadijah Tribble, a lesbian activist and CEO of Trifecta Consulting, a firm that advocates for gay causes. “The team donated a signed ball for a fundraiser my wife and I had, and Curtis has approached us asking for our help in becoming more sensitive to the [lesbian] community. This is very welcome, since it comes after years in which there was a feeling that the WNBA and the Mystics were trying to distance themselves from the lesbian community.”

The pro-sports realm has always been hilariously homophobic—someday, Mike Piazza’s 2002 press conference announcing he’s not gay will rightly be recognized as a low point in Western civilization. But if any baby steps are being taken in the direction of tolerance, they’re being taken in the WNBA. Last year, Sheryl Swoopes, the league MVP in 2005 and perhaps the best player in women’s basketball history, pulled an anti-Piazza and declared she was in love with one of her female coaches. Cynics would point out that Swoopes at around the same time signed a deal with Olivia, a cruise line that caters mostly to lesbian travelers, but her public declaration still took some stones. Given the playing field, the Mystics new lesbian-friendly policies could also be called courageous.

But Symonds says nobody in the organization is patting him- or herself on the back.

“The point that we want to make is, we’re not treating anybody different,” he says. “Because when you start alienating any segment of your audience, that’s going to be bad for your business. So is that brave? I don’t think so. It’s a logical decision. It’s business.”

Symonds wouldn’t commit to bringing back “Couple of the Game.”—Dave McKenna