It’s Over

Why Did WNBA Stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson Annul Their Marriage?

After their highly publicized fight came an equally highly publicized marriage, which is now over. What lay behind the break-up?

06.11.15 9:20 AM ET

Glory Johnson’s marriage lasted three days longer than her jersey number.

Johnson, No. 25 for the WNBA team the Tulsa Shock, and Brittney Griner, No. 42 for the Phoenix Mercury, have announced the annulment of their wedding a mere 28 days after it occurred.

The announcement comes one day after the couple announced that Johnson was pregnant on Instagram and just weeks after they were both arrested for an April domestic violence incident in their Goodyear, Arizona home.

“I shouldn’t have went through with it,” Griner said in an emotional interview on ESPN. “It was a huge mistake.”

A spokesperson for Johnson told TMZ that she “still loves and cares for Brittney.”

For WNBA fans, lesbians, and the sizable overlap of that particular Venn diagram, the annulment is a painful but unsurprising conclusion to perhaps the highest profile same-sex wedding in professional sports.

But the couple’s story also touches on one of the most underresearched public health problems in the LGBT community: domestic abuse in same-sex relationships between two women.

Although domestic violence is common among lesbians, Johnson and Griner’s history of violence came as a shock and it was all too easily forgotten by those eager for a fairytale ending.

The pairing of Johnson and Griner was unlikely from the start. Griner publicly came out as lesbian in 2013 after her first-round draft pick in an interview with Sports Illustrated and quickly became a role model for young LGBT athletes, especially for lesbian and bisexual women.

“Countless people have come up to me and thanked me for being proud of who I am,” Griner wrote in a 2013 essay for The New York Times. “It’s my job now to, I hope, be a light who inspires others.”

But Glory Johnson is straight. Or, at least, as straight as a woman who marries another woman can be.

In the New York Times coverage of their wedding, Johnson revealed how their relationship first blossomed, despite the seeming incompatibility of their orientations.

“I’m not a lesbian,” Johnson said. “But Brittney is different.”

The Times piece describes a romance borne out of professional proximity and inexplicable attraction: The two have been basketball rivals since college, which led to some flirtation at a 2013 training camp in Las Vegas.

Griner went shopping with Johnson and friends, helped her pick out a shirt, put her arm around her, and made sure she had “anything she wanted.”

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The outing was a confusing experience for Johnson who told the Times that she “wasn’t sure what was happening, but that was O.K.”

The pair didn’t see each other for a short time after the Vegas trip but, as soon their WNBA schedules lined up in 2014, the romance intensified, leading to an August engagement.

“I still don’t really feel like I’m attracted to females in general,” Johnson added. “It’s just that I’m attracted to just one person.”

Johnson might have been wary at first, but LGBT media was eager to claim both her and Griner as poster couple for idyllic lesbian romance.

The Advocate trawled through their Instagram accounts to publish “10 Mushy Moments with Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson.” Autostraddle listed them as one of their “badass” couples that “makes our hearts flutter” and called their engagement one of the “most important celesbian moments of 2014.” “Ridiculously cute” ran the headline on AfterEllen.

When the couple went on TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, hearts exploded. Johnson and Griner appeared to be the perfect lesbian celebrity couple in a pop cultural landscape where those are few and far between.

But the media cheerleading came to a halt in April of this year when the couple was arrested for fighting in their new home.

According to police reports obtained by The Arizona Republic, Johnson and Griner were having a heated argument—a regular occurrence in the household, according to Griner—when Johnson pushed Griner, who retaliated by shoving her head. A fight broke out that lasted for several minutes.

“We couldn’t get them pulled apart,” Johnson’s sister told police.

The report also indicates that they were “throwing things at each other.”

Griner came away from the altercation with a hand injury, Johnson suffered lacerations on her lip. The WNBA suspended them both for seven games and mandated counseling.

For an adoring public who had only seen the couple’s private life in the context of fawning LGBT media coverage, the incident came as a shock. It shouldn’t have.

Comparatively little is known about domestic violence in the LGBT community but initial research on the subject has indicated that rates of physical violence are roughly the same for same-sex couples as they are for opposite-sex couples.

One small survey from 1986 suggests that while lesbians experience less abuse than heterosexuals when dating, the rate of abuse they experience in long-term relationships is similar.

And a new meta-analysis of past work published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy concludes that the average prevalence of physical violence from a same-sex intimate partner for a lesbian over her lifespan is approximately 18 percent.

Johnson and Griner’s situation is common but a troubling culture of silence surrounds domestic violence between women in same-sex relationships.

Not only are all same-sex relationships often falsely assumed to be immune to the power dynamics that affect heterosexual couples but women are generally assumed to be nonviolent and incapable of physical abuse.

The difficulty of peering past these cultural assumptions is compounded by a unique challenge facing law enforcement, one that applies directly to Johnson and Griner’s case.

As the Center for American Progress (CAP) notes, same-sex victims are “more likely to fight back than are heterosexual women,” which makes it more difficult for law enforcement to locate the origin of the conflict. Police will declare the fighting “mutual,” CAP notes, leaving “the history of power and control in the relationship” unexamined.

The language of mutuality makes it difficult to ascertain the nature of Johnson and Griner’s relationship beneath the veneer of their picturesque public romance.

One independent attorney told Sports Illustrated that the medical records clearly suggest that Griner was the aggressor in the situation.

Johnson also suggested that she was protecting herself, telling SI, “If I’m being fought, I’m not just gonna sit back.”

But when asked about the domestic violence incident in her ESPN interview about the annulment, Griner stuck closely to the official account.

“Everybody has seen the report that the police has let out and it was mutual,” she said. “They called it ‘mutual combat’ and, you know, that’s what it is.”

Many in LGBT and celebrity media also brushed the incident aside or treated it as a one-time mutual incident.

Although many sites reported on the dispute in April, mentions of domestic violence were largely absent from later posts about their May wedding and Johnson’s pregnancy announcement.

AfterEllen simply wished their best to “the happy couple” when the pair wed, excerpting the fluffiest bits of the People exclusive while leaving the discussion of domestic violence untouched even though the April incident had occurred just two weeks earlier.

Mainstream accounts—like the New York Times profile of their nuptials—kept the couple’s tempestuous past in the public conversation, but the mood in some LGBT circles was one of denial.

One Autostraddle editor even admitted to actively trying to ignore the issue in her brief news post on the wedding: “I’m also assuming some of us had some complex emotions but right now I’m just trying to soak up the wedding photos and pretend everything is right and nothing is ever wrong, amen.”

But pretending like “nothing is ever wrong” is one of the chief reasons why domestic violence in same-sex female relationships remains so challenging to talk about.

In fact, as CAP observes, many lesbians might “hide their abuse out of a heightened fear that society will perceive same-sex relationships as inherently dysfunctional” despite the fact that rates of violence in same-sex and opposite-sex relationships are comparable.

The mantra that “nothing is ever wrong” will only discourage people in same-sex couples from being honest about the abuse they experience.

Before any of this started, Griner hoped to be “a light who inspires others,” as she wrote in The New York Times essay. That hope seems lost, for now.

But in a culture that too readily idolizes celebrity same-sex couples as a function of their rarity, Griner and Johnson’s convoluted and contentious relationship can still shine a light—though a different one than Griner was referring to—on one of the most hidden problems in the LGBT community.