By Lana Leonard GLAAD.org | December 8, 2022
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz
Brittany Griner, seven-time all-star WNBA player and two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been freed from Russia after a one-to-one prisoner swap with international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” President Biden tweeted Thursday morning.
Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, was on the call with Pres. Biden. Cherelle appeared at a White House press conference, describing what she called a nine month journey through one of the darkest periods of her life.
“Today I’m standing here overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion I have right now is sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration. My family is whole, but as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole,” said Cherelle Griner.
Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD Ceo and President, expressed relief for the Griner family and LGBTQ community, praising Cherelle Griner for her perseverance.
“Brittney Griner’s long-awaited release is a relief for her wife, teammates, fans, and all in the LGBTQ community who recognized the extreme danger she faced as an out gay Black woman detained in Putin’s Russia,” Ellis tweeted.
“Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, never gave up fighting for her safe return, and President Biden and the State Department never wavered in their commitment to the Griners and the LGBTQ community on Brittney’s behalf. We can’t wait to welcome Brittney home.”
CNN reported that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pres. Biden signed off on a prison swap proposal to Russian officials on July 27. Originally the US asked for the release of both Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan for Bout. However, Russian officials agreed to only release Griner.
Griner was detained in the Moscow airport on Feb. 17 after the Russian Federal Custom Service of Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport allegedly found vape cartridges with less than a gram of cannabis oil inside. There are questions as to whether or not Griner was a target by Russian officials as a political pawn in their globally denounced invasion of Ukraine, or if the targeting was because she is an American, a Black woman, and a gay woman. Griner’s detainment is a reminder of the stark dangers for LGBTQ women of color around the world including gender-based pay discrimination, LGBTQ criminalization, and lack of visibility and equality for women athletes.
Griner was returning to Moscow to play in Russia’s Premier League and FIBA Europe’s EuroLeague Women with UMMC Ekaterinburg nearly six times more than what the WNBA pays her, which caps at just over $228,000 per year. Griner, along with about half of the WNBA’s 144 players, travel internationally to play basketball during the off-season to make extra money.
Although Griner is considered one of the best–players in the WNBA, she makes more than 150,000 times less than top NBA earners like LeBron James who makes $346,000,000, according to the New York Times. Griner has won an NCAA championship in 2012, the same year she earned college basketball player of the year award; she has two Olympic gold medals; she won an WNBA championship in 2014 and was selected as one of the best 25 players in league history in 2021.
Playing basketball abroad as an LGBTQ woman of color in Russia comes with risks.
Russia is not one of the 67 countries that criminalizes LGBTQ people or relationships, but their anti-propaganda law makes it near impossible to live life as an out LGBTQ person.
Russia’s upper house of parliament unanimously voted on Nov. 24 to expand their 2013 anti-LGBTQ law, which is described as a “LGBT propaganda” ban. The 2013 law, for which Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law is modeled, made it illegal for minors to be openly exposed to LGBTQ people, LGBTQ related content or advocacy. The Russian law has expanded to all ages as of Dec. 5, reported CNN.
The law makes it illegal for anyone to promote same-sex relationships, or any other LGBTQ relationships, as “normal” in society. The expansion of the “LGBT propaganda” ban comes after Putin signed a new amendment further limiting free speech under the 2012 “foreign agents” law on Dec. 1. Both new amendments expand penalties across the internet, media, books, audiovisual services, cinema, and advertising.
Before Griner’s release she was ordered to nine years in jail at one of Russia’s harshest penal colony prisons, IK-2 in Mordovia. Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, a co-founding member of the Russian punk-collective, which works in protest to the Russian government, did prison time in one of Russia’s penal colonies after speaking out against the Putin regime. She told MSNBC that torture is common at the prison.
“I’m terrified that Brittney Griner was moved to IK-2,” said Tolokonnikova. “It’s one of the harshest colonies — it is literally the harshest colony in the whole Russian prison system.”
Griner was about to face 16-hour work days coated in brutal racism and homophobia, and what Tolokonnikova says are “slave-like labor conditions,” Griner narrowly escaped the peak horrors of Russia’s brutal autocratic regime, according to a report by The Nation.
While the fight for global decriminalization for LGBTQ people endures, so does Cherelle Griner’s fight for all Americans to be free from Russia’s detainment.
“BG is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf: BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” Cherelle Griner said.