The geopolitics of being Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022
Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022 Photo: AFP via Getty Images

WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was arrested a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.

On February 17, the Russian Federal Customs Service detained Griner at Sheremetyevo International Airport for allegedly transporting cannabis-derived vape cartridges in her luggage and charged her with drug smuggling. Griner said she had no recollection of packing the cartridges and told the judge, “I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here.”

As a strategy, Griner pleaded guilty to the charges to expedite her trial, hoping it would open dialogue about a possible prisoner exchange and it could be her get-out-of-jail card. Also, a guilty plea might gift Griner a lesser sentence and avoid retribution from prison guards while detained. Griner’s attorneys have filed an appeal for her nine-year sentence as she serves time in a “gulag-like labor camp.”

Tragically, Griner has become a geopolitical pawn for both Russia and the U.S., highlighting Putin’s ruthlessness and America’s hypocrisy. And, her problems are compounded by being a Black queer woman.

Why is Brittney Griner in Russia?

Many have questioned why Griner was in Russia in the first place. But the answer is simple: the U.S.’s persistent and systemic gender pay gap affects women in every profession. Griner is in a Russian prison as a direct consequence of the gender-pay disparity, even in professional sports.

Since 2016, Griner has played for the Russian oligarch-funded UMMC Ekaterinburg team. The gender salary gap between the WNBA and NBA players is insulting, forcing female players to compete overseas during the offseason, earning them four to five times their U.S. salaries.

The revenue disparity highlights the following: the lack of money poured into women’s basketball, unlike in Russia and other European countries, and female players’ dependence on supplemental work rather than compensating these professional athletes appropriately.

Geopolitical pawn

Griner is no stranger to Russian basketball enthusiasts. But the deafening silence from the UMMC Ekaterinburg team is hypocritically revealing on many fronts. And Griner’s intersectional identities place her in the wrong place at the right time during Putin’s war against Ukraine.

That Griner is an out lesbian isn’t a secret here or in Russia. Russia’s notoriously anti-LGBTQ laws and attitudes are no secret either. The UMMC, however, has been able to insulate and protect its queer players. And, the UMMC has not stepped up on Griner’s behalf.

Some critics contest that Russia’s anti-queer propaganda laws are now being used to weaponize and harass LGBTQ people, activists, and organizations to deflect attention from the war. Other critics of the UMMC’s silence state Griner’s utility to the team expired the day she was arrested.

However, where’s the LGBTQ support for  Griner in the States? Many in the LGBTQ Black community have expressed dismay at the deafening silence from the larger white LGBTQ community. Some wonder if professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe were in a Russian prison, would there be a louder outcry and more robust activism from white queers and organizations. The ongoing effort, however, to bring Griner home has mainly come from African American women. An intersectional and intergenerational group of 1,200 prominent Black women have asked in a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to “make a deal” to bring Griner home.

LGBTQ people in the U.S. and Russia are marginalized differently. While Americans can look at Russia’s draconian laws and attitudes, America isn’t looking so good these days. Anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the U.S. has taken a hard-right political turn since Trump, including Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Law” passed this year. With Roe v Wade overturned this year, many are worried about what will happen to reproductive justice, marriage equality, our right to same-gender intimacy, and the fight to combat over 300 anti-LGBTQ legislation bills in 28 states this year alone.

Russia likes to exploit tensions of race and racism in America, especially when it can expose America’s hypocrisy as a paragon of democracy on the world stage. It’s clear that Griner is wrongly detained in Russia. However, regarding the number of wrongful convictions, the U.S. leads all nations. The U.S. incarcerates Black and brown people at five times the rate of whites. Over 2400 people have been exonerated in the United States since 1989.

Who wins the get-out-of-jail card?

Rev. Al Sharpton has asked Biden to arrange for him and a group of faith leaders to meet with Griner. Former NBA player Dennis Rodman said he was going to get her. Their hopes have not panned out.

Griner, however, is not the only American who’s run afoul of Russia’s strict drug laws. Last year, Maryland teacher Marc Vogel, 60, was sentenced to 14 years for entering with medical marijuana to treat chronic pain. In 2018, former Marine Paul Whelan, 52, was sentenced to 16 years on suspicion of spying, and there are others.

Is Griner a good political bargaining chip? Biden needs the black vote for re-election and must uphold his promise to black America. But what will it do for our fraught race relations here?

Moreover, a prisoner swap might encourage more hostage-taking. No trade, Griner might languish in a Russian prison. Griner’s imprisonment has highlighted Russia’s and America’s ongoing power struggle. Also, her marginalized intersectional identities in America -race, class, gender, and sexuality- have highlighted the reason why she’s over there in the first place.

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