American WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced Thursday by a Russian court to nine years of jail time, nearly six months after the 31-year-old was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of smuggling drugs. The two-time U.S. Olympic basketball gold medalist was carrying less than one gram of cannabis oil in a vape pen, which she explained was medical in nature. Still, Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges last month in what her lawyers said was an attempt to receive leniency on her sentence.
Griner wrote in a recent letter to President Biden, “[As] I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever.”
“This sentence is both excessive and wrong,” Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a statement to the press. “We have watched for months as Brittney Griner has been used as a political pawn, even as she has made clear that she did not intend to break any laws.”
Certainly, Griner has been used as a political pawn, especially as tensions between the U.S. and Russia ratcheted up over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia is also clearly willing to hold the basketball star hostage to get concessions from the U.S. government, and her worth to the nation in that regard is higher because of her celebrity status.
“To be clear: Brittney has played for both countries,” Johnson argued. “She has helped build bridges, she is not someone who should be detained for this long on a minor charge. She helped Russia win championship league trophies and she has helped U.S. win Olympics; she is beloved in Russia and in the U.S.”
But that celebrity status and even name recognition within the country where she was detained did not save her from arrest, detention, or a lengthy sentence.
At least one activist thinks race has played a factor in what they see as muted support for Griner from American circles. “Black lesbian women are often forgotten by the LGBTQ community, forgotten by the Black community, and used as props by the feminist community,” Carolyn Wysinger, president of San Francisco Pride’s Board of Directors, said in a statement upon announcement of Griner’s sentence. “It is sad but not shocking to see that the lives of Black lesbian women are not readily protected, and that the political class continues to ignore the threats that jeopardize the safety of our community.”
Wysinger’s statement also makes explicit something that is often played down in news coverage of the case: Griner is a lesbian. Detained in a notoriously anti-LGBTQ+ nation. In 2022 one index of the worst and safest countries for LGBTQ+ travel ranked Russia within the bottom third, at 132nd out of 203.
“We don’t know if Brittney Griner’s presentation fed into her arrest,” notes Merryn Johns, a lesbian travel writer who is editor in chief of Queer Forty. “But Russia’s so-called anti-gay propaganda law might have helped make her a target by officials. Any LGBTQ+ person traveling to Russia takes a risk because just being LGBTQ+ and presenting as such might be seen by Russian officials as ‘exposing’ Russians to homosexuality.”
Griner isn’t an everyday LGBTQ+ traveler, and she presumably wasn’t arrested because she’s a lesbian. Still, LGBTQ+ travel experts say her case should concern queers, especially those traveling to intolerant countries. “I think the Griner case should serve as a cautionary tale for LGBTQ+ travelers who are considering visiting parts of the world that are less friendly to us,” says Paul J. Heney, a longtime travel writer who has been to more than 30 countries. He lives in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, with his husband and two sons. “Our reality as queer people may make us more susceptible to additional scrutiny — and we’re less likely to be treated fairly.”
Johns concurs. “Griner’s arrest and sentencing is a reminder that when LGBTQ+ folks travel they may be more conspicuous than others when crossing borders and might trigger additional surveillance and apprehension in line with local laws,” Johns says. “In other countries gender, racial, and sexual identity can trigger border patrol.”
So those travelers need to be extra cautious about things in their luggage, especially drugs and even prescription medicine.
“Drug laws differ widely from country to country,” Johns notes, saying doing your homework before traveling is key. “Research the local laws regarding your gender identity and sexual orientation before leaving home, and if you do rely on any medication or substances that by chance may be prohibited abroad or in your destination even though they are legal at home — do your homework. With the current global geopolitical hostility towards the U.S. from different corners of the world, you don’t have to be someone of Griner’s stature to attract an agenda, so you need to be on the right side of the local laws.”
Heney adds that there is a long-standing disagreement within the LGBTQ+ travel community about “whether we should patronize destinations with anti-LGBTQ+ laws on the books. One side feels we shouldn’t spend our travel dollars in places like that. The other argues that visibility is the only thing that will change hearts and minds over the long term and helps give hope to LGBTQ+ youth who live in these places.” He muses, “I wonder if now this adds a little more weight to the ‘stay away’ argument.”
If you do land on the side of traveling the world regardless of a destination’s queer-friendliness, Heney advises being especially cautious in known anti-LGBTQ+ countries. “When passing through security checkpoints, borders, airports, and the like, we have to be more vigilant than ever,” he says. “Sadly, the price of our safety might be heading back into the closet for those moments when we might normally wear Pride shirts or show our true personalities. If you do decide to spend your travel dollars in oppressive countries, consider making a donation to a local queer [nongovernmental organization] there — or a charity such as Rainbow Railroad, which works to get LGBTQ+ people out of dangerous conditions.”