MINNEAPOLIS - Seimone Augustus has always preferred to stay out of the public eye even as her basketball career has taken her to the heights of an Olympic gold medal and a WNBA championship.
With her adopted home state of Minnesota considering a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, the Lynx star is now becoming a vocal proponent of equal rights for gays.
After all, she has her own wedding coming up, to longtime girlfriend LaTaya Varner.
"I felt like it was the perfect time for me, being on a platform where I can make a change with my voice and my situation," Augustus told The Associated Press. "Maybe inspire someone else to come out and be comfortable with themselves. Or maybe someone else's parents will see my parents saying that it's OK to be with your child and love your child unconditionally regardless of your sexual preference."
Augustus came out to supportive parents when she was still in high school and has never hidden the fact that she's a lesbian. But it wasn't until she proposed to Varner on Miami Beach that she started feeling comfortable with the idea of taking things public.
"I told her it's a very huge step," Varner said. "Not everybody can do it. ... It's a major move when anybody can take those next steps."
Down 1-0 to Indiana in the best-of-five WNBA Finals, the Lynx are looking to become the league's first repeat champions in 10 years. Augustus also is fresh off a gold medal at the London Olympics, so she's hoping to take advantage of her increased national profile to help influence the vote.
Augustus and Varner plan to be married in May, and they have dreamed of a celebration at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Varner is doing most of the planning, aside from the dessert on the menu and the shoes on Augustus' feet.
"That's the only thing I want," Augustus said. "Red velvet cake and Chuck Taylors."
Regardless of what happens with the November vote, an official marriage in Minnesota almost certainly won't happen. State law already makes gay marriage illegal, and the couple has discussed travelling a few hours south to Iowa for the official exchanging of vows.
But a constitutional ban on gay marriage would signal to them that the dream of marriage equality in Varner's home state is nowhere near as close to a reality as they hoped.
"I just never understood why someone else's love life and who they love and who they choose to be with affects so many other people's lives," Augustus said. "Is it a scare of, 'Gay people are going to be running around and everyone's going to turn gay?'"
"I never understood the whole point of opposing or hating someone else's happiness."
Varner says she expects gay marriage will eventually be legal in the state, and a "No" vote victory in November would be a sign that times are changing.
"It's not just me and Seimone that are living our lives the way they are," she said. "There are so many other people besides someone who is in the limelight."
Leaders of Minnesota for Marriage, the group pushing for the constitutional ban, have said they're not trying to keep loving couples apart. Instead, they say they want the strongest possible legal protection for what they call traditional marriage, between a man and a woman.
Some high-profile athletes have taken their side: Matt Birk, a centre for the Baltimore Ravens and formerly the Minnesota Vikings, wrote a newspaper op-ed and appeared in an online advertisement in favour of the ban.
"Augustus is free to love anyone she wants, but she doesn't have the right to force same-sex marriage on all Minnesotans without a vote," said Chuck Darrell, spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage.
Augustus credits the happiness she's found with Varner for the fact that she's playing the best basketball of her life. The Lynx missed the playoffs in Augustus' first five seasons and she also had a serious knee injury and a scary bout with tumors in her abdomen in 2010. Varner was there to help her through both rehabilitations, and Augustus has rebounded with a vengeance.
She averaged 22 points a game in the playoffs last season to lead the Lynx to the franchise's first title, then won gold in London this summer before helping Minnesota reach the WNBA finals for a second straight year.
"No way. It's totally coincidence," Augustus said, playfully nudging Varner. "When you find happiness outside of basketball, when your personal life is intact, of course your career is going to fall into place and it has been like that for me.
"Everything at home has been wonderful and now everything on the basketball side is there. And the great thing about it is she's been there with me. She was here when the Lynx were 0-10 (in 2007) and she was here when we went on that championship run."
Augustus' decision to take a more public role in advocating for gay rights is drawing some applause from an athletic scene that has never been particularly welcoming to gay athletes. No active male athlete in the four major pro sports — football, baseball, basketball or hockey — has come out publicly as gay, according to the gay-oriented sports website Outsports.com.
"I think it's awesome because it shows that she's comfortable being who she is and she feels she has the support and people won't treat her differently just because of her sexuality," said Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, a straight athlete who has been outspoken in his support of gay marriage. "It shouldn't affect who you are on the basketball court or football field or even as a human being because of who you love. That's not what makes you a person."
Augustus is wearing one of Kluwe's "Sparklepony" T-shirts — a phrase Kluwe used in an aggressive response to a Maryland state legislator's efforts to quiet Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbedejo's public support of gay marriage — during interviews at the WNBA Finals to raise awareness. Her teammates, coaches and the Lynx front office have fully supported Augustus' efforts.
"The easier route would be to stay closeted because it isn't as accepted as we hope it would be," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "I'm really proud of her for being out in the forefront."
Augustus said she never once felt concerned about how her teammates and coaches would react, but acknowledged that would not be the case for any male athlete considering doing the same thing.
"For the most part, to be honest, everyone thinks that the WNBA is one big lesbo-party anyway," Augustus said. "So the coming out process isn't as tough for us because people are already expecting it.
"For the men's side, because it's like alpha male ego, for a guy to come out and be an active player, not a retired player, it would definitely blow up in the media spotlight."
She calls the perception that the WNBA caters primarily to lesbians "baloney.""It's just hard to deal with at times because that's all people talk about, not really the quality of basketball in this league and how we've grown," Augustus said. "But when you go on blogs they talk about how masculine you look or how aggressive you look."
"I've never seen a basketball player that looks like a beauty pageant winner. We go out here, we work hard, we sweat, we have our hair all over. It's a very physical sport. We have to have a certain body type in order to play this game."
Augustus said she's had several gay athletes reach out to her since she started speaking publicly about her relationship with Varner, and the once-camera shy star is warming up to the spotlight.
"Trailblazing," she said with a wide smile. "I'm trailblazing. It feels great."
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