Minnesota Lynx superstar forward Seimone Augustus isn't shy on the basketball court. You can't be when you're racking up WNBA All-Star nods, collecting a 2008 Olympic gold medal or winning a Finals MVP award, a distinction she earned last fall en route to the Lynx championship victory. This year, the 10-1 team is off to the fastest start in WNBA history, with Augustus' 17 points per game leading the way.
In the summer of 2007, however, Augustus was downright bashful, barely mustering the courage to ask her eventual fiancée on a first date. That personal demureness is shifting, as Augustus -- one of just a handful of openly gay professional athletes -- is planning to marry LaTaya Varner at Walker Art Center next May.
After a fleeting dance together at the Gay 90's in downtown Minneapolis that summer, Augustus couldn't work up the nerve to call Varner. So she had teammate Navonda Moore punch the digits, sheepishly dictating the details of a proposed first date from over Moore's shoulder.
"I was so nervous! I didn't really remember what Tay looked like," Augustus confessed during a Vita.mn photo shoot with Varner last week.
Varner, a St. Paul native, had her affections tested early during that first date at Valleyfair.
"If you know African-American females, they don't like to get their hair wet," Augustus said. "So I wanted to see how much she really liked me, I said, 'Come on, let's go on a water ride!'" One soaking and subsequent hair-poof later, Varner had passed the test. The date -- one that began at a spa and ended at Fogo de Chão -- was also marked by the presence of Varner's concerned mother, who checked in every 15 minutes by phone.
"My mom would call asking 'Are you OK, is she nice?'" Varner recalled. "Seimone was like, 'Is your mom really gonna keep calling?'"
Augustus came out as gay to her family at 17, when she was a basketball phenom at Capitol High School in Baton Rouge, La.
"I went out on an undercover date, had a little bit of activity, a little kissing or whatever. And I didn't know what a hickey was, I had no idea I even had one on me," she remembered. When her mother demanded to know who she was with, Augustus told her it was a girl. "My mom was like, 'Oh, I already knew. I just wanted you to tell me.' She went back, drank a beer and that was it."
As a WNBA star, Augustus, 28, has never hidden her sexuality, but was never forward with it -- that is, until Varner recently began nudging her into a more public role, one she'll own as a co-grand marshal at Sunday's Ashley Rukes GLBT Pride Parade in downtown Minneapolis. "We're always out for Pride Weekend, down at Loring Park," Varner said, calling the weeklong celebration one of the nation's finest.
Part of Augustus' newfound comfort is geographic -- the adoptive Minnesotan says she quickly took to gay-friendly Twin Cities culture. When she was drafted first overall by the Lynx out of Louisiana State University in 2006, she knew zero about Minnesota. "But once I got here I saw how people are free and accepting, just walking down the street holding hands," she said, adding that it's extremely rare to see gay PDA in her home state. "Minnesota has definitely helped me with my process, just enjoying life and not being so afraid to show who you are."
For Augustus, the culture of the WNBA has made for an accepting work environment, but she believes the NBA still has a long way to go.
"You find yourself talking to teammates you can really confide in, you can really have those powwow girls nights and get all your feelings and emotions out," she said of the WNBA. "Whereas in the NBA, I'm quite sure they're not having powwows where they're like, 'Oh, I wanna come out and tell ya something.'"
The men's league has made some recent strides, with Phoenix Suns owner Rick Welts coming out as gay last year and vociferous pro-gay remarks from elder statesman Charles Barkley.
Part of Augustus' motivation for being more vocal about her sexual identity has to do with empowering others. "You've got to be a role model, and that means letting people into your life and letting them in on the happiness and the joy," she said. "And right now, I just finished a championship season and decided to propose to the love of my life."
Augustus and Varner split their time between the Twin Cities and Moscow, where Augustus plays for a top EuroLeague women's team in the winter. The rigors of travel and fame associated with dating a star athlete don't faze Varner. "She's my best friend," she says. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
When the couple do get rare downtime in their St. Paul home, they're apt to play "Rock Band," spend time with family and just be homebodies. They're both avid Pride attendees, though, and you can expect to see them celebrating downtown this weekend. "I feel like it's my people -- people I'm comfortable being around," Augustus said. "We just have this one time of year that we actually get to celebrate who we are and be comfortable with that."
Whether she's leading her white-hot Lynx to an encore championship or presiding over Sunday's parade, it's safe to say Augustus is in a very comfortable place.
TWIN CITIES PRIDE WEEKEND
- What: GLBT Pride festival, parade, block parties, concerts and celebrations throughout the Twin Cities
- When: Through Sun 6/24
- More weekend information »
MINNESOTA LYNX PRIDE NIGHT
- What: Lynx vs. New York Liberty. Special Pride ticket discounts; after-party at Butcher & the Boar
- When: 7 p.m. Thu. 6/21
- Where: Target Center, 600 1st Av. N., Mpls
- Info: www.tcpride.org
ASHLEY RUKES GLBT PRIDE PARADE
- What: With co-grand marshal Seimone Augustus of the Lynx
- When: 11 a.m. Sun 6/24
- Where: Hennepin Avenue S. in downtown Mpls
- Tickets: Free
- More event information
- Seimone Augustus is wearing a Velvetman crewneck shirt, $55, and Creep cargo pants, $195, both from Martin Patrick 3
- LaTaya Varner is wearing a Wendy Katlen maxi dress, $174 from Roe Wolfe
- Styling and makeup provided by Ashley Kilcher of Roe Wolfe
- Hair styling provided by D'Angelo Alston from Juut SalonSpa Gaviidae