WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was freed from her incarceration in Russia on Thursday and is expected to be home by Friday, President Joe Biden announced. Griner’s release has sparked relief and euphoria among leading Black LGBTQ+ women and nonbinary advocates.
Although Griner’s imprisonment took place overseas, it mirrors the experiences of many Black people who are unjustly imprisoned in the United States and shows what it feels like when someone is actually able to come back home, those leaders said.
Griner had been detained in Russia for nearly 10 months, after Moscow authorities found less than a gram of cannabis oil and vape cartridges in her luggage in February, which Griner had called an honest mistake, saying that she had not intended to break any laws. She was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony after pleading guilty to charges this summer.
Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ+ Task Force, said she felt pure joy as soon as she heard the news.
“I got a text at like 7:30 this morning, ‘Brittney is free.’ I was on my way to my staff retreat. I stopped with my suitcase and I was dancing in the middle of the sidewalk,” Johnson said. She later found herself crying alongside some of her colleagues.
“I was like, why am I crying? I do not know this woman. I am acting like my cousin is coming back,” Johnson said. But in a way, part of her does see Griner as family. The surge of relief was also because, before today, she had started to believe Griner wasn’t coming home.
“I started to question if this was going to stay a priority of our own government, because she literally embodies the identities that are under greatest attack right now: Black, queer, woman,” Johnson said.
She’s grateful that Brittney and her wife, Cherelle, will soon be reunited — and be able to hug each other, and experience the feeling of safety and smell of home for the first time in months.
Victoria Kirby York, director of public policy and programs at the National Black Justice Coalition, said that the deluge of texts and phone calls she’s received from family and friends about Griner’s release showed her that a collective sigh of relief is being let out among many Black Americans.
“We know so many times in our history, and presently, people are arrested for things that they didn’t do or didn’t do in the way that they’ve been charged. And there’s so much similarity in what was happening to Brittney abroad and what we experience at home,” York said. She knew many people who had lost hope — and that sense of hope now feels renewed.
“It’s definitely a familiar moment, the holding of our breath and praying that justice will prevail. And we’re all excited and thrilled to welcome our family member home,” they said.
Through the National Black Justice Coalition, York has been spending months advocating for Griner’s release, at turns working with and putting pressure on the State Department, but they hadn’t discussed the situation that often with her mom. On Thursday, she got a text from her mother asking if it was true that Griner was walking free.
“And knowing my mom, and how she thinks about things, I was just like, in her heart of hearts, she did not believe Brittney was ever gonna come home. She believes she was too Black, too lesbian, too gender non-conforming,” York said.
Their mom’s reaction struck them deeply. It also caused York to reflect on the many parents that don’t believe freedom is possible for their children; to be freely out and able to live their lives without repercussions.
“We can’t take this for granted,” said Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights — referring both to Griner’s freedom, and celebrity status as a Black queer woman who often embraces masculinity. “We didn’t know how this would end up. So just hearing in the morning that she’s coming home — it’s just a wonderful day.”
Black LGBTQ+ advocates have been worried about Griner’s mental well-being during her months of detainment in Russia, and especially the toll of being isolated in a space far from home. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said in November that she feared for her wife’s mental health while in custody — and said that Brittney felt like her memories of her wife were fading.
The mental health detriments of living through a prison sentence go beyond the length of the actual sentence, Johnson said. For many people, the trauma and missing time with family is carried through the rest of their lives.
“I’m certainly worried about her mental health. I’m worried about her transition back,” Rupert-Gordon said. “We don’t know what it took for her to stay strong.”