The NBA's First Female and Openly Lesbian Ref Recalls 19 Years of Close Calls
In several ways, Violet Palmer was a trailblazer. With her recent retirement announcement, she took time to reflect upon what that means.
On October 31, 1997, with her heart pumping, hands sweating, and the eyes of the entire world upon her, Violet Palmer stepped onto the basketball court at a game between the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks.
Nine minutes in, she blew her whistle when a ball was deflected out of bounds. In that moment, history was made: Palmer became the first woman ever to referee a game in a major American men's professional sports league.
These days, Palmer admits she's not as nimble as she was then. In the near two decades she's spent refereeing with the NBA, she has seen her body break down and her ability to keep up with the job's rigorous travel schedule diminish substantially. That's why, a few weeks ago, she made the difficult decision to retire.
"People don't realize how much work it takes," she said. "I had to have a personal trainer, eat right, and go to physical therapy to continue to be a referee over the course of my career. They just see you put on a shirt, referee, and that's it. But age is age. Eventually, it's going to catch up with you."
"But I think I've proven that a woman can do this job and do it well," she continued. "And knowing that the NBA has since hired another female ref solidifies everything for me."
Palmer was hired alongside another female ref, Dee Kantner. Rod Thorn, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball operations at the time, told the Washington Post in 1997 that Palmer's being chosen to officiate first was the "luck of the draw." Palmer officiated 919 NBA games before retiring at the age of 52 and became the first woman to helm an NBA playoff game in 2006. And to say she's a trailblazer would be an understatement: She crossed over into the overtly masculine world of NBA basketball not only as an African American female, but also as a lesbian.
In the late 90s, LGBTQ issues were seldom discussed, and being a woman in the NBA, she said—and all of the expectations that came with it—was punishingly hard. She wanted the public to focus on her performance on the court over anything else. With so many other factors weighing against her career, Palmer knew that making an issue of her sexuality would only add another bullseye to the back of her shirt.
She said it wasn't until 2007 that she finally shared her "secret" with her fellow referees. But her big "coming out" moment didn't happen until 2014, when gay marriage became legalized in California. It was then that she married her longtime girlfriend, Tanya Stine, in front of 130 guests, including some NBA co-workers.
"To be honest, I was always out," Palmer told me. "I just never mentioned it publicly because no one ever publicly asked me. And once I had established myself and gained a foothold within the league, I felt I could say it freely and that no one would care."
Throughout Palmer's career as an NBA referee, she said she never had any player use discriminatory language toward her or make homophobic comments in her presence, despite it being common knowledge within the league that she is gay. Palmer believes it's because the NBA is a diverse organization that pushes for equality on a variety of levels. "If they weren't for diversity, they would have never given me a chance in the first place," Palmer added. "And from the beginning, they have always been supportive of me and my success. I've never gotten any negative vibes regarding my sexuality from the league or the players."
This doesn't mean she hasn't faced intense scrutiny for her gender over the years. "This is a man's game, and it should stay that way," NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley once quipped. "Can't pat them on the butt anymore," Michael Jordan told the Chicago Tribune upon learning of her hiring. Dennis Rodman chimed in with a stab of his own, as recounted in footage from a recent documentary short about Palmer, titled Queen Vee: "Well, if you take her hair off, I think she's a man."
"The NBA has long been a good old boys' organization and a man's world," she said. "My being hired was a bit of shock to the system. And there was definitely some uncertainty amongst coaches and players about how to treat me on the court. They wondered, Can we cuss at her, can we yell at her, can we argue with her?"
The NBA wasn't the first place Palmer had seen resistance to her refereeing men. In 1996, Palmer says her name was being considered alongside other referees for the Men's Division I NCAA Tournament. But the offer was rescinded shortly thereafter. According to Palmer, rumors indicated it was because some men on the NCAA Committee disapproved.
"I'm not sure what the reason really was, but that was the rumor," she said. "That summer, I attended an NCAA camp, and the men there were a bit taken aback by my presence. I can honestly say that after being around them and getting comments like 'why are you here?' or 'you have plenty of games on the women's side,' I wasn't surprised when they didn't give me a shot at it."
And really, that's all Palmer ever wanted—a shot, a chance to prove that she was just as good as her male counterparts, if not better, regardless of gender. "I knew I had a job to do, and I was going to do it," she said. "For me it was more about proving that I belonged on the court, that I knew what I was doing, and that I could do it well."