Violet Palmer came into the NBA as something of a trailblazer and pioneer, as she and Dee Kantner became the league's first ever female referees upon their arrival in 1997. Nine years later, she became the first woman ever to officiate a playoff game, refereeing Game 2 of the 2006 first-round series between the Indiana Pacers and New Jersey Nets. Now, Palmer has added another historic "first" to her résumé, becoming the NBA's first ever openly gay referee.
Palmer will marry her longtime partner, hair stylist Tanya Stine, in Los Angeles this coming Friday, a little over five months after the now-Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins, making him the first openly gay active player in league history. In advance of the impending nuptials, the veteran NBA referee publicly came out as a lesbian in an interview with Dan Gelston of the Associated Press, saying that her officiating colleagues have known since 2007, but that she now feels it's time to share the information with the world:
"This is actually the big formal coming out," Palmer said. "We are saying to the world, to everyone, here's my wife of 20 years. This is the big coming out." [...]
Palmer said she had been open about her sexual orientation in the NBA for years. There was never a formal public coming out because she didn't want it to overshadow her work blowing the whistle on every star from Shaq to Kobe to LeBron.
"I always wanted people to just look at my work," she said in a phone interview. "Not look at my personal life, not look at my sexual preference. That doesn't matter. I just wanted people to say, 'Wow, she is a pretty damn good referee.'"
As it is with any ref, of course, whether people say that or not is a matter of some debate; Steve Nash, for one, once famously disagreed with Palmer's view on matters. And as it is with any groundbreaking individual standing at the nexus of athletics, homosexuality and social mores, there will be those who take a negative, or more negative, view of Palmer after her announcement than they did before so, even if such "knuckleheads" are relatively few and far between.
But Palmer is made of stern enough to withstand such treatment, thanks to both her upbringing (as she told espnW's Johnette Howard in response to concerns that a female ref would wilt amid the coarse language of players and coaches, "I'm from Compton. I've heard worse in the streets") and 17 years of taking the best and worst that the loudest mouths in the world's biggest league can dig out. More than that, though, as Palmer — who turned 50 on July 20 — told Gelston of the AP, she just felt it was time.
"I think you just get to a certain point in your life where you go, you know what, it doesn't matter anymore. I think that's where I am at that point in my life."
Palmer and Stine always joked they would marry if they celebrated 20 years together. Once gay marriage was legalized in California — and with that Labor Day weekend anniversary date on the horizon — the couple realized it was time to get hitched. They'll marry in front of about 130 guests, including several of Palmer's fellow NBA referees.
She's feeling the kind of nerves she's been able to steel herself from when working in front of players, coaches and 20,000 screaming fans.
"It's a different feeling. This is one of kind of making my life and family complete," Palmer said.
It sounds like a pretty cool feeling for Palmer, Stine and their three daughters. In three months' time, we'll be back to taking Palmer to task for missed calls, whistles blown a half-second too early or too late, or free throws given on shots taken 90 feet from the rim. For now, though, a tip of the cap seems to be all that's in order. Well, that and congratulations to the long-tenured trailblazing zebra and her longtime partner.
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