Violet Palmer made her biggest call yet: The NBA referee will marry her partner of 20 years on Friday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Palmer says she came out to her fellow NBA referees in 2007. She has not tried to keep her sexuality a secret from the league since that time.
"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 will marry celebrity hair stylist Tanya Stine in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be officiated by "Basketball Wives LA" star Tanya Young Williams, the ex-wife of former NBA All-Star Jayson Williams.
Palmer broke barriers in 1997 when she became the first female to referee an NBA game. Under scrutiny from her first tipoff, Palmer instantly proved she could withstand the grumbling and ref baiting that comes with forging a career in a men’s game. She was no publicity gimmick and has since officiated postseason games and the 2014 All-Star Game over a lengthy and varied career that included stints at the NCAA level and WNBA.
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.’"
Palmer said she didn’t initially reveal her sexuality to the NBA while working her way through the ranks, but eventually came out to her fellow referees about dating Stine.
"The guys that I was really close to knew who she was," Palmer said. "But there was half the staff that didn’t know. But I can honestly say, as far as the NBA knew, she was my domestic partner. For me to verbally come out to the 60 guys I work with, I didn’t do that until 10 years (into my career)."
Despite the additional scrutiny likely heaped on a gay referee, Palmer said she believed she still would have been hired by the NBA in 1997 had she said she was gay. She said she didn’t make a conscious effort to keep quiet, she just didn’t feel adding the information was necessary.
Palmer, who turned 50 in July, said she knew around her middle school years she was a lesbian. She didn’t come out to her parents until she was an adult.
"If someone asked me, I would tell them," she said. "But am I going around with the gay flag posted on my forehead? I didn’t feel like it was necessary. But I never hid it.
"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. "I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great career and strive for something that’s never been done and was able to do it. They’re both exciting and it adds another component to my life that probably half the world doesn’t even know."
The couple lives in the Los Angeles area and raised Stine’s three daughters, from a previous marriage, since the start of their relationship.
Stine has long stood with Palmer, even if it meant staying in the background.
"Most people didn’t know, especially in the sporting world, that I even existed," Stine said. "Of course, I went to the games. I went with her. She always had her friends that knew who I was."
Just not the public.
"It was easier to not be (public) so that she could just focus on her job and not have people focus on that aspect of her life," Stine said. "I think most people were just in awe of her doing the job. You don’t really think, ‘Is she at home cooking or does someone cook her dinner? Or, who is she having dinner with?’ She was the woman in the NBA and that became the thing."
Palmer soon will walk hand-in-hand with Stine, with a new life ahead, hearing the kind of noise few officials ever do. Cheers.
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