Part of Outsports’ series on our 100 most important moments in gay sports history.
Tennis, 1981: On Aug. 12, 2009, Billie Jean King was at the White House with 15 other prominent Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was honored for her contributions to fights for gay and women's rights. When she received the medal from President Obama, King took it and kissed it.
It was a dizzying moment for King, especially when contrasted with what happened in May 1981 when she was outed in a palimony suit by her former partner Marilyn Barnett. King told the Boston Globe in 2006 that she wanted to retire from tennis then, but could not because she lost all her endorsements in a 24-hour period (an estimated $2 million).
King has said that being outed was traumatic because a person should be able to reveal their sexual orientation on their own terms. And the suit, which she eventually won, revealed an affair she was having despite her being married. She told the London Times in 2007 about her own struggles of coming to terms with being a lesbian:
“I wanted to tell the truth but my parents were homophobic and I was in the closet. As well as that, I had people tell me that if I talked about what I was going through, it would be the end of the women’s tour.
“I couldn’t get a closet deep enough. I’ve got a homophobic family, a tour that will die if I come out, the world is homophobic and, yeah, I was homophobic. If you speak with gays, bisexuals, lesbians and transgenders, you will find a lot of homophobia because of the way we all grew up.
“One of my big goals was always to be honest with my parents and I couldn’t be for a long time. I tried to bring up the subject but felt I couldn’t. My mother would say, ‘We’re not talking about things like that’, and I was pretty easily stopped because I was reluctant anyway. I ended up with an eating disorder that came from trying to numb myself from my feelings. I needed to surrender far sooner than I did.
“At the age of 51, I was finally able to talk about it properly with my parents and no longer did I have to measure my words with them. That was a turning point for me as it meant I didn’t have regrets any more. My father has since passed on but my mother is still around and she’s fantastic. Ilana Kloss has been my partner for a long time now and when I speak to Mom now, she will always say, ‘And tell Ilana I love her’. That’s taken years and years.”
Books and documentaries have been written about King, so this story is not going to try and encapsulate the arc of her amazing life. But consider some of her accomplishments: The first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a year (which got her a congratulatory phone call from President Nixon). Winner of a record 20 Wimbledon titles. An ardent feminist who had an abortion in 1973 (and whose husband told Ms. Magazine about it, much to her chagrin). Best buds with Elton John (who wrote "Philadelphia Freedom" in her honor). Founder of the Women's Tennis Assn., which pushed for bigger paydays for women players. Married for years before being outed in 1981 in a palimony suit. Named by Life magazine as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. Not to mention her famous 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" match against Bobby Riggs (all you youngsters, look it up).
King remains is an active advocate for ending homophobia in sports and met this summer with British Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss the issue. She's come a long way, baby, from being someone deep in the closet.
I had the pleasure of meeting King in 2006, when HBO showed a fabulous documentary on her life. I was there with David Kopay, himself a sports pioneer, and the two had never met. Dave acted like a teenager nervous about going on a date and I walked him over to her to say hello. As he approached and was about to speak, she interrupted with a big smile and booming voice and rushed toward him saying, "Dave Kopay! I know who you are!" The two hugged and King told Dave how much his book had meant to her when she was struggling with her coming out. Dave had tears in his eyes and I saw then how charismatic and classy she was as the two chatted like old friends.
King's personal story resonates because it mirrors changes in society over homosexuality. A story of homophobic parents who come around and of a society that recognizes the contributions of all its citizens, including the nation's highest civilian honor.
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