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Athlete, Author, Activist

Martina Navratilova on Coming Out, the 'L Word,' Playing Hockey and Doing Your Part

(This story was published in 2005).

By: Kaki Flynn

The ball kids at the tournament all love Martina Navratilova’s dogs. She brought six this time, all packed in her car and driven four hours from her home in Sarasota, Fla., to the Bausch and Lomb Tennis Tournament in Amelia Island, Fla.

Chloe, Sydney, Raven, Spike, Vincent and Bina all spent the week about 300 yards from their Mom, who was busy playing doubles in the Stadium Court, while they were hanging out in their own private space at the Barking Lot.

"I have not heard of one person that came out of the closet that wishes they could go back in."

The Nassau County Humane Society set up the lot for people to see dogs up for adoption. Martina’s six dogs, Serena Williams’ Jack Russell terrier, Lindsay Davenport’s newly adopted Rotweiller-mix and some of the other players’ dogs also hung out there as their parents battled on the courts, and then ran over between breaks to walk their dogs.

On the court, fans were cheering for Martina, yelling out her name between sets as she played to the crowds, laughing and joking. The 48--year-old mega-star made it to the semifinals in doubles at this tournament.

The stands were filled with fans telling stories about Martina. One woman saw her play more than 20 years ago, when Martina used to wear rhinestones on her outfits, and the media joked about her weight. Other fans recalled times they simply passed her in the hallway, or touched her sleeve as she signed autographs.

Fans lined the ropes as Martina left the court, holding giant, basketball-sized tennis balls used for getting autographs.

She zipped by them, saying, “Meet me at the Humane Society Tent!” or “Meet me at the Tennis Players Against Breast Cancer Tent!” While the gay community claims her as one of its top activists, Martina gives back to many different organizations.

With few exceptions at this tournament, she only signs autographs at the Tennis Against Breast Cancer booth, and the Humane Society tent, signing anything with the organization’s information on it bought for more than $15, raising thousands for the two organizations in a few days.

One woman nearly keeled over in a Beatle-mania like display, leaping up and yelping that she got Martina’s autograph. The lines that stretched around the courts were made up of a mix of Martina fans. Izod-shirts and pearls mingled amicably with women with arms wrapped tightly around each other’s waists.

I asked a father who was in line with his 6-year old son, waiting to get Martina’s autograph, what he thought of Martina being a lesbian. Did it bother him that his son thought of a lesbian as a hero? This tournament is being held in Nassau County, which voted 80% Republican in the last election.

“No, I think Martina is a bad ass!” the man said. “Besides, I’m a ‘hetero,’ but my best friend is a gay man.”

We asked our favorite “bad ass” what she was up to these days, including what advice she has for athletes who want to come out, her new book on health and fitness launching next spring, LPGA player Rosie Jones, going whale-watching with Olivia Cruise Lines, the “L-Word,” and moving to Florida.

The old newspaper stories that used to describe Martina as the “cold Eastern European” compared to her American competitors seem like silly fairy tales now. Martina is warm and friendly, laughing out loud in spots throughout the interview.

Long gone are the rhinestones and headbands, even though a life-size black and white banner that pictures Martina in those days hangs in the entry way to the tournament.

She now plays in casual outfits that include shorts and a baseball cap that she turns forwards and backwards throughout her matches. The celebrity sightings of her around town include her trips to the local health food store. Muscled, tan, and “very taken,” she still leaps around the court, Martina-style, many commenting that she looks better now than she ever has.

We chatted in the Player’s Lounge at the Bausch and Lomb,

Q: You recently signed with Olivia Cruise Lines. When can people sign up for a cruise with you?

A: Right now, I don’t have time to go on a cruise-cruise, I’m just going to go in for one day. But there are many places that they do cruises to that I would like to visit. I might do one or two this year, but most will be next year.

Q: If you could pick a place to go on a cruise, where would you go?

A: I would go to Antarctica, because I want to see the blue whales.

Q: LPGA player Rosie Jones is sponsored by Olivia as well. Have you had a chance to talk to her?

A: No, not at all, but I am rooting for her. She finished second at the Nabisco (Golf Tournament). It has been great for her, I’m just happy for her that she is feeling better about herself as a person. And that she doesn’t have to pretend (about being gay). It’s really nice to let it out in the open, and you can just get on with your life, and relax.

Q: When Rosie Jones came out did she contact you?

A: No, there is no need to. People in the (LPGA) knew what was going on anyway. It’s just a matter of dealing with the media, but she has been OK with that. If it’s a 20 year-old it’s one thing, but she knows what she is doing.

Q: Rosie was put under a lot of pressure when she came out. She came out in the New York Times, and basically said, “I’m out, I’m a golfer, and that’s it.” And she’s stuck to that, and hasn’t really gotten involved, like you have done. Do you think that when athletes come out, they have an obligation to become involved in the community?

A: Absolutely not! Absolutely not! You don’t need to. You can be an environmentalist, and you give your money. You do your recycling, and you don’t have to go and preach to other people about recycling. You do your part, just by being out and then open about it. If more people were like that, we would have a lot fewer problems. You do not need to be an activist. You don’t owe anybody anything.

I was upset when people assumed that Ellen DeGeneres should be doing more and Rosie O’Donnell should be doing more. I’m like, doing more of what? They have just given up their privacy, for your cause, and you want them to do what? How much more do you need them to give to be happy? So, no, just by being honest and out about who you are, to me, is enough, you don’t have to do one thing, for the rest of your life, when you are that famous, because that’s your contribution right there.

Q: What advice do you have for athletes that want to come out at the local level? Such as someone in a small town, that may or may not have the support of friends and family?

A: Coming out can be very scary, but at the same time it is very empowering and freeing. Because if you don’t come out, you are in a prison. You are living in a self-inflicted prison. That is no way to live.

It is tricky for athletes in team sports, because they could be black-balled out of the team or the league. They could throw them off the team because they are gay, and that still happens, and that sucks. But I would fight. I would sue. I would bring it to light. You have to fight, because it’s not right, and it’s not fair.

But it’s tricky for team sports also, because you could get hurt because someone could have it in for you. Especially for the men. I think on the women’s side, most of the women on teams know who is gay and who is straight. They don’t care. They just want a good ball player on their side, and they really don’t give a damn. It’s the coaches that get in the way.

And in men’s sports, there is that macho bullshit that is still going on, and they are still living in the Dark Ages, in football, baseball, and hockey a little bit. And they think there are no gay players in the league. Hello! Open your freaking eyes!

Q: There are some good things happening in sports, such as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” working with the Boston Red Sox and programs such as the Women's Sports Foundation's "It Takes A Team," the Homophobia in Sports Project.

A: It is getting there, it is getting better. Little by little. Which is why, again, the more people come out, the easier it will be, eventually. Eventually it will not be an issue, which is what we are all hoping for – ‘Equal rights, that is not an issue anymore!’ But, we don’t have equal rights, so until then, we just have to keep fighting.

Q: Would you say that any repercussions from being in the closet are greater than any repercussions you might have from being out of the closet?

A: The odd athlete might lose some endorsements, but that’s really only going to happen at the top of that sport, so for the most of them, it doesn’t have financial repercussions, which would be a negative. But the positive that comes out of it so far outweighs anything negative.

I have not heard of one person that came out of the closet that wishes they could go back in. And that is the key right there – nobody wants to go back in the closet, and have to pretend, and lie, and try to keep track of who you lied to, who you are not out to, what did you say to that one, what did you say to this person, who is this person (deep sigh). I know women that were together for 20 years, and they were rearranging the furniture when the parents came to visit, and the parents knew, and they were still pretending that they didn’t know!

It’s such a waste of energy! Use it in a positive way. Go volunteer, go to an animal shelter. Go pick up garbage on the beach for a mile!

Q: You have written five books, which includes three murder mysteries, a tennis book, and an autobiography. Any more books coming? A lot has changed since you wrote your autobiography in 1984. Is there a “Martina, Part II” coming?

A: I don’t need to go there. People don’t need to know that much about me. They know enough already. I am writing a book that will be out in the Spring of 2006 about being fit and happy. No more mysteries, except maybe solving how to be fit and happy. I also write a tennis column for USA Today.

Q: Having written so many books, is writing something important to you, that you do on a daily basis?

A: No, I try to keep track (of what I’m doing) sometimes, but I’m really spotty about that. You put so much energy into tennis, and then you go online, and you have 60 e-mails, so - Holy moly! It’s hard to have time. So right now, I do tennis tournaments.

Q: You have mentioned politics a few times in the past couple of years in articles. Is that something you see yourself getting involved with?

A: It’s possible that someday that I may get involved way down the road, if I can make a difference in that way, then I will probably go that route. If it’s more being an activist, which is more up my alley – you know you can take a stand and say exactly what you want – without having to worry about hurting someone’s feelings or playing games.

You know, I’m not much of a politician or a diplomat. I just sort of come out and blurt out whatever comes to my head, and that doesn’t really work that well in politics, but who knows – it’s possible.

Q: The “L Word” on Showtime: There is a character that is a pro tennis player that comes out.

A: I liked it when it first came out, I was a big fan. I think it fell into the toilet. It started out good, and now I’m disgusted by it. There isn’t one decent relationship. The worst thing is the relationships. There isn’t one monogamous relationship. Every show has to have a sex scene. I don’t know what they are thinking. There is nobody in there that I relate to, that I can say, “That’s cool! Wow! I want to be more like that!” If you are a kid coming out, and you want to tell your parents; “Hey, this is lesbian life,” Ahhh! I would switch the channel. I wouldn’t want them to watch it! There isn’t one person that I see, where I think, “I want to be like that!”

Q: You played for a recreational hockey league in Aspen, Colo. (She played for a team called the Mother Puckers). Do you get to play any hockey? Do you miss the mountains?

A: I have been living in Sarasota for two years. I am looking forward to a stopping point so I can go back and do my winter sports. I miss that. I have a place in Aspen that I have been trying to sell. There is a rink about 20 minutes from where I live in Sarasota, where I’ve gone and skated around a little bit, but I don’t know if they have any hockey leagues.

Q: You have been through the ringer with your personal life, but I have to ask the question that everyone wants to know – are you single, or are you ‘taken’?

A: Very taken.

I gave Martina two-thumbs up when she answered, with a smile, that she was "very taken," and then didn't ask her another question about her relationship. Martina had an ex-girlfriend write a book about her (Judy Nelson, a Texas housewife who left her husband for Martina, then outed and sued Martina when they broke up), with the forward to the book written by another ex-girlfriend, best-selling novelist Rita Mae Brown. Lesbians would agree, if you have two ex-girlfriends collaborate on a book about you, you then become debt-free from having to answer questions about your dating life. While we do not know who her current girlfriend is, other past partners include Hunter Reno (Janet Reno's niece), and Nancy Lieberman, the legendary basketball player and coach.

Kaki Flynn has had one-on-one interviews with athletes such as Martina Navratilova (tennis), Nancy Lieberman (basketball), Julie Foudy (soccer), Lisa Fernandez (softball), Greg Norman (golf), Karen Smyers (triathlon), Apollo Ohno (speedskating), Michael Phelps (swimming), and hundreds of other athletes. She has freelanced for a number of publications, including writing the sports column “In Like Flynn” during the Olympics in Salt Lake.