Being Different: On the Struggle for Change in Tennis

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”—Martin Luther King

(On the occasion of the Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage nationwide, we’re rerunning a May 2013 reflection on tennis and gay rights.)

By Bill Simons

Thirty-two years ago, when Inside Tennis had published only two issues, word came out that the already iconic Billie Jean King was to  hold a press conference at the Oakland Coliseum in relation to her sexual identity.

This was huge.

After all, it was an era of suffocating homophobia. Gays were marginalized – the conventional wisdom was harsh and unsparing. They were dismissed as perverts, quite unworthy of acceptance by proper society. Then word emerged that the most charismatic figure in women’s sports had been involved in an affair with her assistant, Marilyn Barnett. The press conference was raw and raucous. King’s husband Larry, stoic and loyal, was on the podium to lend symbolic support as King told her truth: I’m gay, she confided. What bravery.

The room was filled with a sense of almost frenetic doom. King, a fireman’s daughter, later said that she had grown up “in a homophobic environment. So this was really something … [it was] the biggest struggle I’ve ever had in my life, but I told my PR person and my lawyer, I want to have a press conference, and I’m going to tell the truth. They said, ‘You cannot do that. No one’s ever done that.’ I said, ‘I don’t care what people have done before…I have to tell the truth.’ So I told the truth at this press conference. You could have heard a pin drop, because I said, ‘Yes, I did have an affair with Marilyn Barnett.’ The truth always sets you free, eventually. I did lose all my money overnight, in 24 hours, every single endorsement I had…But it’s okay. You just start over…Everyone has to decide when they’re ready to do something, each human being.”

•••

Of course, King’s raw emergence was in stark contrast to that of NBA player Jason Collins, who in 2013 became the first active athlete in a major American team sport to announce that he was gay. His historic coming out was thoughtful and reflective. The former Stanford star wrote a first-person Sports Illustrated cover story, packaged with care and savvy. President and Michelle Obama quickly lent their support to a deserving hero. A slew of celebrities, from former President Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal, to tennis players such as Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, enthusiastically concurred. Collins became an emblem of courage in an era in which acceptance of gay rights is trending upward with astounding speed.

That was not always the case.

•••

Many simply dismiss tennis as a fuddy-duddy sport, living in the past and played, for the most part, at stiff old country clubs stuck in boring ‘burbs: “I do say Charles, splendid backhand, well-done indeed.”

But indeed, look again.

Truth be told, for all its conservative don’t-rock-the-boat predilections, time and again the sport has somehow, someway been on the edge of change. Go figure.

No, we’re not talking about the creation of Open tennis, tiebreaks, electronic line-calling, or the emergence of muscular Euro gals with grand grunts and devastating backhands. We’re talking about change, sometimes very real social change.

Let us count the ways:

• The extraordinarily courageous Althea Gibson heroically battled racism.

• The LA rebel and dreamer  Gussie Moran was a feminist before the arrival of modern feminism, tweaking Wimbledon’s haughty fashion police and controlling bureaucracy.

Arthur Ashe stepped up and advanced the battle against racism in tennis, and then went on to fight against AIDS and for education.

Martina Navratilova not only fled Communist oppression, but came out as a lesbian, going on to introduce fitness and conditioning into big time women’s sports.

• Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Chris Evert showed that you could be feminine and still a fabulous modern athlete. And it’s easy to dismiss Anna Kournikova, but the Russian-raised beauty informed generations of Eastern Europeans that even if you grew up in a Soviet housing bloc, you can reap fame and fortune in the glitzy West.

• The USTA made a statement that money and vanity don’t always rule, and named their stadium after a man of conscience, Arthur Ashe.

Michael Chang opened wide an Asian door and made clear you don’t have to be a tower of power to succeed.

• Unafraid and authentic, Venus and Serena brought street cred to Centre Court.

• The transformative Andre Agassi became a role model for personal change. Look ma, know-it-all punks can morph into knowing sages.

• China’s Li Na became an inspiration for millions in Asia.

Beyond all this, Billie Jean King’s 1973 defeat of the proud and puffy male chauvinist Bobby Riggs had (with the exception of Jackie Robinson’s shattering of baseball’s color barrier) more impact on American life than any other sporting event.

•••

Free of the subtle collective restraints of team dynamics and not nearly as inherently conservative as golf, tennis is shaped largely by strong individuals and occasional visionaries, and is enriched by diverse genders and wide-ranging world cultures. Here in America, tennis always had to deal with issues of race and gender. And gay culture has long been an unspoken, sometimes tragic, thread in the fabric of the game.

Popular in gay circles, tennis was long viewed as a sissy sport. Certain tennis phrases like, “Tennis, anyone?” spoken by Humphrey Bogart on Broadway in the ’40s, or “Don’t Die Wondering,” which was taken up by a recent French Open champ, have gay connotations. Adolf Hitler shipped the Davis Cup hero Baron Gottfried von Cramm off to a camp for being gay. The most tragic high-profile scandal in the sport was the messy fall from grace of Bill Tilden. Elegant and dramatic, the best tennis player of the early 20th century became entangled in a devastating and punitive Oscar Wilde-like sex scandal that led to headlines, seven months in jail, and a broken life.

After Tilden, Ted Tinling, the singular gay tennis clothing designer and confidante, evolved into a beloved figure. Then in 1981, Martina Navratilova was outed—with devastating effect—by the New York Daily News. “It was a disqualifier to be gay,” said Navratilova (who years later became Collins’ idol ). Officials encouraged her not to talk about her sexuality so as not to endanger sponsorships. She feared it would hurt her hopes of becoming an American citizen. Many an insult came her way, but nary an endorsement deal.

Yes, tennis is by far the world’s most successful female sport and there is equal pay at the game’s biggest events. What an achievement. Still, a consistently homophobic or sexist mindset prevailed. After bad losses, macho men would say, “I played like a woman.” Exhibitions by comedic players, like Yannick Noah and Henri LeConte, often featured demeaning homophobic gestures, and after winning the French Open, a pre-transformation Agassi joked that he was “as happy as a fag in a submarine.”

More specifically, at the 2000 Australian Open, Martina Hingis said the 19-year old Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo—who was soon to come out—was “here with her girlfriend, she’s half-a-man.”

But it was Margaret Court, the Aussie icon with 24 Grand Slams, now a conservative minister, who was most outspoken. Just after Navratilova won her record ninth Wimbledon, Court insisted she was a bad role model. “It is very sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality,” she stated. Navratilova countered, saying that Court “bashed me for being gay. Her line was that it’s in the Bible, against God’s wishes … She’d hardly spoken three words to me in my life, but then chose one of my finest hours to bash me.”

•••

Navratilova barely blinked. Speaking before hundreds of thousands at a Washington D.C. rally, she mocked the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy then applied to gays in the military, saying, “The army gives medals to people for killing people and would throw me out for loving one.”

Of course, tennis and sports in general had its own kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Still, Navratilova was defiant, saying, “I grew up in a communist country where they locked up homosexuals. I never could understand that … I didn’t think there was anything wrong with loving a human being, which is why I never apologized. To this day it really baffles me why it is people’s business to judge you.”

It was Billie Jean who noted a certain plain reality. She asked, “Who in their in their right mind would choose to be gay and be ostracized? It’s not a choice.” Instead of coming out stories, there was a stream of titillating gossip about the sexual preferences of many a performer: an American icon, a British woman veteran, an Aussie icon, a French star, a Spanish journeyman. Why, some whispered, did that major player seem so ambivalent about his girlfriend in that London interview? Was it just a front? And then there was our favorite: did that past champ really date an A-list star as a deception because of his relationship with the star’s son?

But never mind all that.

•••

Jason Collins’ basketball announcement seems to have opened a door and cleared some air in tennis. “Thank you Jason!”, tweeted broadcaster Rennae Stubbs, “Let the conversation begin, you will be loved & embraced by those that love & care & matter.” In contrast, former player Michael Joyce noted that Collins was merely a back-bench player and contended the ex-Celtic came out to get attention.

Billie Jean, however, was ecstatic. “This has been one of my prayers,” she said. “We’ve reached a tipping point. He’s going to encourage people to come out … I am thrilled [he] was able to come out on his own terms and … is ready to continue the conversation. This is a day of celebration for the LGBT community and for all of us. I look forward to the day when the news of anyone coming out, is a non-issue. Once we reach that point we will know we have arrived.”

Navratilova tweeted, “Hey Jason Collins—you are now an activist! And trust me, you will sleep a lot better now—freedom is a sweet feeling indeed!” She also referenced the recent whiplash change in society’s views on gay rights after decades of glacier-like movement. Unlike her coming out experience, she told USA Today, “It’s going to be completely the reverse [for Collins]. He’s going to get huge support and it’s the homophobes now that are getting shushed. … It is the people that are against gays that need to stay in the closet.”

On The Today Show, Navratilova said, “I figured it would happen before the end of the year. I just didn’t think it would happen before the end of the month. It’s about time. … I can’t believe it’s 32 years after I came out, but better late than never. It just puts it on the front page, and most of all, we don’t want being gay to be an issue … Jason coming out this way is going to push that forward a little bit, and most of all, he is going to save lives, there is no doubt in my mind … There is some kid out there who is not going to commit suicide because Jason is out.”

Nonetheless, doubts linger. Will Collins be signed up to play for another NBA team next season? Will a top level player, or even a star, come out? And, in tennis, will a top-100 male tennis player at last come out? Stubbs once suggested, “Male athletes aren’t going to come out because they’re going to get ridiculed and be embarrassed. Men aren’t supposed to be gay if they’re playing sports, it’s just the way it is … They’re never going to come out because they’re going to get ridiculed.”

•••

Has there now been a shift?

Time will tell.

That old quirky arc of history has its own long and winding ways.

All the while, the claim made last year by Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova somehow rings truer than ever: “Being different is one of the most beautiful things in the world.