Billie Jean King Travels With A Message About History | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Billie Jean King Travels With A Message About History

Play associated audio

When President Obama announced that the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Russia would include Billie Jean King, there was no need to explain who she is or the prestige she brings to her county. Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, defeated Bobby Riggs in the so-called Battle of the Sexes in 1973, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Lots of great players popularized tennis. But Billie Jean King helped turn Wimbledon and the U.S. Open into heavyweight championships. The daughter of a Long Beach, Calif., fireman, she started playing in the 1950s, when tennis was regarded as a white-collar sport for white people wearing white clothes on country-club tennis courts.

But Billie Jean King told the Oakland Tribune in 1967, "I'd like to see tennis get out of its 'sissy' image and see some guy yell, 'Hit it, ya bum!' "

She was married to a man named Lawrence King and hadn't planned to be an activist for gay rights. But by the early 1970s, she began to admit to herself that she was interested in women. Her former secretary filed a lawsuit, asking for a share of her assets because they had been intimate. Billie Jean King says she lost millions of dollars in endorsements, and, she told The Times of London in 2007, the privacy to work out her own sexuality out of public view.

"It was very hard on me because I was outed," she said. "Fifty percent of gay people know who they are by the age of 13. I was in the other 50 percent."

She said she had tried to speak with her parents about her sexual orientation; but parents in her generation would say, "We're not talking about things like that." And then, she says, there were people who advised her that if her sexual orientation became known, it might destroy the women's professional tennis tour that she had done so much to build.

"I couldn't get a closet deep enough," she said.

So Billie Jean King will join a U.S. delegation to the Olympics with other great athletes, including Caitlin Cahow, the hockey player, and Brian Boitano, the former Olympic skater. Their presence may pointedly remind the host country that the athletes Russia would have been proud to win medals for them might feel insulted by the new Russian law making it illegal to have what it calls a "distorted understanding" that gay and heterosexual relations are "socially equivalent."

Billie Jean King is 70. She has seen tennis become a popular sport with boisterous stars, and gay identity evolve from quiet denial to acceptance and pride. Her presence in Russia may remind people that history can move, sometimes with extraordinary speed, and that people can change. Billie Jean King did, and now, she might change others.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

An Outsider In Buenos Aires Goes Incognito, For Love Of Tango

Carolina de Robertis' new novel God of Tango centers on a 17-year-old widow, recently arrived from Italy with little besides a violin. It's Argentina, 1913 — and a magical new music fills the barrios.
NPR

Matt Stonie Downs 62 Hot Dogs For Coney Island Title

The new champion came in second last year in the annual contest put on by Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, besting eight-time champ Joey "Jaws" Chestnut by 2 dogs.
NPR

A Reopened Embassy In Havana Could Be A Boon For U.S. Businesses

When the U.S. reopens its embassy in Havana, it will increase its staff. That should mean more help for American businesses hoping to gain a foothold on the Communist island.
NPR

Pilot In Solar-Powered Plane Sets Aviation Record

André Borschberg, flying Solar Impulse 2, set a new record of 120 hours in the cockpit on a journey from Japan to Hawaii.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.