These days, at the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, Billie Jean King has a seat of honor, at Wimbledon often in the Royal Box at Centre Court, often with her life partner, Ilana Kloss.
To borrow a slogan from the Virginia Slims circuit (now the Women’s Tennis Association) that Billie Jean brought to life: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”
This blog posting would go on forever if I were to review Billie Jean’s career and life. Suffice it to write that one of the first professional athletes who came out of the closet — actually she was forced out — and who lost millions in endorsements during that time in the early ’80s, now has an entire national tennis center named after her and is being portrayed in a major movie that has just been released.
It couldn’t have come at a better time when Civil Rights in the United States are now in danger after what I think of as an extended Prague Spring under the Obama administration. Something inside me kept saying, “This is too good to be true. I never thought this could happen in my lifetime.”
But Billie Jean King did.
I was a kid in love with the game of tennis when I first found out about her. The tennis boom was in full swing and I was hooked. I had major boyhood crushes on Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors.
While most boys and then young men in my vast extended family couldn’t get enough of baseball and hunting, I was, typically, the outsider who took up something different. When I wasn’t writing poetry or practicing the piano or bassoon in my spare time, I was on the tennis court honing my two-handed backhand when most guys in that era in rural areas were thought of as sissies for using two hands, and to some degree, even for playing tennis.
That didn’t stop me. I dressed like Björn and Jimmy, grew my hair like them, and played like them, preferring to win from the baseline rather than at the net, again at that time not the expected style for young men.
I also read everything I could about tennis and competed to watch it on television when my siblings and father would groan about our one TV being turned on to tennis.
Billie Jean King was not, by any stretch, my favorite player to watch. I thought she was rude and way too single-minded on the court. But I liked listening to and reading about her. Even back then, long before I was ready to admit I was gay, I knew that Billie Jean was giving a voice to women and to other minorities that I would need and still do when I stand up for my rights. Had I not stood up for myself in my teens and 20s, I would have let myself be pushed off to the sidelines by many men and some women, young and old, with the exception of my uncles and the major women in my life.
I look back and think, “Well, given the era, they didn’t know better.” Very few people, especially in rural areas, talked about being supportive of young men struggling with their sexual orientation. Along with thousands of others, I was mocked, excluded, shunned, discouraged. It was easier that way. In fact, it almost became sport to pick on the fag. A classmate could win popularity points for doing so.
But guess what? I hung around — on tennis courts and in classrooms in high school and college, in the workplace, and in social settings with mostly straight people. Bit by aching bit, while I was trying to make sense of who I was, I gained confidence.
I later met Evonne, Chris, and Billie Jean. Yes, of the three, I enjoyed the thrill of meeting and talking with Evonne the most. I wanted to tell Billie Jean, though, that she gave me all kinds of courage to make it in life and still does. She is a timeless role model. The world can never thank her enough.