Billie Jean King has never been one to mince her words. As part of the WTA's month-long celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month, the WTA founder joined the WTA Insider Podcast to discuss how athlete activism has changed and evolved and issues a challenge to the next generation of players to take up the torch.
Listen to the full episode below:
On how far things have come on tour with respect to LGTBQ issues and visibility:
King: When I hear now what's happening, I always think to myself: Progress. Because we weren't allowed to talk about it on the tour. We were too shame-based. There were very few gays on the tour. People thought there was a ton, but there were not. It was mostly straight women. Most of the time we didn't know we were [gay]. That's how bad it was. It was so shamed-based. For me personally, my family was so homophobic.
The players need to understand: Sponsors would come up to me if they had an inkling that something was going on: if you ever talk about your thoughts on sexuality, we will drop our sponsorship. So during the 70s, I was trying to figure out my own sexuality because I was married to Larry obviously, and I loved him dearly. It was very painful and my parents were homophobic. Just being told that really scared me because this wasn't just about Billie. This was about the entire tour going bye-bye if we talked about it.
And then when I got outed in 1981, I did lose all my endorsements overnight within 24 hours. I was ready to retire so I did not have the playing years to just go out to earn money. After the lawsuit, I lost $500,000 in four months. We didn't make the big bucks. I was under $2 million for my career and I retired at 40. And I had been No.1 in the world.
So it was a really tough time. It took me about 20 years to recover, emotionally and financially, and in every way. I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin until I was 51. I went through an eating disorder.
So those are the things we all go through, our challenges in life. Everybody who is listening, I know you go through your own set of challenges. I've had so many years of therapy that it's been really, really good. I'm a big believer in therapy, so long as you get the right therapist.
On players being admonished to "stick to sports":
King: I think we have a platform. We're very lucky to have a platform. If you feel something individually, it's ok to say whatever you want. I think each person has to figure out their own journey, but it's great when they can contribute and be out front and be honest.
When we had our challenges in the 70s and when I was outed in 1981, I have to say, all the players were great. Nobody cared, really, internally. But we were all frightened. It's something I hope the players don't feel today, I hope. Some may, if they are from countries that have difficulty with LGBTQ then they probably need to find people who will support them. If let's say your parents or culture [don't approve], you have to find a way to not be shame-based about it even if they are. I think that's really important.
Just remember, it's about them, not about you. Shame never works. It's debilitating and it erodes the core of you.
Two years ago today, I had the honor of serving as a Grand Marshal for the @NYCPride March. #Pride isn’t just a single day or month.— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) June 24, 2020
It is living & loving authentically every single day, & it is using your voice to fight for equality, even when it’s hard. 🏳️🌈#EqualityForAll pic.twitter.com/PK5AU2FCMZ
On a call to action:
King: I just hope everyone who's listening will tell their story, know that they have a lot more power than they think, realize what you're blessed in, what you're good at. It's really important to believe in yourself.
When the Original 9 got together and we continued this at the WTA, we were always thinking about the future generations and here's what we thought about:
No.1 if any girl born in this world, if she's good enough, has a place to compete. Think about what it would be like if you only had the four majors. Don't forget the tour is very important.
No.2, the player would be appreciated for her accomplishments, not only her looks, because that's all they talked about in our day.
No.3, to be able to make a living. That was our mantra of three things to carry forward for every single generation.
Right now we don't have a place to compete. So I want them to think about how it is without these opportunities and when they come back they will think differently in how they'll approach their game, their life, and how to ensure that future generations will have a place to compete, be appreciated for their accomplishments, and be able to make a living.