The 90 days that shook women’s tennis arrived with little warning in the late spring of 1981. Billie Jean King, the tour’s iconic founder along with eight other women a decade earlier, had just been eliminated in the first round of a tournament outside Orlando. She had no idea that a maelstrom was about to engulf her until the next day, when she returned to her hotel after an outing and found stacks of phone messages waiting for her. That’s how she learned Marilyn Barnett, a former girlfriend, had outed her in a Los Angeles court filing on April 30, 1981, and was now suing her for financial support.
Martina Navratilova, then only 24, did have some advance knowledge her personal life was about to become a story, too. When a reporter for the New York Daily News asked Navratilova for her reaction to King being outed, Navratilova confided to him during the interview that she identified as bisexual but didn’t feel she could publicly admit she was in a relationship with a woman because the WTA Tour could lose its major sponsorship with Avon, and perhaps others.
Navratilova’s U.S. citizenship was still pending as well, and she also feared that being openly gay would be a disqualifier. The reporter initially granted Navratilova’s request to not publish the story, but just days after she received her citizenship, the Daily News decided to run an article after all on July 30, 1981. The headline: “Martina fears Avon’s call if she talks.”
Two of biggest stars in women’s tennis had now been outed in three months.
At the remove of 40 years, and in an era where June is now designated and celebrated around the world as LGBTQ+ Pride Month, the details of the damage and recrimination that King and Navratilova initially faced still pack a strong emotional punch. It was the price they paid for being pioneers.
The evening Barnett’s suit became public, King’s publicist issued a blanket denial refuting all of the claims in Barnett’s lawsuit as King was flying that night back to New York. King was so upset the release was issued without her final approval, she insisted on calling a press conference in Los Angeles two days later, against the protests of her attorney and agent, because, as King says now, “I was determined to tell the truth.”
“I did have an affair with Marilyn Barnett – it’s been over for quite some time” King told a packed room of stunned reporters as her husband, Larry King, sat to her right and her teary-eyed parents looked on from the wings.
What ensued was a firestorm. Very few LGBTQ+ people in any walk of life were out by 1981. King, then 37, was immediately dropped by a slew of sponsors and several companies canceled lucrative in-the-works deals with her. Chris Evert, then president of the WTA, wrote an editorial for Tennis magazine in support of King – “Who are we to judge?” Evert said – and Navratilova decried the “gay witch hunt” that was going on, not knowing it would soon envelope her, too.
Tabloid reporters descended on the women’s tour. Teenage players such as Andrea Jaeger and Pam Shriver said they were asked whether they “feared” lesbians were in their midst, and the New York Post ran a sensationalized story claiming that some players’ parents were worried about their daughters having to share locker rooms or showers with everyone else. Some news outlets were even offering “bounties” to players that would name names of more lesbians on tour. No one took them up on it.
King was so stricken about it all, she finally issued a public plea to the press asking that they reserve their questions for her “and leave the others alone.”
Because of the financial hits she took, she stayed on tour for several years longer than she planned despite her painful surgically repaired knees that she sometimes had to ice even during changeovers in matches.
And the greatest irony of it all? Both Navratilova and King had privately discussed coming out as gay long before they were outed. But they were always talked out of it by friends and tour executives. King traveled the tour with Barnett in 1973 when they were still a couple. By 1981, Navratilova had lived openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, with Rita Mae Brown, the gay rights activist and author. And yet, as Navratilova said in the Daily News story that outed her, “If I come out and start talking, women’ tennis is going to be hurt. I have heard that if I come out – if one more top player talks about this – then Avon will pull out as a sponsor.”
Ellen Merlo, who worked at the time as a brand manager for Virginia Slims and its parent company, Philip(CQ) Morris, confirms there was a huge fear of the unknown in play.
“When Virginia Slims sponsored the tour [before Avon briefly took over] it was no secret within the tour that Billie, Martina and several other players were gay,” Merlo said. “As a sponsor, there was not so much the feeling that it would hurt us as it could hurt women’s tennis if they came out. There was always this question, ‘Would people still want to show up and pay to see women players?’ And of course, they did.”
The world has changed a lot since then, and King and Navratilova have done a great deal to help change it theses past 40 years. Barnett’s case against King did go to court, but on the third day, a Los Angeles judge ruled that Barnett’s attempt to force King to give her lifetime financial support, a portion of her earnings and a home in Malibu by threatening to release the personal letters King wrote to her was akin to blackmail.
When you're open, love can mean so much more. ❤️ 🏳️🌈 pic.twitter.com/S3IqHVVQx9— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 30, 2020
Navratilova, who had defected in 1975 from Communist-run Czechoslovakia to the U.S. when she was 18, would later note the paradox of how she came to America to live freely, but once she was outed, people wanted her to keep quiet, stay closeted, not reveal her true self. She refused to be cowed then, or since.
Looking back now, it is not a reach to say generations of women athletes in all sports – not just tennis players from Amelie Mauresmo to Alison van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen, the current doubles team who are also partners off the court – have had more freedom to openly be who they are and advance the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people because of the groundbreaking path King and Navratilova paved, each in their own highly distinctive ways.
King, who has been indomitable in so many ways, admittedly fought discomfort about publicly discussing her sexuality into her fifties, and her honesty about that struggle gives a new proportion to the human cost of discrimination. She turns 78 in November, and she has never stopped actively advocating for equality for all people, regardless of their race, gender or sexual identity.
Navratilova never reported experiencing an internal struggle about her sexuality like King has. What hurt her most in the early 1980s when she was derided as the Communist defector, the lesbian Amazon who dominated the tour, was she simply yearned to live as she chose. Navratilova said as much after she lost the 1981 U.S. Open final to Tracy Austin 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) in an extraordinary match, and, to her astonishment, the New York crowd rose and cheered so loudly for her though she lost, she began to cry. Not only had Navratilova spoken openly during the tournament about her deep desire to win her first U.S. Open title now that she was an American citizen – it had also been just over a month since Navratilova had been outed on the heels of King.
Navratilova said as she listened to that ovation in New York, “I had never felt anything like it in my life. Acceptance, respect – maybe even love."
Not long ago, King was asked to name what strikes her most about the era in which she and Navratilova were outed versus now, and King quickly answered, “What happened to us wouldn’t happen today. That’s the good news.”
The world was a different place for LGBTQ+ folks in 1981. But Navratilova was already crystal clear about what she believed and, even more so than King, she has been steadfastly willing to wade into controversy, share her unvarnished opinions and take provocative political stances over the years, consequences be damned.
Both King and Navratilova caution there are still places in the world where LGBTQ+ people do not feel safe enough to come out. There is still much work to do. But as Navratilova, now 64, recently told The New York Times’ Matthew Futterman, being outed was in so many ways a welcome thing for her because, “I didn’t have to worry anymore, I didn’t have to censor myself.”
Not that she would have for much longer anyway.
“I lived behind the Iron Curtain,” Navratilova told Futterman. “You really think you are going to be able to tell me to keep my mouth shut?”
Johnette Howard, an award-winning writer and author, co-wrote Billie Jean's upcoming autobiography "All In," due out on Aug. 17.