Trailblazers: A History of Grit and Perseverance

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Martina Navratilova was only 18 when she defected from communist-controlled Czechoslovakia at the height of the Cold War and asked the United States for political asylum. Six year later, in 1981, she became a U.S. citizen.


And then her life grew truly tumultuous.


Navratilova, who had been worried that coming out might adversely affect her bid for citizenship, revealed in an interview with the New York Daily News that she was bisexual and had been in a relationship with Rita Mae Brown, a gay rights activist and future New York Times bestselling author.  Concerned that the news might cause WTA sponsors, chief among them, Avon, to withdraw their support, Navratilova asked the Daily News writer to hold the story until she was comfortable with going public. And yet, days after she received her citizenship, it was published on July 30, 1981 and caused an immediate media feeding frenzy.


Forty years after revealing her sexuality, Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam winner, says we've made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go.

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Three months earlier, Billie Jean King was outed when a former girlfriend sued her (ultimately unsuccessfully) for financial support in a Los Angeles court. Previously, she and Navratilova had a number of heart-to-heart talks about coming out but were always talked out of it by friends and tour officials who feared a backlash.


Navratilova responded to the Daily News story by doing an interview with Dallas Morning News Skip Bayless. She said outside pressure made her reluctant to move in with friend Nancy Lieberman -- a basketball star for the Dallas Diamonds -- who described herself as straight.


“I don’t want to implicate her,” said Navratilova, who would win a WTA-high 10 tournaments and $865,000 in prize money that year. “It’s so silly -- guilt by association.”


Today, June is recognized as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month. But more than 40 years ago, few people were out in any sector of society, particularly athletics.

“You really think you are going to be able to tell me to keep my mouth shut?”

- Martina Navratilova

Both Navratilova and King suffered financially for their courage in telling the truth about their sexuality. They lost sponsors and endorsement opportunities. There was a great deal of external pressure on Navratilova to deny her sexuality, but there was a sense of relief, too.


“I didn’t have to worry anymore,” Navratilova recently told the New York Times. “I didn’t have to censor myself.”


Navratilova was in a relationship with Judy Nelson from 1984-91 and in 2014 married longtime girlfriend Julia Lemigova -- a former Miss USSR and currently a cast member of the Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Miami.” Her role as a very public pioneer has made it easier for those who followed -- from Amelie Mauresmo to Carla Suarez Navarro to today’s doubles team of Alison van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen, partners on and off the court.

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Navratilova, now 66, still gives her time to charities that benefit animal rights underprivileged children -- and gay rights. In 2000, she received the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign.


“I lived behind the Iron Curtain,” Navratilova told the Times. “You really think you are going to be able to tell me to keep my mouth shut?”