Billie Jean King
Birth - Death
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Billie Jean King is one of the most successful women’s tennis players in the history of the sport. Her activism on behalf of women’s tennis is unprecedented, highlighted by her founding of the Women’s Tennis Association (1972), Women’s Sports Foundation (1974), and the creation of the first women’s tennis tournament, the Virginia Slims Tournament. As a prominent lesbian, she has been active with issues around LGBTQ rights.
King’s public tennis career began at the age of 15 when she debuted at the 1959 U.S. Open, though she lost in the first round. She immediately took on tennis great Alice Marble as her coach and went on to win her first tournament in 1960. However, it was her win at the 1961 Wimbledon Tournament in women’s doubles that first drew international attention. By 1965, she was the number one ranked female tennis player in the United States.
It was in 1966 that King won her first Grand Slam event when she took home the Champion’s Trophy at Wimbledon. King would go on to win six such Wimbledon titles and a total of 39 Grand Slam events in her career. The most notable of these wins was her duals with tennis greats such as Martina Navratilova, Virginia Wade, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, and others.
Perhaps her defining moment as a women’s rights advocate came in 1973 when she challenged Bobby Riggs to a match that became known around the world as the ‘Battle of the Sexes’. This was the first high-profile public dual between the sexes in the history of the sport and it drew an astounding global audience of over 50 million people in 37 countries. Her motivation to win overwhelmed her as she believed so strongly in advancing the case for greater recognition of female athletes, and she did not disappoint.
The huge publicity which this event attracted encouraged Billie Jean King to lay the foundations for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the first women’s-only professional tennis tournament. King won that first tournament. Since its inception, King and the WTA have struggled for equal recognition of women’s tennis on issues such as equal pay.
King continued her successful tennis career until 1983. She retired after losing in the semi-finals of the Wimbledon tournament that year. She has continued in the sport as a coach and mentor to many players, including acting as coach for the U.S. Federation Cup teams from 1996 to 2003.
Billie Jean King has been duly recognized for her achievements both on and off the court. She was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and has had many tennis facilities around the world named in her honour, including at the USTA National Tennis Center. In 2009, she was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in her home country.
King’s activism has been driven by the fact she is a woman and was continuously disgusted and ashamed on the lack of fair and equal representation accorded to the sex. It was only later in 1981 that she was publicly outed as a lesbian, and this was during her failing marriage to television personality Larry King which ended in 1987. King had begun a relationship with Marilyn Barnett in 1971 that only became public when Barnett filed a paternity suit in 1981.
Why did it take a public outing for Billie Jean King to acknowledge her sexual orientation? Certainly, her focus at the time was the advancement of women’s rights in professional sports. The fight for LGBTQ rights came only after the public disclosure. Since that time, she has been active on community issues such as AIDS. President Obama noted her lesbian activism when he recognized her in 2009. Most recently, she was a prominent lesbian representative to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in direct defiance of Russia’s anti-gay legislation and intolerance toward the LGBTQ community.
When Billie Jean King did come out as gay, all of her endorsements were pulled. That is certainly a fear of coming out. She also acknowledged that the advancement of women’s tennis, which was still in its infancy, was jeopardized by the unfolding of events. The shock paralyzed her for quite some time, she admits, and she lost all of her money overnight. However, she also admits that it was worth it for the LGBTQ athletes that have since followed in her footsteps.
- LGBTQ Tennis
- LGBTQ Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
- LGBTQ Professional and Amateur Sports Coaches
- LGBTQ Founders and Executives with Charitable Foundations