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King talks of lifelong fight for equality at SF event

by Sari Staver

Tennis legend Billie Jean King, left, played air guitar on a tennis racket that Kate Kendell auctioned off as a fundraiser for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Tennis legend Billie Jean King, left, played air guitar on a tennis racket that Kate Kendell auctioned off as a fundraiser for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Billie Jean King's lifelong fight for equality began when she was 12 years old, when the junior tennis player was practicing at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.

King, 75, speaking to a sold out audience at Brava Theatre April 12, said she remembers noticing that everyone at the club was white. "Where is everyone else?" King asked her mom.

"It was my epiphany," said King at the benefit, which raised over $20,000 for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The question about the noticeable absence of people of color was "not the kind of question you'd expect from a kid growing up in a conservative home," she said. But from then on, said King, "I just kept fighting for equality and freedom."

"I was lucky," she conceded, "because I had tennis as a platform."

King, who lives in New York City with her partner of 38 years, South African tennis star Ilana Kloss, was in San Francisco for an hourlong chat with Kate Kendell, executive director of NCLR.

Kendell, who is stepping down from NCLR this year after 22 years with the nonprofit legal organization, described King as a "badass" and asked her what it was like to be Billie Jean King.

The journey from middle-class kid to world champion tennis player was not always a smooth one, according to King.

"It wasn't until I was 51 years old that I felt comfortable in my own skin," she said.

King's early career had many victories, both on and off the court. Professionally, she became the top-ranked women's tennis player by 1967 and also gained wide respect for her successful fight for equal pay for women in tennis.

King is credited with launching women's professional tennis after she and eight other players broke away from the tennis establishment and accepted $1 contracts from tennis promoter Gladys Heldman, leading to the formation of the Virginia Slims Tour and Women's Tennis Association.

Then, in 1973, King defeated Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle of the Sexes" televised tennis match, a story that was turned into the Hollywood movie of the same name in 2017, in which Emma Stone played King and Steve Carell played Riggs. (The movie was screened at the event.)

But the early 1980s brought a "dark chapter" into King's life she said, when her then-secretary and lover Marilyn Barnett outed King, who was then married to sports mogul Larry King. The story made worldwide headlines and King's agents and attorneys advised to her to stay mum until the scandal passed.

"I wouldn't hear of it. I had to tell the truth," she said, acknowledging the 18-month romance.

"Overnight, I lost all but one of my endorsements" she said. "It was a nightmare, and I don't know how I survived."

"I started my life over," she said, continuing to focus on her crusade against inequality.

Looking back on the decades long battles for equality in women's tennis, King said she and the other early pioneers "convinced ourselves that we were doing this not to make a lot of money or get a lot of applause" but for "future generations."

"Any girl in the world can compete in tennis," said King. "For the first time, women were appreciated for their accomplishments, not just their looks."

King acknowledged the work of Kendell and NCLR, thanking her for the many victories the organization has achieved for the LGBT community.

"We could not enjoy the life we do without you," said King.

Kendell, who grew up Mormon in Utah, said she remembers well the day that King held her nationally televised news conference and acknowledged her lesbian affair. "I remember feeling nauseous because of the shame, stigma, and internalized homophobia that pervaded our culture" at the time, she said.

King urged the audience to refrain from outing others. "People need to come out on their own terms," she said. "I don't want anyone to have to go through what I did" during the outing on national television.

King said her parents, conservative Methodists, did not understand homosexuality.

"Of course they didn't," she said. "If I didn't even understand it, how could I expect them to?"

Now that she has perspective on the process of coming to terms with being gay, King said she has compassion for her family's lack of understanding.

"My mother would've been happy if I'd gotten married, had three kids, and came home" to see her every weekend, said King.

King said she gained further understanding of her mother when, at age 80, her mom talked about her youthful success in athletics. For women of her mother's generation, pursuing their own interests was not encouraged, she said.

"Thankfully, we are living in a different world," King said.

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