Last week in our history of sex column we delved into the feminist triumphs of Billie Jean King over pro tennis’ chauvinist stereotypes, so this week let’s lighten it up and talk about her sex life.
Billie Jean King was born Billie Jean Moffit in 1943 in Long Beach California. Her family encouraged all their children to pursue sports and Billie Jean’s game of choice was tennis. After trying it once the headstrong 11 year old declared to her parents that she was going to be the best player in the world. Her dad, wanting her to show her seriousness, told her she’d have to save up and buy her own racket. So, the preteen try-hard did odd jobs for her neighbours until she saved up the $9.20 she needed to buy the beautiful lavender racket she had her eye on. The rest, is well-known history.
Billie Jean married Larry King when she was only 21 years old and the loving couple were not afraid to admit that they got married just so they could get busy in the bedroom. Billie claimed that all of her friends were already married so it seemed the normal thing to do, it was the 1960’s after all. Billie Jean and Larry were a picture perfect couple, but her quick rise to tennis stardom forced the same question in every interview: “How do you balance your marriage and your career?” This is the same nagging issue that generations of professional women are faced with. She loudly protested that male athletes never get asked that question, they just get asked how they plan on winning the next tournament. In fact, her successful tennis career was all too often compromised by old fashioned values when in 1971, Larry revealed to Ms magazine that Billie Jean had an abortion pre Roe v Wade. His big mistake was sharing her secret without consulting his wife first.
But that was not the end of her personal strife. In 1973, while the world was focussed on her Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, Billie Jean had another problem keeping her up at night. For almost two years, after realizing that she was a lesbian, she had been leading a double life as doting wife to Larry and a secret lover to her personal assistant, Marilyn Barnett. Billie Jean was torn, she had always loved her husband and had not come to terms with her homosexuality until late into her adult life. She spent years struggling with her sexuality and keeping her tryst a secret until suddenly in 1981 she was abruptly outed by a palimony lawsuit brought upon her by Marilyn.
Though it was not on her own terms, Billie Jean became a trailblazer as the first female athlete to publicly come out of the closet, eventually divorcing her husband in 1987.
In interviews since, she has since stated that her parents’ old fashioned homophobia kept her in the closet for longer than she had intended and that her mother struggled with it more than her father when her true self was finally revealed. Her father has since passed and her devoted mother has done a complete turnaround in support of her daughter and gay rights. Billie Jean claims that it wasn’t until she was 51 years old that she finally became comfortable identifying herself with the LGBT community and in doing so has become an ally and a leader for young athletes and LGBT youth alike.