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Billie Jean King, LGBTQ icon talks Chicago ties, tennis, out athletes
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2020-05-13

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Billie Jean King could easily rest on her laurels as one of the greatest tennis players ever—and she's one of the few to have a movie made about her (the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell).

However, King has done much more, most notably as an advocate for LGBTQ rights as well as gender parity. In a recent interview with Windy City Times, King (who is a member of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame) talked about the COVID-10 pandemic, tennis, politics and the dearth of openly LGBTQ athletes.

Windy City Times: One thing a lot of people don't know is that you have Chicago connections.

Billie Jean King: We [King and partner Ilana Kloss] lived there for 12 years; we're now in New York City. We ran World Team Tennis, which has men and women on each team. We sold it three or four years ago, but we were in Chicago for 12 years and absolutely loved it. We did a lot of work with Mark Walter, the Guggenheim [CEO] whose family is in Chicago now.

And there's also this tennis facility on the South Side of Chicago [the XS Tennis Village], which has indoor courts and some outdoor ones. Kids play there, but some of the world's best players are there, too. [Founder/CEO] Kamau Murray is a great guy who's making some things happen there. It's even a great place to hang out. Anyway, I got behind that and I feel very connected to Chicago. I play a lot of golf there, too.

Also, we have friends here. But other people always bring up the weather first: "How can you live in Chicago? It's so cold there." There are places that are colder. I tell people Chicago is the most underrated city in the world. The only thing I don't like is that it's too segregated; we've got to get rid of that. I think the South Side has so much potential there. People think of guns when you bring up the South Side, but there are a lot of beautiful things happening there.

I think [Mayor] Lori Lightfoot is great. To have a woman who's an out lesbian mayor is fantastic. I think having more and more people in office like her and Robert Garcia—the gay mayor of Long Beach, California, where I'm from—is great. The LGBTQ community has [many problems]: the poverty is higher, teenage suicides are 40-percent higher. People still are not necessarily comfortable with us.

And we really need to be careful these days, with COVID-19, especially if you're immunocompromised with HIV/AIDS. Ilana and I have been involved with the Elton John AIDS Foundation—they kicked Elton and me out because we're too old. [Laughs] He's now the [founder] and I'm the [honorary lifetime] president; David Furnish [John's husband, who chairs the board of directors] has been great. With the foundation, I think it's good to be ambitious, even if you don't make the mark. I think we're trying to eliminate AIDS by 2030; that would be amazing for so many people, including newborn babies.

What's the place in Chicago, on Halsted?

WCT: The Center on Halsted.

King: Yes—I helped them, too.

WCT: Yes; the gym is named after you.

King: Yes. I helped Patrick Sheahan and the Center [with its fundraising campaign]. He's the one I worked with. Do you know what the Center is doing right now regarding COVID-19?

WCT: I know there are some programs and services going on. [The Center is currently closed, but there are some remote services.] Let's switch to tennis. I know that current and former players such as Simona Halep and Amelie Mauresmo have said that this current tennis season should be scrapped entirely because of the pandemic. Where do you stand?

King: I have the feeling they won't play this year. The WTA and ATP [women's and men's associations] are trying to figure out something but COVID-19 will dictate what happens this year—not us. Health comes first, so whatever is most important for our fans and players [takes precedence]. All the factions are trying to get some sort of scheduling together, but I know they'll do what's best for people's safety. There's also been a lot of talk for sports with no fans—so maybe if we can get some fans to watch. But the health of people In the world is number one.

WCT: Recently, Roger Federer has been talking about merging the men's and women's tennis associations—something you've been advocating for decades. Why hasn't that happened?

King: Over 50 years ago, I tried to get us together—but this is why your question is really wonderful. Men of this generation and the one coming up are so much better about inclusion of women than they used to be, and when top men players like him speak out, it's really great. I talked with Roger the other day and I said, "I hope you guys get together and persevere."

Tournaments that have men and women playing together make so much more money than single-gender tournaments. It's a no-brainer that we should [coalesce]. It's good business and we need to do it for our fans; also, media get more money if we get together—we all end up winning. Also, we would be setting a precedent and an example for the rest of the world about inclusion.

What I used to say 50 years ago is that it's not just about what we do on the court, but off of it as well—and make this world a better place. Your generation and younger are better about inclusion. Boy, COVID-19 has brought that idea to the forefront; every ad is about working together now. Every time I see that, I say, "Yes! That's what I've been wanting to tell you." We need to fight for equality and inclusion, and that includes the LGBTQ+ community. We're not a binary world anymore, and we just need to be kind to each other.

WCT: We're supposed to be more progressive than ever. Why do you think more athletes have not come out?

King: We still have a culture that's macho, and ignorance is a part of it. I grew up in a really homophobic culture, but still you notice that if a guy comes out, he's usually retired. The culture of the locker room is so tough—but the difference today is that coming out is celebrated, like with Jason Collins of the NBA.

One difference between when he came out and when I was outed [in 1981] was that I lost most of my endorsements. I lost a lot and was still struggling with my sexuality, so everything was just a mess. Larry [King] was a great guy and didn't divorce me even though I kept asking for one. And it was also about me and the future of the tour, so it wasn't just about me; I had a lot on my shoulders.

When Jason came out [in 2013], President Obama called him and congratulated him. That would not have happened in the late '70s or early '80s—I can tell you that much now. But it makes me happy that it's celebrated now.

However, men weren't really questioned about sexuality like women were. I didn't have one woman sportswriter at the [Battle of the Sexes]. We started the Virginia Slims tour in 1971 and, for years, there were no women at the media conferences. Also, I have a younger brother [Randy Moffitt] who played 12 years of professional baseball [1971-83]; he was always great. He went through a lot—can you imagine the team giving him a hard time [as King went through her outing]? And the straight women stepped up, which surprised me but was great; they didn't care about our sexuality. But every generation has to want, fight and win. We deserve the best.

WCT: I know you're politically involved. If you had a chance to ask our current president one question—and be guaranteed to get the truth from him—what would it be?

King: I try not to think about this president, but focus on what we need to do. What would I ask him? Probably something about COVID-19… I' probably want to know "Did you do the right thing with the information you got about COVID-19?" My understanding is that Trump [disbanded] Obama's pandemic preparedness team; I'd ask him why he did that—and what he's truly doing for people now. It's good to handle things early, like [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom did.

Character is usually revealed when things are tough—even if someone says, "I made a mistake." Sports teach you that.


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