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CHICAGO HUMANITIES FESTIVAL Lesbian tennis icon Navratilova on life's hurdles, Olympics
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer

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Martina Navratilova has spent a life fighting and winning battles. On the tennis court, a career that spanned more than three decades netted her 59 Grand Slam titles and nine women's singles title on the grass at Wimbledon. In her personal life, she faced leaving her family in Czechoslovakia at a young age, overcoming breast cancer and coming out as a lesbian.

On Nov. 9, Navratilova talked candidly about the changes and adaptations she had to make personally, physically and professionally in order to keep coming away with match point. Her interview, in front of a live audience, was a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival at the UIC Forum.

Navratilova left Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1975 at 18. She wanted to play in the U.S. Open. "Just to get out of the country, you had to get permission from the interior ministry," she remembered. "They [The Czech Tennis Federation] said 'no' but I was independent, and a trouble maker and defiant." Navratilova left without permission. While she was excited about the freedom to play tennis whenever and wherever she wanted, she knew she could not go back and see her family without facing jail time. It was years before she saw them again.

In 1981, her career was flourishing and she had a lover, basketball star Nancy Lieberman. It was also the year that Navratilova came out as a lesbian. "Male reporters wouldn't ask a male player if he was gay," she recalled. "But it was certainly OK to ask women players. The press put more and more pressure [on me]."

Fear of being disqualified from U.S. citizenship, along with a scandal that outed Billie Jean King and cost all of her endorsements, had kept Navratilova in the closet. Two days after she received her U.S. passport, a New York Daily News Reporter asked her if she was a lesbian, but Navratilova still refused to talk to him, citing the WTA's ( Women's Tennis Association's ) advice that she could lose her sponsorships. "And the next day it's in the paper," she said. "'Martina can't come out because…..!'"

Navratilova acknowledged that, in 32 years, times have changed in the United States. "You were ostracized once for being out, now you're ostracized for being a homophobe," she said. "It's ironic. People are in the closet about being anti-gay."

However, regarding the effects of the Russian anti-gay legislation on athletes competing in the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Navratilova believes the International Olympic Committee has taken a backward stance. "They're certainly not supporting their gay athletes and, to me, if you don't support a gay athlete, you're not supporting any athlete," she said. "I think there should be a lot of kissing going on. The athletes need to be safe about being able to speak."

Navratilova's partner is Russian and she wondered whether they would ever be able to visit with their two children. But, as with every challenge she has faced in life, Navratilova has stayed positive. "Tennis is the epitome of that," she said. "You lose a point and you've got to get over it. I always say attitude is a choice. You can either be miserable or you say, 'This is really tough, but this is what I'm going to do about it.'"

Read an interview with Martina Navratilova at

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