Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When President Obama announced the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Russia would include Billie Jean King, there was no need to explain who she is or the prestige she brings to her country. Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, defeated Bobby Riggs in the so-called Battle of the Sexes in 1973 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Lots of great players popularized tennis, but Billie Jean King helped turn Wimbledon and the U.S. Open into heavyweight championships.

The daughter of a Long Beach, California fireman, she started playing in the 1950s, when tennis was regarded as a white-collar sport for white people wearing white clothes on country club tennis courts. But Billie Jean King told the Oakland Tribune in 1967, I'd like to see tennis get out of its sissy image and see some guy yell hit it, ya bum. She was married to a man named Lawrence King and hadn't planned to be an activist for gay rights.

By the early 1970s, she began to admit to herself that she was interested in women. Her former secretary filed a lawsuit, asking for a share of her assets because they'd been intimate. Billie Jean King says she lost millions of dollars in endorsements, and, she told the Times of London in 2007, the privacy to work out her own sexuality out of public view. It was very hard on me because I was outed, she said. Fifty percent of gay people know who they are by the age of 13. I was in the other 50 percent. She said she'd tried to speak with her parents about her sexual orientation, but parents in her generation would say, we're not talking about things like that. And then, she says, there were people who advised her that if her sexual orientation became known, it might destroy the women's professional tennis tour that she had done so much to build. I couldn't get a closet deep enough, she said.

So, Billie Jean King will join a U.S. delegation to the Olympics with other great athletes, including Caitlin Cahow, the hockey player, and Brian Boitano, the former Olympic skater. Their presence may pointedly remind the host country that athletes Russia would have been proud to win medals for them might feel insulted by the new Russian law making it illegal to have what it calls a distorted understanding that gay and heterosexual relations are socially equivalent.

Billie Jean King is 70. She's seen tennis become a popular sport with boisterous stars, and gay identity evolve from quiet denial to acceptance and pride. Her presence in Russia may remind people that history can move sometimes with extraordinary speed, and that people can change. Billie Jean King did, and now she might change others.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. And you're listening to NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small