CultureSunday 05.08.22

How Billie Jean King’s Public Outing Set the Stage for Her Activism

Want to show your appreciation for The Recount's coverage?
Tip us!Tip us!

In 1981, Billie Jean King’s prior relationship with a woman was revealed to the sporting world. King was already a tennis superstar by this time. She had reached world number one status several times, won a dozen Grand Slam singles titles, and built the kind of career that would get stadium complexes and international tournaments to rename themselves after her. In fact, King was considering retirement at this point, at the age of 37.

But all of her success seemed in doubt when she was publicly sued by her live-in assistant, Marilyn Barnett, in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Barnett, with whom King had had a physical relationship, made demands for a house in Malibu and financial support. The following year, a judge called the case “attempted extortion” and threw it out of court.

The damage was already done to King’s private life, as well as her control over her own experience as a gay woman in a much more homophobic era in American society. There was the added complication that King was married to a man at the time, and that Barnett owned dozens of letters documenting her relationship with King.

King appeared with her husband before the press to concede the facts of the affair, while blaming it on loneliness rather than an attraction to women. In a sense, King burrowed deeper into the closet. Still, she quickly lost sponsorship deals, including with Wimbledon. She lost at least half a million dollars in endorsements, her TV commercials deals crumbled, and the chief executive of Charleston Hosiery went so far as to call her a “slut” upon terminating involvement with her.

King paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and continued playing tennis to pay the bills — though she would never add to her 12 Grand Slam singles titles — until her retirement in 1983.

In 1987, King fell in love with her future wife, Ilana Kloss, and they’ve been together ever since. But it wasn’t until the mid ‘90s that she was comfortable fully coming out to the world. Interviewed by NBC in 2017 and asked, “What would you tell yourself to do differently now?” King responded, “I’d come out earlier.”

Her work as an activist for gender equality and LGBTQ rights continues to this day.

The Long Game