The seats of the Siegel Center were filled with students anxiously waiting for renowned tennis icon Billie Jean King to take the podium last Thursday night.
King came to Richmond to discuss her work for gender equality in part of the Humanities Research Center’s Fall Speakers Series, “Celebrating Forty Years of LGBTQ Activism at VCU.”
“Tonight I want to talk to you about the importance of history in our lives,” King said. “The more you know about history, the more you know about yourselves.”
The openly gay and former World No. 1 tennis star has long been a champion for social justice and equality, too. King created new inroads for both women and men in and out of sports throughout her legendary career.
Richard Godbeer, director of the Humanities Research Center, said this month marks the anniversary of a two-year legal victory for VCU students who fought for recognition at the university as the first LGBTQ organization.
“It was a broader narrative of gay students fighting for their lives,” Godbeer said. “While it was an important milestone…We need to remember that our journey is not yet complete.”
Following Godbeer’s introduction was a video presentation of King’s extensive career — both on and off the court.
The screen displayed images of King’s greatest athletic achievements: her triumph at the French Open in 1972, snapshots of King’s 20 career titles at Wimbledon and her 1973 victory against Bobby Riggs at the Battle of the Sexes.
Perhaps the most important part of the video were clips of King’s service work, though.
In 1973, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and by leveraging her position as the most celebrated player at the time she threatened a boycott of the 1973 U.S. Open if athletic pay inequality was not addressed. Shortly after, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to women and men.
The following year, King and her ex-husband, Larry King, founded the World TeamTennis co-ed circuit. She was one of the first women to coach professional male athletes. The audience also watched political figures Bill Clinton and Barack Obama praise King for her social work. Obama even called her a “social justice pioneer.”
King proceeded to list great accomplishments of her heroes and “sheroes” in the LGBTQ community. She commended those who founded the Society for Human Right in 1924, the Daughters of Bilitis — the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S. — which formed in 1955, and the VCU students who battled in the 1974 GAS court case.
“40 years goes by fast,” King said.
King told the story of being at a country club when she was 11 years old. She had only been playing tennis for a year, and one thing stood out to her.
“Everyone was white. Where was everyone else?” King said. “That was the day I knew I wanted to start changing things, and I knew that tennis was my platform.”
That moment jumpstarted King’s advocacy for gender equality.
“I would fight for equality the rest of my life,” King said.
King also discussed the importance of her match against Riggs in 1973 during the Battle of the Sexes. She explained that going into the competition she knew the event would be important for social change and public perception.
After the match, King said women contacted her saying her win against Riggs inspired them to ask for a pay raise. It inspired them to use their voice and take a stand. King said men reached out and said triumph in the Battle of the Sexes changed the way they would raise their daughters.
King’s speech took a leap forward to 1981 when she began to transition from “tennis player to businesswoman.” It was the first time King received endorsements and her professional life was flourishing, although she said her personal life was in turmoil.
That year 32-year-old former hairdresser Marilyn Barnett came forward exposing she and King had been in a lesbian relationship for seven years. Barnett filed a lawsuit contending she was entitled to share King’s assets because of their relationship.
King grew emotional as she resurfaced the painful details of her past.
“I wasn’t being my authentic self,” King said. “Secrets don’t work. If you are living in shame, you have work to do.”
The scandal led to King losing her endorsements, so at age 38 she returned to the court and continued playing on the women’s tennis tour for a year, ultimately making it to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1982 and 1983 and ranking in the top 10.
King emphasized the importance of coming out on your own terms.
“If you’re ready, you’re ready. If you’re not, you’re not,” King said. “Don’t let anyone else define you.”
While being gay in the 1980s was “not something you talked about,” King proudly stated she — and countless other equality advocates — paid the price for a better future for the LGBTQ community. She added that although the LGBTQ community has come a long way since she was outed 35 years ago, there is still work to be done.
“We are still not inclusive and equal,” King said.
Two years ago, King founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI), a nonprofit created to address the critical issues required to achieve inclusive leadership that will lead to significant changes in how women and men operate in the world.
King said she started the BJKLI in part of her efforts to equalize the workplace. Currently, 28 states do not have nondiscrimination laws, which provide protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Virginia is one of those states. King described the difficulty of having to hide your authentic self while in the workplace.
“You’re forced to have two jobs: to hide and fit in and to do your actual job,” King said.
Next month King will celebrate her 73rd birthday, but she said she’s not done yet.
“Millennials, it’s your turn,” King said. “How do you want to shape our future?”
Before stepping off the stage, King said to the audience to remember three things — never stop learning, remember that relationships are everything and be your authentic self.
“It will all start with one simple belief: choose love, not hate,” King concluded.
Maura is a senior cinema and journalism student who’s interested in combining investigative journalism with filmmaking. Before transferring to VCU, Maura was an editor for the student newspaper at Virginia Tech, the Collegiate Times.
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