Billie Jean King by Louis Staples
Illustration by Elena Durey
Louis Staples is a writer and editor from Edinburgh currently based in in East London. He writes about LGBTQ+ issues, culture and politics for publications including Dazed, i-D, The Independent, The New Statesman and Another Man.
Only a handful of times in a generation will someone rise to prominence in such a way that their influence transcends their industry. These people do not wait for change; they create it. Few embody this more than tennis champion Billie Jean King.
By 1972, King was the most successful women’s player of her generation, winning more grand slams than any other American player. The previous year, she became the first female athlete of any discipline to earn over $100,000 in prize money in a single season. But as impressive as these achievements are, fighting to advance the rights of women and LGBTQ people is her lasting legacy.
I grew up assuming I was terrible at all sports. I used to literally run from the football, only to be placed in goal, where my terror intensified. My heart still races at the mere sound of a football being struck, particularly if one is kicked near me, and definitely if there’s a possibility I might have to kick it back.
But my aversion to physical activity ended when I discovered tennis. What began as an attempt to copy my older brother quickly became one of my favourite pastimes. Unlike my brother, and I suspect most eight year-old boys, I was obsessed with female players, especially the Williams sisters. I suppose this is similar to how I always selected female characters like Nina to fight with when playing Tekken. Or how I loved She-Ra: Princess of Power and later idolised Buffy Summers. Growing up gay, strong women made me feel like anything was possible.
Tennis is has travelled further down the path to gender equality than most sports. Female players receive the same prize money as their male counterparts at each of the four annual “Grand Slam” tournaments, as well as prime time TV slots and endorsement deals.
Yet getting to this point has not been easy.
When King was twelve, she had an epiphany after a long day of practice. “I was daydreaming about my little tiny universe of tennis, and I thought to myself: ‘Everybody’s wearing white shoes, white socks, white clothes, playing with white balls, everybody who plays is white. Where is everybody else?' That was the moment I decided to fight for equality and freedom and equal rights and opportunities for everyone. Everyone. Not just girls. Everyone.”
King knew that if she was good enough, she could use her platform to create change. Although she had not yet realised that she was attracted to women, many queer people, including me, can relate to this thought process. After years of being stifled in implicitly heterosexual, hierarchical institutions like schools, so many of us can barely wait to achieve great things and make our mark on the world.
King wasted no time making good on her promises. In 1967, when she first became world number one, the New York Times profiled her. In the interview she criticised the press’s relentless focus on her body image. She is also complained that the elitist “club atmosphere” was holding tennis back and it should be brought into public spaces where everyone could feel welcome. Fifty years ago, when famous women were expected to smile politely and keep quiet, this was radical.
Despite being happily married to Larry King, her college sweetheart, King had realised that she was attracted to women by 1968. Three years later, she began a secret relationship with her secretary Marilyn Barnett.
In 1973, she was challenged to a tennis match by retired men’s tennis star Bobby Riggs. As a former men’s number one, Riggs believed that women’s tennis was inferior to the male game. He thought that, at fifty-five, he could still beat any female player. Creating the public persona of a self-styled chauvinist pig, he set his sights on defeating King.
King finally agreed to play Riggs in a $100,000 winner-takes-all tie dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”. In the run up to the match, she endured a barrage or misogynistic news coverage. Her feminist beliefs were mocked and her achievements were minimized. Nevertheless, King defeated Riggs in straight sets in front of 30,000 fans and an estimated TV audience of 90 million, making it the most-watched tennis match ever.
Battle of the Sexes was more than just a tennis match. It represented a watershed moment. King estimates that in the years since the match, just as many men have spoken to her about its impact on them as women. President Obama told her in 2009 that watching the match when he was twelve “changed his life”. She has also lost count of the women who have approached her to say that, having waited for years, they finally asked for a raise the following morning.
But there was also a wider political context. A year before Battle of the Sexes, Title IX, a Federal law that required education funding to be split equally between boys and girls, came into effect. This meant that women would have access to athletics college scholarships and equal sports resources for the first time. King states that building broader support for the law was one of her main motivations for playing Riggs. “It was about social change,” she explained. “I remember thinking: ‘If I lose it’s going to put women back 50 years’”.
Later in 1973, the US Open became the first grand slam tournament to offer equal prize money to the women’s winner. This followed King’s insistence that she would refuse to play if the prize money was not increased. Without a British tennis star applying this kind of pressure, Wimbledon did not follow suit until 2007.
Progress at smaller tournaments was also painfully slow. Male tournament winners regularly walked away with eight times more prize money than the women. In protest, King and eight other female players broke away from the US Tennis Association in 1974 to form an independent women’s tour. The “original nine” played for just one dollar a day. “Our dream was for any girl, any place in the world, if she were good enough, to have a place to compete and make a living,” she explained in 2017. “We knew it wasn’t about our generation, it was about future generations.” The “Virginia Slims Tour”, named after sponsors, evolved into the Women’s Tennis Association of today. This year, King presented the women’s trophy at the Australian Open. The prize money was $4million, the exact same as the men’s winner. Now that’s progress.
But King also suffered setbacks. In 1981 her affair with Marilyn became public when she sued king for money following the breakdown of their relationship. This pushed King to come out as a bisexual, resulting in the loss of an estimated $2million in endorsements and forcing her to prolong her tennis career to pay attorneys.
King eventually found love with her doubles partner Ilana Kloss. She remains close to her former husband Larry, who named King and Kloss as godparents to his children from his next marriage.
Billie Jean King is more than just an athlete. Viewing sport as a microcosm of society, she used tennis as a platform to push for meaningful social change. Since retiring from tennis, she has strived to empower women leaders in all areas of life. The fact that King was so successful while grappling with her sexuality off-court resonates with queer people like me. People forget that we still have to pass the same exams, or do our jobs just as well, while coming to terms with who we are.
As a gay man, feminists like King, who rally against the patriarchal forces that label femininity as weak and inferior, are among my personal heroes. Feminists and gay men have long had an alliance, dating back to the days of the Gay Liberation Front and London’s first Pride March in 1972. In such an uncertain world, these links have never been more precious.
King knew that that true equality leaves no one behind. She proves that all of us, if we dare to think ahead of our time, can change the world.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.