- 01 May 2020
What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history
On May 1st, 1981, Billie Jean King, driven by the circumstances, became the first prominent professional female athlete to publicly come out about her homosexuality. Her former secretary filed a palimony case against King, claiming she had an affair for several years with the former world no.1 and winner of 12 Grand Slam tournaments.
The people involved
Billie Jean King, living legend in women’s tennis
Born in 1943, she was considered one of the greatest tennis players of all-time, owing not only to her exceptional results, but also to the role she played in women’s tennis development and appreciation. She won a total of 12 Grand Slam single titles between 1966 and 1974, and 27 more in doubles. She created the Women’s Tennis Assocation (WTA), the first syndicate to represent the interest of female tennis players. She was also a key player in the creation of the first women’s circuit sponsored by tobacco brand Virginia Slims. The first female player in tennis history to earn more than 100 000$ in one year (1971), she was also famous for participating and winning the extremely popular “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs, in 1973. In 1981, she was 38 years old and, although she was still a first-class doubles player, she was no longer one of the best singles players: the last time she reached a Grand Slam final was in 1975. She was still however president of the WTA.
As for her personal life, she had been married since 1965 to Larry King, a college tennis player himself, whom she met in the University library, in 1963. It was Larry who originally had the idea, in 1971, to both create a professional women’s tour and to negotiate its sponsorship by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris.
Marilyn Bennett, former personal assistant
Marilyn Barnett, a hair-dresser born in 1948, was Billie Jean King’s personal assistant in the 70’s. She was at the same time her secretary, manager and confidante. According to her own words, quoted by the New York Times on April 30 1981, she was also “cooking, cleaning, and all other things necessary so that Mrs. King’s energy could be totally directed toward playing tennis.” The two women had an affair from 1972 to 1979. In 1979, Marilyn became paraplegic after a fall from a balcony in a Malibu house owned by the Kings, where she lived.
The story took place in several locations. First of all, in Malibu, California, where Marilyn Barnett decided to file a lawsuit against Billie Jean King. Then in Orlando, Florida, where King was playing a tennis tournament when she found out the news. And eventually, in Los Angeles, where the tennis champion held the press conference that would change the course of her life.
By the end of April, Marilyn Barnett, after threatening to reveal their love letters, decided to file a lawsuit against tennis champion Billie Jean King, claiming that in addition to being her personal assistant, they had an ongoing affair that started in 1972.
According to Barnett, their relationship lasted until 1979 and Billie Jean had promised to provide for her needs as well as give her the Malibu home where they allegedly lived together for some time. The former hairdresser invoked a Californian legal doctrine considering that, under certain circumstances, a woman was entitled to share in community property acquired while she lived with a man out of wedlock. Barnett’s lawyers thought this principle could also apply in a homosexual relationship and sought half of Billie Jean King’s earnings throughout the seven-year period.
King was participating in a tournament in Orlando when she got the news. At first, her lawyers issued a statement to deny the facts, describing Billie Jean as “shocked and disappointed” by Miss Barnett’s claims. Very quickly, they filed their own lawsuit to expel Marilyn from the Malibu house in which she still lived. In a New York Times interview on the 29 June 2014, Billie Jean King said that her lawyers had issued the denial without consulting her.
The six-time Wimbledon champion then took matters into her own hands. For 48 hours, her lawyers tried to change her mind, but in vain : Billie Jean King had decided to admit her affair with Marilyn Barnett. In her biography, « Billie Jean by Billie Jean », with Franck Deford, she explained :
“I was sure the thing would never just go away of its own accord. It was always going to be there, nagging at us, and every time it might fade a little, we could be sure that Marilyn and her lawyer would do something to bring it back to the public eye.”
In 2017, Billie-Jean King told NBC News :
“I said, I’m going to do it. This is important to me to tell the truth. The one thing my mother always said : to thine self be true.”
The American champion called for a press conference in Los Angeles on Friday, May 1st, 1981. The room was packed and the conference would be replayed throughout the day on CNN. By her side stood her lawyer Dennis Wasser, her parents Bill and Betty Moffitt and her husband Larry King. Larry introduced Billie Jean’s speech, specifying that she insisted on telling the story herself. She then stood in front of the journalists and, according to the Washington Post, she spoke upon a stunned audience :
“I felt very strongly about this. I’ve always been above board with the press and I will talk now as I have always talked, from my heart. I’ve always felt it’s important that people have their privacy, and unfortunately someone in my life doesn’t think it’s very sacred. I did have an affair with Marilyn, but it was over quite some time ago . . . I’m very disappointed and shocked that Marilyn has done this, not only to herself in a very destructive way but to other people who have cared for her.”
The tennis star admitted the relationship was “a mistake”, while taking “entire responsibility”. According to the same newspaper, she also claimed that she had called the press conference against her lawyer’s advice, because she felt she had to be honest with the public. “I hope they have compassion and understanding”, added Billie Jean King. Finally, she denied having promised any shares in the Malibu house or any financial assistance to Miss Barnett.
The press conference was finished in 20 minutes and a new page of sports history had been written. Billie Jean King had just become the first prominent female athlete to come out publicly. In an age of American conservatism, this was indeed a risk.
Billie Jean King’s statement caused a lot of commotion and she didn’t get much rest in the next few days. Despite her lawyer’s fears, reactions in the American press were largely positive, mainly praising her bravery and her honesty.
She also received strong support from her fellow tennis players. While she had offered to resign from the board of the WTA, she was asked to stay. Interviewed by the Washington Post on May 3rd, Pam Shriver, who was also playing in Orlando, said :
“I don’t think any of the players will have lost any respect for Billie Jean, as far as what she’s done for us as a group. In the last 15 years, she has basically made women’s tennis. I think this is probably bound to have an impact on her endorsements.”
Shriver couldn’t have said it better. In less than 24 hours, Billie Jean King lost all her endorsements, losing the equivalent of two million dollars, as she tells in this video :
In December 1981, judges ruled in favor of King, stating that there was not enough evidence that King had ever promised to give Miss Barnett the Malibu house. Judges also said Marilyn’s action could have almost been considered as an attempt of extortion. She would die in 1997, aged 49.
Despite all the drama, Larry King supported her the whole way and, although they would eventually divorce, it would only be in 1987 after Billie Jean fell in love with her doubles partner, Iliana Kloss. The ex-couple would remain on such good terms that she would become godmother to the son Larry had after he remarried.
A few months later, in July 1981, it was Martina Navratilova’s turn to be outed in a peculiar way, after a Daily News reporter published an interview that was not supposed to go public.
Over the years, it became more common for female athletes to be open about their homosexuality. However, it was not necessarily much easier, as French player Amélie Mauresmo would find out when she came out at the 1999 Australian Open.