(“Queer History” is a continuation of a series previously titled “A Test of Character”)
Billie Jean King is a bisexual American tennis champion, formerly No. 1 in the world. She won 39 grand slam titles and the singles title at the WTA Tour Championships among others, represented the U.S. in seven Federation Cups and nine Wightman Cups and was the Federation Cup captain for three years. In addition to being a phenomenal tennis player, King was and continues to be an advocate and pioneer for equality.
King was born in 1943 in Long Beach, California to a conservative Methodist family. She excelled at baseball and softball as a child but switched to tennis at age 11 because it was considered a more “ladylike” sport. The court she first played on was later named after her.
After high school, King attended California State University in Los Angeles but left during her third year to focus on tennis. She married Larry King in 1965. A few years later she realized her attraction to women and started an affair with her secretary that eventually caused her to come out as bisexual, making her the first prominent female athlete to do so. Larry and Billie Jean separated amicably in 1987 when King fell in love with her doubles partner, Ilana Kloss. The two currently live together in New York City and Chicago.
King founded both the Women’s Tennis Association and Women’s Sports Foundation and prevailed in the match billed as the “Battle of the Sexes” by the press against self-identified ”chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs. Retired player Riggs attempted to make himself relevant by proving that even a 55-year-old man could beat a top female player. King’s win has often been heralded as a victory for gender equality.
King criticized the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association in press conferences, calling them out on corrupt practices, elitism and unequal pay. When she won the U.S. Open, King was paid $15,000 less than the male winner. King refused to play in the next Open without better pay. As a result, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal pay in 1973. King was the first woman to earn over $100,000 in prize money. King was the leader of the effort to support the first professional women’s tennis tour in the 1970s with a team called the Virginia Slims. She later became the first president of the women players’ union, the Women’s Tennis Association.
King was one of Time’s Persons of the Year in 1975 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her activist work. In 1987, King was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. King was appointed by President Obama in 2013 to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics—a significant step for LGBTQ representation in the context of LGBTQ inequality in Russia. To learn more about this phenomenal woman, readers are encouraged to enjoy the recent fictional biopic starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell entitled “Battle of the Sexes.”
Caroline Fritz is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in French and linguistics. ✉ CF853302@wcupa.edu.