Sporty Queers series: Billie Jean King

Famed tennis player or the therapist your mom booked you with for next Thursday? Jonathan Exley via Flickr

Slamming misogynists back from whence they came since ‘43

Breaking sexual orientation barriers within sports has been increasingly more common, and representation in sports brings the refreshing and interesting inclusion of a broader audience. In all areas of life, someone had to challenge the status quo and break down barriers to make more inclusive areas. With all major changes comes conflict – Billie Jean King’s legacy in tennis is no different. With 39 grand slam titles, she is truly a force to be reckoned with, but this did not stop her from being a spectacle in the media and in the world of sport.

In the midst of the wage gap in the second wave of the feminist movement, King was the spokesperson for her own movement “equal play for equal pay,” challenging the Wimbledon Grand Slam prize reward. King and eight other women eventually signed a contract to launch their own campaign outside of the World Tennis Organization. All of these women were tired of facing sexual discrimination on the court, in meeting rooms, and in the eye of the general public. They risked their careers knowing that they could have been ousted for defying executive higher-ups and could face potential public backlash. While public backlash did arise, the original nine sparked much in the public’s eye by speaking on what everyone was thinking – the wage gap was utterly unethical.

Not only did King put her life on full blast for depiction, but she also partook in the most widely watched televised tennis match – the Battle of the Sexes in 1973 – where she took on ex-tennis player Bobby Riggs. Riggs’ campaign showed that he was not against the most misogynistic treatment towards King, making snotty comments challenging her femineity. He even went as far as to show up the day of the match with a jumpsuit that had the words “Sugar Daddy” embellished on the back.

While King faced horrific actions of misogyny and intimidation from Riggs and the World Tennis Association, she still held herself in a professional manner and did not stoop to such childish tactics. Not only did King speak to the benefits of professionalism, she demonstrated how such bullying tactics only made Riggs look worse. When Riggs could not get a reaction out of King, he would try harder, making him look even worse in the process.

The Battle of the Sexes gave King an astronomical benefit when she destroyed Riggs at the Houston Astrodome. With over 30, 000 fans sitting on the edge of their seats and over 50 million viewers watching in the United States, it was made plain that Riggs could not put his money where his mouth was.

King proceeded to be a positive feminist figure, and that alone earned her many enemies who wanted to get back at her; in 1981, she was outed as a lesbian without her consent, which contributed to her later making a safer space for teens and young adults to come out in. Gay rights activism highly relies on many queer allies to help them feel safe. While Billie Jean King’s own sexual preference was outed, she has made many efforts in creating a more progressive and safe society that accepts anyone’s sexual orientation. Many of these efforts have contributed to incredibly role-model like behaviour for many young tennis players.


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