BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Billie Jean King said recently that she couldn’t have revealed herself as being gay in the 1970s because it would have damaged the fledgling women’s professional tennis tour.
King became the first prominent female athlete to come out as gay in 1981 after her partner filed a palimony lawsuit against her.
“I don’t think it would have helped the situation. I think it would have hurt us more because we were just getting started,” she told a Television Critics Association session.
The 69-year-old King will be the first sports figure to be profiled on PBS’ “American Masters.” Her episode airs Sept. 10 in commemoration of the 40th anniversaries of the match against Bobby Riggs match and the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association.
King told the assembled TV critics that the women’s pro tour was just in its third year of existence in 1973 when she beat Bobby Riggs in their landmark “Battle of the Sexes” match.
“It was such a tenuous position,” she said. “We were labeled all the time ‘women’s libbers.’ We were just always under the gun from the media. When I played Bobby Riggs, there wasn’t one woman sports reporter (covering the match).”
King said she fought for 48 consecutive hours with her attorney and publicist about holding a news conference to announce her sexuality after she was sued by partner, Marilyn Barnett.
“The essence was I was outed, and at that time, I was still trying to find myself,” she said. “My poor parents are homophobic. I grew up homophobic, so you can imagine this challenge. I didn’t get comfortable in my own skin until I was 51 about being gay.”
King also recalled her reaction when promoter Gladys Heldman told her she had signed Virginia Slims as a sponsor for the startup WTA Tour.
“I, personally, never smoked. I didn’t like it, but I dealt with it. It was difficult,” King said.
She was playing a full schedule of matches at the same time she was helping launch the women’s pro tour, which lacked infrastructure in its early days.
“When people say, ‘What do you remember about the ‘70s?’ I go, ‘I was tired,’ ” King said. “I was exhausted every moment. But God gave me extra energy, so I’m very fortunate.”