Tennis icon and equality advocate Billie Jean King urges VCU crowd to be their “authentic selves”

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When women come up to talk to Billie Jean King — the tennis superstar and pioneering advocate for equality for women and LGBTQIA people — about her victory over Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes, they often tell her that the historic match made them feel incredibly proud and empowered as women.

“I hear from women who say, ‘That finally gave me enough courage to ask for a raise.’ I go, ‘More importantly, did you get it?’ They go, ‘Yes, but I waited 10 years. I didn’t have the courage to do it before that.’” King told a crowd of hundreds on Thursday at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.

When men talk about her victory in the Battle of the Sexes, however, they frequently have tears in their eyes.

“A lot of times they’re crying. They say, ‘I saw that match when I was a young man and it changed my life because now I have a daughter and it changed how I raised my daughter. I want equal opportunities for my sons and my daughters. I don’t think I would have felt that way if I had not seen that match when I was young,’” King said. “President Obama saw that match when he was 12 years old. He told me that exact thing, and how it affected him and his life and his two girls.”

That match, considered one of the most important moments in sports history, is remembered today as a key moment in the women’s movement and in society’s march toward equality and inclusion.

“Title IX had just been passed the year before, on June 23, 1972, and I really wanted to win this match to help strengthen Title IX and not let it go bye-bye,” she said. “This match was about social change, and I was really happy that I won because I knew it was really important for social change. I knew psychologically, emotionally that it would really affect everyone, and it did.”

King’s visit to VCU was part of a speaker series organized by the Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences that marked the 40 years since VCU’s first LGBTQ student group, the Gay Alliance of Students, won official legal recognition as a student group after a two-year legal struggle.

King told the crowd about the history of the fight for gay rights in the United States, beginning with the Society for Human Rights in Chicago in 1924, followed by the first national gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, in 1951, along with the first lesbian rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in San Francisco in 1955. The Gay Alliance of Students at VCU, she said, was an important part of that tradition, bringing gay rights to college campuses in Virginia and many other states.

“In 1974, the fight for gay rights came to Virginia Commonwealth University with the formation of the Gay Alliance of Students,” she said. “It took a two-year court battle to be recognized. Two years, they had to fight like crazy just to be an official student club here at VCU. So, 40 years ago, brave students, faculty and community members stood up for themselves and for us on this campus.”

Gay Alliance of Students members such as VCU alumni Brenda Kriegel and Walter Foery, as well as adviser Stephen Lenton and Richmond lawyer John McCarthy, provided VCU and other college campuses with “shoulders to stand on” and opened the door to inclusion and equality, King said.

“Be your authentic self. Do not let others define you. You define yourself,” King said. “Just as Brenda Kriegel, John McCarthy, Stephen Lenton and Walter Foery and the other members of the Gay Alliance of Students did in 1976. They had a chance to shape the future and our community and make our world a better place. And it all starts with one simple belief — love not hate.”

King was outed in 1981 by a former partner in a palimony suit. Overnight, she lost all of her endorsements, worth an estimated $2 million. 

“I lost everything, as far as money,” she said. “I did learn who my friends were and I started to find out about myself and really started to understand: You define yourself. Never, ever let anybody else define you.”

She told the stories of other LGBTQIA athletes that faced struggles with being who they were at a time when society was not especially inclusive.

“Shortly after I was outed, Martina Navratilova came up to me at Wimbledon,” she said. “I was outed in May and Wimbledon was in July. She came up to me and said, ‘I talked to a reporter and told him I’m gay and he’s going to out me.’ This guy was from the New York Daily News. She said, ‘What should I do?’ I told her, ‘If you’re comfortable enough, you should control your message. Just come on out if you can.’ And she did. She came out on her own terms.”

King said she is thrilled that society today is far more welcoming.

“I’m thrilled [that we’ve made progress],” she said. “When my friend Jason Collins came out a few years ago, he got a call from President Obama, acknowledging this moment as history. Now he does a wonderful job in the NBA. When I see that, I think things are a little better.”

Yet, she noted, 72 nations have laws against sexual activity by lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex couples. And 28 states — including Virginia — do not protect LGBTQIA people from discrimination in the workplace.

“We used to say on the Virginia Slims tour back in the day, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’” King said. “But as we all know, we still have a long way to go.”

King cited a Human Rights Campaign study from 2016 that found that despite the changing social and legal landscape, 53 percent of LGBTQIA people are closeted in the workplace.

“In other words, they can’t be their authentic self,” she said. “I want equal pay for equal work. I want more women on boards. I want more women on C suites. I want inclusion and I want equality. But most importantly, I want people to be able to be their authentic self. Do you know how exhausting it is to go to work and have two jobs? One to hide and fit in, and one to actually do your job. It’s exhausting.”

King — who won 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles tennis titles, including a record 20 titles at Wimbledon — founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974. She also co-founded World TeamTennis, which is now in its 40th season and is known as Mylan World TeamTennis.

In 1970, she was one of nine players who broke away from the professional tennis establishment over inequality between the amount of prize money paid to male tennis players and to female players. King and the others accepted $1 contracts from tennis promoter Gladys Heldman, a move that led to the formation of the Virginia Slims Tour and ultimately the Women’s Tennis Association.

“That was the birth of women’s professional tennis,” she said. “So when you see Serena Williams get $4 million for winning the U.S. Open or some of the other players, that’s because of this day. We did it.”

The goal was equality not just for themselves, King said, but future generations as well.

“The vision that we — the original nine, we were called — was that any girl in the world, if she were good enough, would have a place to compete, would be appreciated for her accomplishments and not just her looks, and would be able to make a living playing tennis,” she said. “That was our goal, the nine of us. And the players today on the WTA tour are living the dream. I love it.”

The speaker series was co-sponsored by VCU’s Office of the President, the Division for Inclusive Excellence, the Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences, the Division of Student AffairsVCU AthleticsVCU Libraries, the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's StudiesVCU Alumni Rainbow Rams, Equity and Access Services and Equality VCU.

As part of the speaker series, members of the Gay Alliance of Students spoke on campus on Oct. 4 and were honored for their roles in the fight to win the right to become an official VCU student organization.

Also as part of the series, Marc Stein, Ph.D., the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History, San Francisco State University, visited VCU and gave a lecture on “Students, Sodomy, and the State: LGBT Campus Struggles in the 1970s.”