Lesbian Identity in Sports and Athletics

Smith College Project

Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King

In the 1970s and 1980s, and even still today, the stereotyped figure of the masculine lesbian athlete served as a common image of cultural knowledge. This stereotype developed primarily in the rampant homophobia and gender conservatism of the postwar era as women began to enter male-dominated fields; the historical linkage of masculinity and physical strength made female athletes particularly susceptible to being labeled as a lesbian and homophobia. Professional athletes who identified as lesbian or were suspected to be lesbian, such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, faced constant harassment and rumors from media and fans as well as potent damage to their careers such as losing sponsorships. Homophobia perceptions of lesbianism often forced women to hide their sexual orientation, and the issue of homophobia in athletics was often ignored by sports practitioners, the media, and academics.

Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King were two of the most prominent lesbian professional athletes during the 1980s and 1990s. Both Navratilova and King were professional tennis players and faced media scrutiny and speculation regarding their sexualities during the 1970s, and both were non-consensually outed in the 1980s. Shortly after becoming an American citizen in 1981, Navratilova revealed to a reporter that she had been romantically involved with lesbian writer Rita Mae Brown, but asked that the interview not be published until she was ready to come out. However, the interview was published, and although Navratilova feared the article would cost the Women’s Tennis Association major endorsements, Avon, its primary sponsor, chose not to drop the endorsement. Her other personal sponsors additionally continued to endorse her, although she was unable to find other sponsorship deals in the U.S. after coming out. Similarly, Billie Jean King was outed in 1981 after a former partner, Marilyn Barnett, filed a palimony lawsuit against her. As a founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and an athlete with multiple sponsors, King denied that she was a lesbian and remained married to her husband, Larry. The publicity from the palimony suit cost King roughly $2 million in endorsements, but she didn’t publicly come out as lesbian until the early 1990s. Both King and Navratilova became active in gay rights movements, particularly regarding professional athletics. King described her passion for increasing lesbian visibility in sports as a way to prevent young athletes from going through the discrimination and fear that she and Navratilova faced in the 1970s.

A 1988 newspaper clipping from The Pink Paper ahead of the women’s Wimbledon tournament. The article jokingly tells readers to watch out for “the closet that Billie Jean King stepped out of,” demonstrating the prominent speculation about female sexuality in tennis, as well as the reluctancy to come out.


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