Battle of the Sexes, out this Friday, tells the story of Billie Jean King's triumphant win against Bobby Riggs. In a landmark moment for female athletes and the women's movement, King proved that we not only deserve a place on the court as much as men do — we also deserve the fame, public accolades, and prize money that go along with it.
Of course, that isn't where King's time in the spotlight ends. In the decades since her win against Riggs, King has made a name for herself as both a trailblazing athlete and LGBTQ activist. Her story shows us that you can incite immense change even if you have to fight for control at first.
GLAAD CEO and President Sarah Kate Ellis explains to Refinery29 that King wasn't always the out and proud gay woman she is today — and that's mostly because of the political climate of the time. "Her narrative didn't belong to her at first," Ellis says. "It was controlled by other people," she adds, alluding to the lawsuit that launched King's sexual identity into the spotlight.
In 1981, King was outed as a lesbian by her former lover, Marilyn Barnett, who was suing her for palimony. Soon after that, King lost her sponsorships and saw her winnings going straight to pay her legal fees and Barnett. Ellis explains that while this was an extremely low point for King, she endured and emerged ready to take ownership of her identity and narrative in a way that she felt like she couldn't before. That was when "things started to soar for her as an activist and an outwardly gay person," Ellis says.
During Refinery29's recent panel discussion with King, Emma Stone, Valerie Faris, and Shonda Rhimes, which was sponsored by Citizen Watch, King shared the moment she became aware of the representation issues within tennis: "Everyone played in white shoes, white socks, white clothes, played with white balls, and everyone who played was white. I asked myself this question: 'Where is everybody else?'"
Though this realization came to her when she was only 12, it ignited her desire to fight for change and equality one day, when she could really make a difference. "Sports are a microcosm of society," King said. "I knew if I could get good enough...maybe I could help change the world and make it a better place." By simply playing the sport she loved, King proved that everyone deserves a place in the athletic world — and that women in sports could be just as talented as their male counterparts.
Ellis adds that her attitude helped people let go of the negative connotations between queerness and athleticism. The idea that "if you’re athletic, you must be a lesbian" has been used to dismiss the talents of female athletes, but, as a gay woman who was also an incredible tennis player, King put a positive spin on that crude stereotype.
At 73, King doesn't appear to be slowing down in her public pursuit of LGBTQ visibility, from her ongoing work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation to her inclusivity project, the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, which she founded to "founded to challenge the way race, gender, and sexuality are used to discriminate against people and prevent them from reaching their full potential."
The ups and downs of King's life played out on a very public stage, but Ellis says that a message of hope can be found in her story: "Sometimes, it is really hard in the world for LGBTQ youth, especially those who feel isolated in this country... But in the end you can come out on top [even] with all the odds stacked against you... You can challenge a system that seems to works only one way. Billie Jean King continues to engage and help move the culture forward."