Martina Navratilova on Megan Rapinoe and the Trajectory of Gay Women in Sports
Megan Rapinoe, the co-captain of the champion U.S. women’s soccer team, is confidently and casually everyone’s current favorite athlete, leader, and lesbian. As I watched her take the podium at the ticker-tape parade in New York on Wednesday, her gestures and posture unapologetically what some of us watching would classify as dykey (others may say, politely, that her presentation was not traditionally feminine), I wondered what this moment felt like for another woman, the first American professional athlete to come out. So I called the tennis player Martina Navratilova, who is currently at Wimbledon, working as a commentator but also playing—in a legends doubles match—and asked.
Navratilova’s own coming-out, in 1981, was conflicted and mangled. Six years earlier, at the age of eighteen, Navratilova, who grew up in Czechoslovakia, had defected to the United States. At the same time that she made the decision not to return to Czechoslovakia, she also realized that she was gay. Navratilova was then one of the world’s top two female tennis players—the other was Chris Evert. She had to talk to the press a lot, and the press was becoming increasingly interested in the subject of female athletes’ sexuality.
Navratilova had a policy of deflecting the question. “I never said no, I wasn’t gay,” she recalled. “I just said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, it’s private’—which I really feel it is, private. But they would never ask that question of a male athlete.” Sports was a manly business: “Of course they are straight, unless they are figure skaters or something. Female athletes had to prove that they were straight. It’s not a girl activity.” There were, of course, lesbians on the women’s tennis tour, but Navratilova said that the proportion was, “percentage-wise, not that much higher than the general population. There were a lot more lesbians on the golf tour, but they were more closeted.”
In 1979, Navratilova fell in love with the writer Rita Mae Brown, whose 1973 novel, “Rubyfruit Jungle,” remains the only American lesbian-themed massive best-seller. (It was published by a feminist collective and picked up by Bantam, a few years later, when it had sold seventy thousand copies.) Brown introduced Navratilova to the world of politically active lesbians, in which she was a celebrity, and Navratilova began thinking of coming out publicly. The problem was, her application for U.S. citizenship was still pending and could be denied on the grounds of her homosexuality. (This provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act was dropped in 1990, when it was redrafted by Representative Barney Frank, of Massachusetts, who is gay.) Navratilova developed a new way of deflecting the sexuality question: she would now say, “I can’t talk about it now.” Privately, she told some journalists that she couldn’t talk about it until she became a citizen. She also told some of the other tennis players that, once she had her passport, “If anybody asks me about it, I’m just going to say, ‘Yes, I am gay.’ ”
In April, 1981, a woman named Marilyn Barnett sued Billie Jean King, one of the great female players and the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association. Barnett, who had been King’s lover for seven years, claimed that King had promised to support her for life, and was demanding compensation. Navratilova knew Barnett, who was a hairdresser and had travelled with King for several years. “She did my hair, too,” Navratilova told me. King acknowledged the relationship but said that it was an affair she regretted, and affirmed her commitment to her marriage. “She was trying to pretend that she was still straight,” Navratilova remembered. “She wasn’t, but she didn’t come out until the late nineties.”
The lawsuit caused journalists to ask ever more questions about tennis players’ sexuality. Navratilova knew that she was about to be granted citizenship, which would have freed her to come out—except for one thing: “The sponsors had said to the people in charge that if there was another scandal that they would pull their sponsorship from the tour. So first I was protecting my citizenship, and then I was protecting the people I was with at the W.T.A. I felt I was responsible for sixty to a hundred women.” Their livelihoods depended in large part on the sponsorship money that came from Avon, the cosmetics company then behind the W.T.A.
In the summer of 1981, Navratilova got her passport. “And two days later this journalist calls me, in Monte Carlo. Now I can’t come out because I’m protecting the tour. So I said, ‘You are not going to write about it, are you?’ He said, ‘Not if you don’t want me to.’ I said, ‘Of course I don’t want you to.’ He said, “O.K., I won’t, then.” And two days later it was in the Daily News.” The headline was “Martina Fears Avon’s Call if She Talks.”
Avon did not in fact drop its sponsorship of the W.T.A. Nor did Navratilova lose the endorsements she had—the racquets and shoes stayed in place. “But I couldn’t get any deals outside of that in the U.S., because I was out,” she said. Even as her career soared, as did the popularity of women’s tennis, advertising agencies stayed away. “They would call my agent about a commercial or something, and she would say, ‘How about Martina?’ and they would say no and then Chris [Evert] would get the deal, or somebody else. It was the kiss of death. Advertisers wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole.”
I asked how long that lasted, and Navratilova had to think a moment. The only exceptions were Olivia Cruises, a company offering cruises for lesbians, and, in the late nineties, Subaru, the car company that ingeniously decided to advertise specifically to lesbians. Audiences, though, were more accepting than the advertisers. Two months after the article, Navratilova lost to Tracy Austin, and the crowd clapped its support for the one who lost. “So I felt accepted by the general public,” Navratilova said. “They didn’t care.”
Even after the Daily News article, Navratilova couldn’t speak openly about her sexuality. She had left Brown for Nancy Lieberman, a professional basketball player who was in the closet. “Now I was protecting her. We were ‘friends.’ Everybody knew, but I never owned up to [our relationship] because she was still trying to get endorsements and play basketball.” In theory, Navratilova believes, the question of one’s sexuality should be separate from the question of one’s relationship: “I will own my sexuality, but I don’t want people in my private life. It’s private; that’s why it’s called that.” In practice, however, she felt she couldn’t be fully out until her relationship with Lieberman ended, in 1984. Her next girlfriend, the beauty queen Judy Nelson, had no objections to being open about their relationship. A media frenzy ensued. “The first year we were together, the paparazzi followed us everywhere,” Navratilova said. “It was pretty nasty. And the stories were all about ‘her lesbian den.’ And when we split up, they were calling it our ‘love shack’ or something. We’d been together for seven years, and they were calling it a ‘love shack.’ ”
So what did it feel like now, to see the adulation of Rapinoe, the celebration of the soccer team’s victory accompanied by photographs of players kissing their same-sex partners, the ESPN photoshoot of Rapinoe and her partner, the basketball player Sue Bird? “It’s just fantastic,” Navratilova said. “It took a long time. This was thirty years ago that this was going on. It seems like it happened so quickly, gay marriage and all that, but if you are living in the middle of it, it happened very slowly. I am just thrilled that it’s not only O.K.—it’s becoming less and less of a thing. When people come out, it doesn’t make headlines anymore. It’s a non-issue, which I’ve always said—that I hope one day it will be a non-issue. That’s exactly what I’ve been marching for for decades. I’m thrilled. I’m just so thrilled.”