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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King 1943to

American tennis champion and trailblazer for women in sports, known best for her victory in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes.” Growing up in Long Beach, California, she learned tennis as a young girl on the local public courts. She was still a teenager when she began to recognize the limitations on women in the sport, as well as anyone who wasn’t white or wealthy, and she wished to change that long before she had a platform to do so. She first went to Wimbledon at the age of 17, and at 22 she earned her first Grand Slam title. She remained at the top of her game for years, but the greatest attention came in 1973, when former world champion Bobby Riggs claimed that women’s tennis was inferior, and that he could easily beat any female player. King reluctantly accepted the challenge, and in a highly publicized match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” she beat Bobby Riggs, making a strong symbolic statement. She continued to play and advocate for tennis, feminism, and civil rights throughout her career. But she wasn’t prepared in 1981 when she was forcibly outed by her former secretary and lover in a lawsuit. She lost her endorsements overnight. She didn’t feel comfortable talking about being a lesbian for the next decade, but describes learning to feel comfortable in her own skin at the age of 51, and has since become an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights. She lives with her longtime partner Ilana Kloss, also a former tennis pro. King continues to fight for women in sports, most recently speaking out in support of the US women’s soccer team. And she was the inspiration for Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom.”

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