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Sports: Lesbian  
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King finally agreed to the match, a heavily hyped event in the Houston Astrodome, where she soundly defeated Riggs in three straight sets. King's victory not only won her the $100,000 prize, but also gave a boost to girls' athletics nationwide.

Like Didrickson, King did not live openly as a lesbian during the years of her athletic triumphs. Despite a widely-publicized palimony suit, during which she referred to her "bisexuality" as a mistake, King did not acknowledge her lesbianism until 1998. In 2000, as coach of the U.S. women's tennis team, she became the first openly lesbian coach of an Olympic team.


Another well-known lesbian athlete is also a tennis legend. Martina Navratilova, who won at Wimbledon nine times between 1978 and 1990, was a lesbian icon long before she came out publicly as a lesbian herself.

Born in 1956 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Navratilova held the Czech singles title from 1972 to 1974, before she defected to the United States in 1975. An awkward, shy teenager, Navratilova worked for several years in U.S. tournaments before she came into her own as an aggressive serve-and-volley player.

Besides her wins at Wimbledon, she won the U.S. Open four times, the Australian Open three times, and the French Open twice, setting a record in 1984 with 72 straight wins. Like King, Navratilova advanced the reputation of women's tennis and became the first woman to earn $1,000,000 a year playing tennis.

Although she resisted the attempts of the press to bring her out of the closet, perhaps fearing the impact a revelation might have on her prospects for U.S. citizenship, once she came out, Navratilova became a national spokesperson for gay rights.

The Costs of Coming Out

Both King and Navratilova paid high prices financially for being lesbians. Immediately after King's lesbianism was exposed, she lost all of her endorsement contracts, since she was no longer identified in the public imagination only with wholesome athletic achievement.

Navratilova, perhaps the best-known lesbian in professional sports, holds the all-time record for tournament victories, male or female. Despite this, she has consistently received fewer endorsement contracts than either her male counterparts or her more "feminine" female rivals.

Encouragingly, however, in a move that may presage some change in public acceptance of lesbian athletes, in 2000 Subaru signed Navratilova, along with other female athletes, to advertise its Forester model.

Women's Golf

Babe Didrikson's pioneering work in women's professional golf seems particularly appropriate since women's golf has frequently been viewed as a hotbed of lesbian athletic activity, and the LPGA that Didrikson helped found is sometimes derisively dubbed the "Lesbian Professional Golfers Association."

A controversial article in the April, 1997, Golf Plus supplement to Sports Illustrated entitled "Lesbian Spring Break," detailed the party atmosphere in Palm Springs, California, where up to 20,000 women, many of them lesbians, gather each year to watch the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament.

Lesbians as Sports Fans

Although many felt that Sports Illustrated exploited the subject of lesbians' interest in women's sports, the article did describe a real phenomenon within the lesbian community. Many successful athletes are lesbians, and many more lesbians are ardent fans of those athletes. Just as many lesbian golf fans travel to Palm Springs to watch a premier women's golf tourney, hundreds of lesbians flocked to Wimbledon to watch Martina Navratilova play tennis.

In smaller venues nationwide, this pattern repeats itself, as lesbians pack arenas to cheer on local university and professional teams. The new women's professional leagues such as the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) draw crowds of enthusiastic lesbian fans, not only to view the games in person, but also to gather in homes and watch games on television.

Positive Change

Although it is still not easy to be an openly lesbian athlete, there has been some positive change in this regard. In 1993, Martina Navratilova was joined on stage at the March on Washington for Gay Rights by another Olympic tennis gold medalist, Gigi Fernandez.

The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta offered, for the first time, a Gay and Lesbian Visitors Center that logged in up to a thousand visitors a day.

In 1996, Muffin Spencer-Devlin became the first professional woman golfer to come out as a lesbian. She was followed by hall-of-famer Patty Sheehan and Australian LPGA star Karrie Webb.

Tish Johnson, a leading money-winner on the Ladies Professional Bowling Tour, has also come out publicly. As more lesbians find the courage to declare themselves, they break a trail that makes it easier for other lesbians to follow.

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