Billie Jean King is one of the greatest and most significant tennis players ever, regardless of gender; the former World No. 1 fought her way to 39 Grand Slam titles, six of those at Wimbledon. She beat Bobby Riggs in "The Battle of the Sexes" match. She founded the Women's Tennis Association. The USTA National Tennis Center in New York City was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in her honour. It's certainly safe to say she is a titan of the sport.
King's belief in, and work towards, gender equality came naturally; speaking on her sexual orientation, however, was more difficult. She married a man, Larry King, in 1965 and had presented as a straight woman to that point; it wasn't until 1981 that King's ten-year relationship with her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, came to light, when Barnett herself sued the Kings for half of their income and their Malibu home. At this point, King felt she had no choice but to speak out:
As she explains, King lost all of her endorsements – which were especially important for a female athlete with good tournament pay not guaranteed – within 24 hours of confirming her relationship with Barnett. Considering the announcement made her the first female athlete to come out, this response was sadly to be expected. Many, however, did praise King for her courage in speaking out and for telling the truth.
Larry King was supportive through this period, and the couple remained married until 1987, when Billie Jean began a relationship with fellow tennis player Ilana Kloss, with whom she is still with today.
Though King had essentially outed herself to the world by acknowledging her relationship with Barnett, it wasn't until she was 51 that she would discuss her sexuality with her parents: "At the age of 51, I was finally able to talk about it properly with my parents and no longer did I have to measure my words with them. That was a turning point for me as it meant I didn't have regrets any more."
Today, Billie Jean King is a gay icon, and has received widespread recognition for her advocacy work. King was elected to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2000, she received an award from GLAAD for "furthering the visibility and inclusion of the community in her work." President Barack Obama awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and in 2013, she was one of the first inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.