Thursday, April 13, 2006

Philadelphia Freedom



The premiere of HBO's new Billie Jean King documentary, "Portrait of a Pioneer" was Tuesday night here in Manhattan. Sadly, King was unable to attend because her father was hospitalized in Prescott, Ariz., so she flew to be with him.

The film, which debuts April 26 on HBO, sounds like a real warts-and-all extravaganza that uses rare footage, archival photos and interviews with Chris Evert, King's lover of the past 20 years Ilana Kloss (pictured on right, also a former player from South Africa), Martina Navratilova, Rosie Casals, and sports journalist Frank DeFord, as well as her parents, now in their 80s, brother Randy Moffitt and ex-husband Larry King.

The press materials say that the film "chronicles Billie Jean Moffitt's first tennis lesson at a public park in Long Beach, Calif., and her first Wimbledon win in 1961 en route to a record 20 titles. It highlights the infamous 1973 'Battle of the Sexes' match against Bobby Riggs viewed by a worldwide television audience of 90 million and her being outed as a lesbian eight years later by a former partner in a palimony suit."

I've always felt a special connection to Billie Jean King. As a young boy I got to ballboy for her. But it was something more personal that left its mark on forever. In 1981, when her former hairdresser/ex-lover Marilyn Barnett filed a palimony lawsuit, King held a press conference to address the allegations. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was lying on the floor of the loft in my family's home on West Kiva Avenue while my parents were watching the televised event in the living room below. I don't think they even knew I was up there listening. Although it seems sort of hilarious now that it would be news that Billie Jean King is a lesbian, in 1981 things were very different. It was a complete scandal. Famous people just didn't admit to being gay. So as she fessed up to the affair, she made a point of stressing that as a married woman, she felt she had erred by having an affair regardless of its being heterosexual or homosexual in nature. Now like most gay people, they'll tell you that they knew they were "different" from an early age (4 is a common age that I hear, and I fall into that group). But it wasn't until the moment that Billie Jean uttered the word "homosexual" that I actually had a word for what it was that made me different. Homosexual? Wow! That's what I am. My immediate reaction? I have to do everything within my power to make sure no one ever finds this out about me. Look what they're saying about Billie Jean. God help me make these feelings go away.

Despite her outing, Billie Jean stayed married for some time after that, even telling the press that she and Larry were considering adopting a baby at one point. But they eventually divorced and after dodging the subject in print for 17 years, she finally officially came out in the Advocate in its Aug. 18, 1998, issue.

You've come a long way, baby! Oh, and so have I.

  • Read: HBO documentary focuses on tennis great Billie Jean King
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