BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Billie Jean King’s Biggest Battle Wasn’t Against Bobby Riggs
Emma Stone has experienced a slim slice of the equal pay pie Billie Jean King has been fighting for a piece of for decades, but Stone has revealed in interviews while promoting Battle of the Sexes, where she portrays the legendary tennis star and women’s rights activist, that slice was largely due to the willingness of her male costars to take pay cuts.
The year is 2017, and the battles we’re waging now aren’t all that different than the one King brought to the forefront in her epic showdown with Bobby Riggs, world tennis champion. Just ask retired soccer star and prominent LGBT activist Abby Wambach if King’s ultimate fight has really been won.
Battle of the Sexes chronicles the famous, flamboyantly showcased tennis match at the Houston Astrodome, and although King walked away with the victory, her hardest fought battles were still ahead. King had advocated aggressively for equal gender payouts in sports and was pivotal to the passage of Title IX in 1972, which bans gender discrimination in all federally funded school programs, including sports. Title IX celebrated its 45th anniversary this year, with King at the helm of the celebration. The battle for equality was one that gobbled up the tennis star’s passion and energy, so it’s no wonder she had little want to take up the torch for gay rights in women’s sports as well.
Although she’s now an outspoken member of the LGBT community, King wasn’t always out and proud. During the time the great Battle of the Sexes occurred, she was closeted and married to her husband, Larry King. Billie Jean King and Larry King didn’t divorce until 1987, but King had been involved in a romantic relationship with Marilyn Barnett from 1972 until well after she beat Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome, where Barnett had a courtside seat right beside King’s coach. Barnett was originally King’s hairdresser, but she quickly abandoned the profession to travel by King’s side. Her official new job had various titles such as “traveling secretary”, and “personal assistant”.
After King called off the affair around 1976, Barnett returned to her hairdressing profession and remained living at the Kings’ Malibu beach house until the married couple asked her to leave in 1979. Barnett took the private controversy and fiery breakup public in 1981 when she filed a lawsuit for palimony, a payout comparable to alimony for unmarried couples. Even though Barnett lost the suit, the damage to King’s public image was done, and she acknowledged the affair with her husband Larry by her side.
Billie Jean and Larry divorced six years later in 1987, and although her tennis career took a bit of a hit with sponsorships in the wake of the scandal, King bounced back stronger than ever, becoming a gay icon. She has served as an acting director for both the Elton John and National AIDS Foundations, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the same year Harvey Milk received the honor posthumously.
Unfortunately King was never given the opportunity to come out on her own terms, but she took the events surrounding the public court case in stride and made her next serious relationship with a woman not only public, but permanent. Since the same year she and her husband divorced, King has been with her partner, fellow tennis star and CEO and Commissioner of Mylan World Team Tennis, Ilana Kloss. King and Kloss co-founded the WTT together, which focuses on players of both genders competing on equal ground with equal pay.
Female sports pioneers and LGBT activists like soccer star Abby Wambach along with actresses such as Emma Stone continue to fight the good fight for gender equality both on the field and the silver screen, but no one has ever carried the burden or fought more furiously than Billie Jean King. She is the definition of the phrase “fight like a girl”, and the Battle of the Sexes is just on example of the many obstacles she faced and emerged from victorious.