March 08 2011 4:00 AM ET
Backing off — not something you can accuse Navratilova of doing in her career, even though she hasn’t always lived her life on her own terms. Thirty years ago, in 1981, she gave a reporter for the New York Daily News an interview that included comments about her personal life and sexual orientation, but ultimately did so with the understanding that the journalist wouldn’t run the story until Navratilova decided herself to go public. Today she recalls that she wanted to come out a few years earlier but was told not to, that it would damage the women’s tour. In 1980 she had been passed over for president of the Women’s Tennis Association players’ union in favor of Chris Evert, mainly the result, she has said, of her sexual orientation, which she was up-front about with the tour’s board of directors. Coming out might mean loss of sponsorship appeal, as happened to Billie Jean King in 1981, when she was outed by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, who filed a palimony suit against her.
Navratilova also had been working toward obtaining her U.S. citizenship, which she gained in the summer of 1981. “From 1952 to 1990, LGBT people were barred by law from entering the U.S., first as ‘psychopathic personalities’ and later as ‘sexual deviants,’” says Immigration Equality executive director Rachel B. Tiven. “A court decision in 1983 took the teeth out of it, but if Martina had admitted to being gay, she could have been denied entry on that basis.”
At the time of the Daily News interview, Navratilova was dating professional basketball star Nancy Lieberman, who was not out of the closet. After she became a citizen, Navratilova still refused to go on-record, though the newspaper ran her comments anyway, on July 30, 1981. But she never denied her sexuality, she says. “And I’m proud of that.”
The rest is history. But here’s a sampling of what she went through: Navratilova would be heckled on one occasion, in a U.S. Open match against Evert, for not being a “real” woman; accused in the media of using steroids (she wasn’t); and dubbed “a walking mixed doubles team” by a sports columnist ridiculing her early comments that she was bisexual. It took years for her persona to become symbiotic with the more progressive elements of the corporate sponsorship world. She dominated women’s tennis with an incomparable serve-and-volley finesse and has competed into her 50s on the doubles tour with players a third her age, yet every soured relationship seemed to bring with it tabloid stories that rivaled her athletic headlines.
Among the harshest accusations leveled by critics is that she’s used anti–gay marriage laws to her advantage in court. “Martina is a gay and lesbian hypocrite. She says she is a big advocate for gay and lesbian rights, but only when it’s convenient,” Ray Rafool, the attorney for Navratilova’s ex-partner Toni Layton, said in 2009. Layton claimed, among other things, that Navratilova had grabbed her by the arms, slammed her against a wall, and offered her a pittance for a settlement as a result of their breakup. “If this were a no-fault heterosexual divorce, the law would unequivocally side with Layton, awarding her alimony and some division of property,” wrote Louis Bayard in Salon. He added, “Martina Navratilova can no longer cast herself as an apostle for gay rights while using a homophobic legal code to deny her ex-partners alimony. This is more than bad behavior, it is bad precedent.”
This is the only moment of the afternoon when editorial control rears its head. But it’s Navratilova who’s struggling to control her own content. When I ask her if there’s anything she’d like to clear up about her latest chapter of personal legal troubles, she begins by saying firmly, “The lawsuit’s still not done. And I can’t talk about it.” She sighs, and then continues, “I would like to. Well, I don’t even know if — I can’t say anything. My lawyer says, ‘No, you cannot even say one word.’ Because I would get in trouble for it, no matter what I say.”
Another sigh. “But I can say that a lot that has been said is not true. I can say that. But I can’t tell you which part. Because I’ll probably get sued again.”
Is she aggravated by what’s written about her? “I don’t read it, for the most part,” she says. “I think the unfair bit is that they would just print whatever was said without checking. And double-checking. I mean, you’ve known me for 30 years, you know who I am. You’re printing stuff from someone who you don’t know anything about. But that’s the media now. They get lazy. Rumors become fact. Some blogger says something, next thing you know it’s in USA Today.” Her mantra is a ballsier version of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” She says, “You can write that you think I’m an asshole. But you can’t write, ‘She is an asshole.’”
And then she revisits that damn CNN ticker. Martina Quits. “Argh! Not true! I’m not a quitter! It’s better not to know. And it’s yesterday’s news so quickly now.”
It would be inaccurate to say that Martina Navratilova spends the better part of an interview at a mountain home north of Aspen ranting about purported mistruths about her, writ large in our scandal-obsessed media. She is warm and welcoming. She especially lights up when talking about tennis — her professional record, Justine Henin’s brilliance (“That backhand should be put in a museum”), and the exhibition and invitational matches she still plays in, including one at Wimbledon last summer, where she won the ladies’ invitational doubles final with 1998 singles champion Jana Novotna. She arrived at the tournament a mere four days after her last radiation treatment. “Oh, it’s just a treat! And this last year was the first time I played with the roof,” Navratilova says of Wimbledon’s Centre Court (she plans to compete in the invitationals this year at Wimbledon as well as the French Open). “The ball made a different sound. There was a little echo that hadn’t been there before. So I was like, Oh! A new experience.”
But how frustrating it must be, the continued obscurity of gay and lesbian historical achievement, for those who refused to hide when it would have been more convenient (and lucrative) to do so. Sure, there’s a paper trail: At any reputable library one can find biographies of Bayard Rustin or Alice B. Toklas, or yes, Navratilova. Any number of websites, professional or homespun, can piece together a world of clandestine bars, brutal police stings, spare poetry left behind by those who have died of AIDS. But you’re still unlikely to learn in an American classroom of eras when coming-out stories of celebrities did not automatically garner a fawning cover profile in People. “I do get pissed off when I’m at some gay event and there’s a 25-year-old and he has no idea who I am,” Navratilova says. “And I say, ‘You need to know more about your gay history, boy.’ I think the younger generation takes it a little bit for granted.”
It’s hard to quibble with that; nor can I fault her desire for accuracy. Though I do wonder whether, looking back on her career and her willingness to be out, she would do anything differently.
“Nope. No. Not at all,” Navratilova says with an intense stare. “If anything, I would have been more in-your-face.”
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