Ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament that wrapped over the weekend, veteran sportscaster Mary Carillo spent several days with tennis legend Margaret Court, who holds the record for most Grand Slam titles ever with a total of 64, but who is now more famous for her homophobia and opposition to marriage equality, which passed in her home country this past December, than for her dominance on the court.
Following several anti-LGBT statements Court made during the lead-up to marriage equality in her country, there was a cry to rename the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne, where some of the Australian Open’s matches would be played. When the tournament kicked off in January, Billie Jean King, who had once supported Court’s having a space named for her, emphatically said that the time had come to remove the tennis legend’s name from the arena because a public space should be welcoming to all people.
With her segment on Court airing on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel Tuesday, Carillo set out to investigate in regard to Court the idea of “When is a legacy safe?" Carillo tells The Advocate in a phone interview.
A Pentecostal pastor with a massive ministry at her Victory Life Centre in Perth, Court has famously said that transgender kids are “of the devil,” that marriage equality would lead to a “genderless society,” and that gay people “want marriage because they want to destroy it. There will be no Mother’s Day, there will be no Father’s Day, there will be no Easter, there will be no Christmas.”
As Carillo’s piece reveals, even as Court continues to spout her Bible-based homophobia, she also helps the needy.
“She serves the community. She gets out a couple of dozen tons of food a week to 650 families. She is there to serve the homeless, the addicted. She does an incredible amount of good work,” Carillo says. “But what she’s become known for more than anything in recent years are her very public stances on homosexuality and transgender issues.”
The Real Sports segment toggles between Carillo observing Court guiding her through the ministry with a service that pulls in more than 800 congregants a week, interviews with King and Martina Navratilova, and one-on-one interviews with Court in which Carillo presses her on her dangerous views about queer people and why some would like to see her name stripped from the arena.
Beyond Court’s statements about the sanctity of marriage, she also espouses the notion that people choose to be LGBT and that they can change if they put their mind to it, a belief that is tantamount to the often deadly practice of conversion therapy and one that she happily spouts for the Real Sports cameras.
Court has penned several books in conjunction with her ministry, Carillo says. “The latest is called Train Your Brain, and she says the brain controls everything. If you want to be homosexual, you can train your brain not to be homosexual,” Carillo explains.
At several junctures in her piece, Carillo does more than toss softballs at the tennis champion. Responding to Court’s assertion that LGBT people can change their brains, Carillo asks, “What about the heart? What do you do with that part of your body?”
But Court, a minister since 1991, can’t be swayed.
“You can’t knock her off her pin. It’s bone deep” Carillo says. “The Bible — that's her playbook. That's her guidebook, so she doesn't understand why there would ever be a movement to strip her name from one of the great courts at the Australian Open and she feels like what she did as a tennis champion is forever no matter what you think of what she says.”
As a counter to Court flatly telling Carillo of LGBT people, “It’s a choice in life. They haven’t proven that they’re born like that,” the sportscaster enlists the help of King and Navratilova.
“Martina [Navratilova] just feels like it [the idea that people choose to be LGBT] can create so much damage and invalidates so many things and creates so much bullying,” Carillo says. But Court’s answer to that assertion was to flip the script, according to Carillo.
"I'm getting bullied by gays, by this whole fierce gay movement. I'm just going by what the Bible says and that's a sin” was Court’s response, Carillo says.
Beyond her assertion that she’s a victim, Court believes that monied Americans banded together to sway Australians in favor of LGBT rights. Prior to the country’s Parliament enacting marriage equality, the majority of Australians overwhelmingly voted in favor of marriage for same-sex couples in a nonbinding mail-in survey that lawmakers used as a yardstick to decide for or against equality. Yet Court believes, according to what she told Carillo, said that wealthy Americans helped fund the yes vote for marriage.
To stroll through the Victory of Life Centre with Carillo and a camera crew is to encounter Court’s acolytes, many of whom say she’s cured and saved them. The Real Sports piece features testimony from a woman who said Court’s ministry cured her cancer, a man who said he was disabled and couldn’t walk but that the minister helped him walk again, and an addict who said her life was saved under Court’s guidance.
While Court’s faith and adherence to the Bible is a cure-all for some, her unwavering belief that homosexuality is also curable is in part what led to Carillo’s decision to investigate whether Court can hold harmful anti-LGBT views and still be lauded for a towering career in tennis that includes having a building named in one’s honor.
When Carillo poses the question about Court’s legacy to Navratilova, the tennis champ doesn't hold back.
She’ll be remembered “as a great tennis player, as a pastor who did a lot of good for a lot of people, and as a raging homophobe,” Navratilova says.
Carillo does her level best when faced with Court’s outrageous comments to present a fair and balanced story and she credits the minister with being gracious despite knowing that Carillo was there to ask difficult questions.
“I give her great credit for that,” Carillo says. “But I am very tempted to agree with so much of what Martina and Billie say about how damaging her words can be.
Watch a trailer for the Margaret Court piece on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel below. The show airs Tuesday at 10 p.m.