August 27, 2013 at 6:02 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
PBS series to profile Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King, tennis, sports, gay news, Washington Blade

Billie Jean King (Photo by Andrew Coppa Photography)

PBS will profile retired tennis champion Billie Jean King in an episode of “American Masters” the network will air on Sept. 10.

King, 69, won 39 Grand Slam titles during her professional career that spanned more than a decade from 1968 to 1983.

She founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, the same year she defeated Bobby Riggs in a match that became known as the Battle of the Sexes. King the same year founded the Women’s Tennis Association, and in 1974 she co-founded the co-ed Mylan World TeamTennis league.


King came out as a lesbian after her relationship with her then-secretary and hairdresser Marilyn Barnett became public when she filed a palimony lawsuit against her while she was still married to her husband.

The retired tennis champion told reporters during a conference call on Monday she lost all her endorsements “within 24 hours” of publicly declaring her homosexuality. King noted the companies that had once backed her “wrote me about how horrible a person I was.”

“The culture at the time was not accepting, at all,” she said, noting she had planned to retire in 1981, but delayed the decision two years because she lost more than $2 million because of the lost endorsements. “It was completely different than it is now.”

King added she feels gay Americans currently find themselves at “a tipping point” in terms of the LGBT rights movement, even though she noted more than 30 states still lack transgender-specific employment protections.

“If I went back to 1981, I cannot tell you how tough it was,” King said, referring to gay 1963 March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin. “I can’t even imagine the pioneers before me and all the people that couldn’t come out that wanted to accomplish things not only for themselves, but for others.”

King also weighed in on calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics that will take place in Sochi, Russia, in February over the country’s LGBT rights record.

“The athletes who have the most to derive from it and the least to derive from it if they don’t go, I think they should get the vote,” she said during the conference call in response to a Washington Blade question about the issue. “This is the Olympics. This is about the athletes and the fans, so it’s a really hard call.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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