Martina Navratilova broke more than one glass ceiling during her career.
She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles – including nine women’s singles championships at Wimbledon during her time on the tennis circuit that spanned more than three decades from 1975 to her official retirement in 2006. Navratilova also won 31 major women’s doubles and 10 major mixed doubles titles.
She also made history in 1981 as one of the first professional athletes who came out as gay.
Navratilova, 56, told the Washington Blade during an interview that fans had a mixed reaction to her decision to publicly disclose her sexual orientation.
“I’d get some ovation from some,” the retired Czech-born tennis champion said, noting she didn’t receive endorsement deals after she came out. “From some they would just not clap at all and some would be whistling and booing.”
Navratilova credited positive media coverage over the last decade with improving the way LGBT athletes are treated.
“Back then it was people who cheered me on that were looked at funny, so it’s just totally come around,” she said. “I didn’t know how bad it was in the stands until I met some people that were my fans back in the day and they’re like, ‘you had no idea what people used to say,’ so it’s nice to know that it’s kind of full circle. People couldn’t get away with that stuff anymore.”
Navratilova spoke to the Blade a few weeks after former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated op-ed.
“His coming out will have a positive impact on an untold amount of lives,” she said. “It’s just adding to the groundswell of acceptance.”
Collins’ representatives have declined the Blade’s requests to interview him.
Collins described Navratilova as “one of my heroes” during an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos shortly after he came out. He also said she is one of his role models.
“You never know how you affect somebody in what way and it was just really nice to know just by being who I am made a difference — a positive difference in somebody else,” Navratilova said, noting she and Collins have exchanged e-mails since he came out. “It’s very empowering and humbling at the same time.”
Navratilova spoke to the Blade shortly after Russian lawmakers unanimously passed a bill by a 436-0 margin that sought to ban the “promotion of homosexuality” to minors. President Vladimir Putin on June 30 signed the so-called gay propaganda measure into law.
Putin also signed a bill that bans foreign same-sex couples and those from countries that allow same-sex marriage from adopting Russian children. Groups that receive funding from outside Russia that do not register as “foreign agents” under a 2012 law face a fine of up to 500,000 rubles (or $15,220.)
“I feel like Putin’s just trying to go against whatever the West is doing,” Navratilova said. “If the West would be bad about gays, he would have gay marriage, but because the West is good with the gays — or getting better, he goes the other way.”
Navratilova is among the current and former LGBT professional athletes who oppose calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi over Russia’s gay rights record. Others include Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who was unable to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because the U.S. boycotted the games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the year before; figure skater Johnny Weir and former George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums.
Blake Skjellerup, a gay speed skater from New Zealand, plans to wear a rainbow pin during the Sochi games.
Navratilova said Russia shouldn’t “have gotten the Olympics in the first place,” but stressed she “never believed in boycotts.” She referenced the gay advocacy groups that boycotted Colorado after voters in 1992 approved a constitutional amendment that barred the state from enacting anti-gay discrimination laws to further prove her point.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1996 in the Romer v. Evans decision.
“It’s more effective to get in people’s faces and prove them wrong rather than run away,” Navratilova said. “To me a boycott kind of runs away from the problem.”
She was also a Tennis Channel commentator during the men’s final at the French Open in early June when opponents of France’s same-sex marriage law interrupted the match between Spanish tennis players Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer. Navratilova said the shirtless protester who ran onto the court with a flare in his hand near Nadal reminded her of the man who stabbed Monica Seles during a German tennis match in 1993.
“You’re like holy shit, you’re still not safe on the tennis court,” she said. “On top of that, it’s these asshole protesters who have nothing better to do but complain about gay people having the same rights as they do.”
Navratilova also recalled seeing some of the more than 100,000 people who marched against France’s same-sex marriage law in Paris on May 26 — three days before the first gay couple legally tied the knot in the country. Opponents of nuptials for same-sex couples also gathered along portions of the Tour de France route last month to protest the statute.
“I couldn’t believe the masses of people who were out protesting against something that doesn’t affect them in any way,” Navratilova said, referring to the May 26 march in the French capital. “To really see real people that are so emotionally invested in denying you equality is really disconcerting.”