August 24, 2017 at 3:20 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Aussie tennis legend under fire for anti-LGBT comments
Margaret Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Margaret Court, left, in her ‘70s heyday on the international tennis scene. (Photo by Eric Koch of ANEFO; courtesy of the Dutch National Archives)

Tennis players, rock bands, activists and others in Australia and beyond are calling for the Margaret Court Arena, a tennis and entertainment venue in Melbourne, Victoria, to be renamed because of the controversial, anti-gay views of its namesake.

The arena, built in 1987 (it holds 7,500), is part of the National Tennis Centre at Melbourne Park, itself part of the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct. It opened in 1988 as Show Court One but was renamed in 2003 after Court, the country’s most successful female tennis player of all time.

Court, 75, was the first woman in the open era (pros/amateurs competing jointly) to win the singles Grand Slam (all four major tennis tournaments in the same calendar year); she was only the second woman in history to do it. With 24 solo wins, 19 women’s doubles wins and 21 mixed doubles titles, she holds a record 64 major titles overall. Several of her records still stand. In 2010, Aussie newspaper the Herald Sun called her “the greatest female tennis player of all time.”

Raised Catholic, Court became a Pentecostal after retiring from tennis in 1977. She was ordained an independent Pentecostal minister in 1991. After founding Margaret Court Ministries, she founded the Victory Life Centre, a Perth-based Pentecostal church, in 1995. She is its senior pastor and broadcasts of her preaching are aired on Australian TV.

She has been an anti-LGBT crusader for years inspiring an effort that began in 2012 for the arena bearing her name to be renamed. Although the issue has been percolating, it reached a boil in May when Court wrote a letter to the West Australian (a Perth newspaper) criticizing Qantas, Australia’s largest domestic airline, for being a corporate supporter of same-sex marriage (currently illegal; a national mail-in vote is in the works) and claiming she would boycott the airline.

In a follow-up interview with Vision Christian Radio, she said lesbian tennis players try to lead young players “into parties,” implying they recruit using tactics similar to Hitler and communism. Of trans issues, she said, “That’s all the devil.”

Out tennis legend Martina Navratilova wrote an open letter to arena owners calling for the change. Navratilova called Court an “amazing tennis player” but also “a racist and a homophobe.”

“How much blood will be on Margaret’s hands because kids will continue to get beaten for being different,” Navratilova wrote. “Too many will die by suicide because of this kind of intolerance, this kind of bashing and yes, this kind of bullying. This is not OK.”

Sigur Ros closed its “Splendour in the Grass 2017” tour in July at the Margaret Court Arena with a light show projection supporting same-sex marriage. The band sold limited edition T-shirts at the concert to raise funds for the marriage effort there. Other acts such as LCD Soundsystem, Grinspoon and Ryan Adams who’ve played there have spoken out against Court.

“I’m not one to get in old people’s faces for being ignorant, but when you come after my family, my friends … you can go fuck yourself,” said LCD Soundsystem singer James Murphy, according to a Junkee concert review.

Tennis Australia praised Court for her “unmatched playing record” but said her “personal views are her own and do not align with Tennis Australia’s values of equality, inclusion and diversity.”

Arena owners have not said if the proposed renaming is being seriously considered but said on Twitter they’re committed to equality.

LGBT Australian activists say the issue has died down some since it broke in May but differ on how significant it is.

Sally Goldner, an activist on trans and bi issues who works with three such agencies, says anti-LGBT rhetoric such as Court’s does have consequences.

“Her trans comments, which didn’t get as much coverage, were pretty extreme,” Goldner said in a Skype interview with the Blade. “To imply that trans people are possessed by the devil, that’s pretty extreme. … She gave several long interviews in mainstream media, yet to my knowledge, at no point were any trans people or families given the same amount of attention. … There’s a lot of issues below the surface beyond just the naming of the arena.”

Anthony Venn-Brown, a former Pentecostal Australian minister who left that ilk of Christianity after coming out at age 40, says that branch of the Christian faith is flourishing in Australia. Though Branch is independent, Venn-Brown says the internationally known Hillsong movement is theologically similar and “has become the largest, fastest-growing branch of Christianity in Australia.”

Venn-Brown says LGBT activists should have simply ignored Court.

“If we would have just let it go, it would have been of no consequence. … She doesn’t have a huge following, she’s not incredibly popular, her church is not huge and she’s getting to be quite old,” he said via Skype. “People are so quick to call for boycotts and names to be changed. It seems to me at times to be playground behavior. … Can’t we just take a deep breath and chill?”

Others disagree.

Filmmaker and clinical psychologist Dee Mosbacher, whose 2009 documentary “Training Rules” exposed the anti-gay policies of former Pennsylvania State University women’s basketball head coach Rene Portland, says homophobia exacts a toll.

“I know well the pain that’s caused by touting someone who is an out and proud homophobe like Rene Portland,” Mossbacher, a lesbian, says. “Some of her players thought about suicide, some felt like their whole lives were wrecked, they had symptoms of PTSD. It had a visceral effect on these women. Some of them hadn’t seen or heard anything about her for decades but it still had a tremendous effect on them. … It’s like a counter to the It Gets Better program. Holding up someone like Margaret Court as a hero is like saying it gets worse. If you allow these people to be out there with their homophobia, you’re saying it’s OK and you’re colluding with them and enabling it.”

Goldner says calls to LGBT support services “skyrocket” when anti-gay views are heavily covered in the news.

“We’ve got plenty of evidence of that,” says Goldner, who’s transgender.

She says the issue needs to be kept in perspective, though.

“We need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is full equality legally and socially,” she says. “Is renaming an arena going to do that? I’m not so sure. It can send a message, but I think there might be some more effective things we could be doing in my honest opinion.”

Venn-Brown, who runs an LGBT outreach program called Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International, also says there are “bigger fish we should be frying.”

“Renaming an arena is not gonna change anything except maybe to make some LGBT people feel they’ve beaten somebody,” he says. “There are more important things for us to focus on.”

Navratilova, Court and management of the Margaret Court Arena did not respond to requests for comment.

Mossbacher understands the perspective, but says Court’s “homophobia and bullying should be called out.”

“It’s not like this is a historical thing where she’s some homophobe from the past,” she says. “They’d never hold her up as some kind of hero if she’d made these comments about aboriginal people or people of color or whatever, so I don’t think it’s OK for her to get away with it when it’s against LGBT people.”

The Margaret Court Arena is used for a wide spate of sports and entertainment events. (Photo  by DestinationAlan; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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