Author: Masha Gessen
Source: New Yorker (
The unwinding of prejudice – whether it is around race, caste or sexuality – is not just a socially relevant issue, it is also fascinating for investors to watch given the insights it provides into how “consensus” on a given subject evolves the course of 20-30 years. Hence, in the wake of America’s victory in the women’s football world cup, the author begins this New Yorker piece by saying: “Megan Rapinoe, the co-captain of the champion U.S. women’s soccer team, is confidently and casually everyone’s current favorite athlete, leader, and lesbian. As I watched her take the podium at the ticker-tape parade in New York on Wednesday, her gestures and posture unapologetically what some of us watching would classify as dykey (others may say, politely, that her presentation was not traditionally feminine), I wondered what this moment felt like for another woman, the first American professional athlete to come out.”
So the author, Masha Gessen, called tennis legend Martina Navratilova to understand how she “came out” as a lesbian in the early 1980s. Martina’s first challenge was that she was seeking American nationality and hence was fearful of coming out: “In 1979, Navratilova fell in love with the writer Rita Mae Brown, whose 1973 novel, “Rubyfruit Jungle,” remains the only American lesbian-themed massive best-seller. (It was published by a feminist collective and picked up by Bantam, a few years later, when it had sold seventy thousand copies.) Brown introduced Navratilova to the world of politically active lesbians, in which she was a celebrity, and Navratilova began thinking of coming out publicly. The problem was, her application for U.S. citizenship was still pending and could be denied on the grounds of her homosexuality. (This provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act was dropped in 1990, when it was redrafted by Representative Barney Frank, of Massachusetts, who is gay.) Navratilova developed a new way of deflecting the sexuality question: she would now say, “I can’t talk about it now.””
Martina’s second challenge was dealing with her sponsors and the sponsors of the women’s tennis tour, both of whom might not like the idea of sponsoring lesbians: ““The sponsors had said to the people in charge that if there was another scandal that they would pull their sponsorship from the tour. So first I was protecting my citizenship, and then I was protecting the people I was with at the W.T.A. I felt I was responsible for sixty to a hundred women.” Their livelihoods depended in large part on the sponsorship money that came from Avon, the cosmetics company then behind the W.T.A.”
As the 1980s wore on, American advertisers gradually came to terms with Martina’s sexual identity but advertisers outside America did not: “Avon did not in fact drop its sponsorship of the W.T.A. Nor did Navratilova lose the endorsements she had—the racquets and shoes stayed in place. “But I couldn’t get any deals outside of that in the U.S., because I was out,” she said. Even as her career soared, as did the popularity of women’s tennis, advertising agencies stayed away. “They would call my agent about a commercial or something, and she would say, ‘How about Martina?’ and they would say no and then Chris [Evert] would get the deal, or somebody else. It was the kiss of death. Advertisers wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole.”
So how does Martina feel when she now sees how openly same sex US footballers are advertising their sexuality to the world: ““It’s just fantastic,” Navratilova said. “It took a long time. This was thirty years ago that this was going on. It seems like it happened so quickly, gay marriage and all that, but if you are living in the middle of it, it happened very slowly. I am just thrilled that it’s not only O.K.—it’s becoming less and less of a thing. When people come out, it doesn’t make headlines anymore. It’s a non-issue, which I’ve always said—that I hope one day it will be a non-issue. That’s exactly what I’ve been marching for for decades. I’m thrilled. I’m just so thrilled.””

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