4 min

Tennis’ original lesbian legend

Navratilova on queer athletes, Eastern European Pride and local support

YOU CAN LEAD BY EXAMPLE.' Tennis superstar Martina Navratilova will receive an InterPride Conference Pioneer of Pride award in absentia, Oct 25. The 27th annual InterPride conference will run from Oct 23-26 in Vancouver. Credit: NAVRATILOVA INC, ANNIE LEIBOVITZ PHOTO

In 1981 young tennis superstar Martina Navratilova secured American citizenship and announced to the world that she is gay.

Today she’s a legend both on and off the courts. One of only three women to complete the Grand Slam “box set,” Navratilova is also one of the co-founders of The Rainbow Foundation which has to date successfully raised over $2 million for LGBT organizations.

Navratilova visits Vancouver this week to promote the Foundation’s Rainbow Card, a credit card that donates to LGBT groups with each use, at the InterPride international conference, where she will also win this year’s Pioneer of Pride award.

Xtra West: How would you characterize today’s political climate, as opposed to the one you came out in, in the early 1980s?

Martina Navratilova
: [The queer community] is much more visible now, partly because of President Clinton’s work with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Before that the only time you ever saw the word ‘homosexual’ was when it had to do with AIDS.

I remember reading about that in 1980 in the newspaper, the “gay disease,” the “homosexual disease,” whatever they were calling it, and that’s about the only time you ever saw the word printed. The climate is so much more conducive to being out and not worrying about all the repercussions that were going on 20, 30 years ago.

XW: What do you think is going to happen with Proposition 8 [the California marriage amendment that would ban same-sex marriage]? Do you think that it will be defeated?

: We’ve got four weeks to go and it’s going to get ugly, and so I’m fearful that it could still get passed.

Keep in mind that never has a civil right been advanced by popular vote —it has always been done in the courts. Yet here we are, fighting for civil rights, and somehow we have to win it with the majority of the people. It’s pretty scary.

XW: Several TV actors have recently gotten married in California, and I know you’ve done a few TV guest roles [and written several books] as well. How important do you think artistic freedom is to queer freedom?

MN: Well, it’s all freedom. Freedom is important, no matter where it’s taken away. It affects everybody eventually. They whittle away at it and eventually we’ll lose [it] all.

We’ve been losing so many freedoms in the name of security; we’re losing all of our freedom —what kind of a life is that? You can’t look at a policeman funny for fear of being called a combatant, and thrown into Guantanamo and never be heard from again. It’s insane what’s been going on.

The true reflection of a nation is how it responds when it’s threatened, and we’ve not been responding very well, I don’t think. We’re too ready to give up a lot of our freedoms that we fought so hard for —for hundreds of years —in the name of what? Fear?

XW: Were you aware of or involved in the queer community’s political struggles even before coming out?

MN: I was aware of it, but there was nothing I could do about it because if I came out before I got my citizenship that would have been enough to disqualify me from becoming a US citizen.

XW: How would you characterize today’s climate in sports for queer and trans athletes?

: It hasn’t really changed much.

It was always kind of acceptable on the tennis tour anyway, at least among the women. The guys are very closeted. In fact I don’t know any men that are gay that are in the closet. That’s how closeted they are — I don’t even know who they are.

But women, I think, have been more forthright about that for whatever reason.

It’s kind of tricky in the team sports because if you have a homophobic coach, they won’t let you play, and there goes your career. I think the heads of the leagues have to be a little stronger about these homophobic remarks and really start coming down on them as unacceptable. I mean it is better, but we still have a long ways to go.

XW: Delegates from countries all over the world will be attending the InterPride conference. Eastern Europe is often in the news here because of the extreme anti-gay actions and reaction. What is your sense of what’s going on in Eastern Europe right now and particularly the Czech Republic?

MN: In communist countries gays and lesbians were put in an insane asylum and they would try to do radical treatments to try to ‘straighten,’ so to speak, gays. And that’s still the mentality of a lot of people —they just don’t know any better, they haven’t been educated quite yet.

So when we’re out and there’s a Pride event, there’s a lot more protest against it because people still don’t know enough about us as a community. But the fact that they do have now Pride weekends or Pride marches, whatever, is a huge step forward. And as time goes these protests will lessen and lessen. I think the fact that we have those marches is huge.

XW: Do you have any suggestions for what North Americans can or should be doing to support queers in other countries?

MN: I don’t know. How do you support other countries without going there? You can send money to organizations in those countries that you might be interested in helping, or get to know some people and ask them what to do. You can lead by example here —be out here, be out to your friends and co-workers and family and go home and let people in your hometown know who you are. Put a face [on it].

I think the more visible we are, the more difficult it is for people to be prejudiced, and it just spreads; it’s going to spread like a good virus around the world.

Unfortunately there are still countries in this world where homosexuality is punishable by death and there’s dozens of them that can put you in jail and will put you in jail. So we’ve got a long way to go.

Here we are complaining that you can’t get married, and if you’re in Nigeria they’ll hack you do death. So there’s still a long ways to go. The easiest way to support it is to be out and be active here.

XW: Anything else you’d like to add for our readers here in Canada?

I’m just personally looking forward to Vancouver, I was supposed to play Fed Cup there [in 1987] and I sprained my ankle the week before playing basketball so I never went. I’ve never been to Vancouver so I’m looking forward to going there and seeing this beautiful city.

It’s going to be fun to see all the gay faces from around the world at work, and get to know people from other parts of the world and hopefully sow some seeds and keep going in the right direction.