I will never forget watching Martina Navratilova play at Wimbledon the year after she came out as a lesbian. It was the 1982 tournament and the backlash against her had been brutal.
Very deeply courageous and principled, Martina once estimated that she lost around US$10 million in endorsement deals as corporate executives rushed to distance themselves from her at a time when anti-gay bigotry was sky high within the context of the AIDS crisis.
Martina was the very first lesbian role model of my generation. I was 20 years old during that tournament, and I heard from lesbians of all ages about the pride they felt at being able to tell those friends and family members that were not comfortable about lesbianism that Martina was one of them. The only other lesbians I had seen on TV were the characters in The Killing of Sister George, portrayed as twisted and damaged individuals, so having a sports superstar on our team was amazing.
Clearly not everyone felt the same. The Australian retired tennis player Margaret Court, who had won at Wimbledon three times, said in 1990 that although Navratilova is a “great player” she would like to see somebody win, “to whom the younger players can look up to”. Court, a born again Christian, said that as far as she was concerned, “it is very sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality.”
What makes Martina so easy to put on a pedestal is the fact that she has used her fame and notoriety to fight against anti-gay bigotry, such as when she spoke at the gay pride march on Washington in 1993.
That summer of 1982, a year since she had been vilified by the press for daring to be a proud and happy lesbian, she won Wimbledon and re-gained her number one World status. Martina remains a role model for all lesbians and is still the only world famous sports personality who came out at the height of her popularity. She set a standard, and she made a difference, by breaking barriers and being brave.
What makes Martina so easy to put on a pedestal is the fact that she has used her fame and notoriety to fight against anti-gay bigotry, such as when she spoke at the gay pride march on Washington in 1993. She stands up for animal rights and against cruelty, and has spoken out against the unfair treatment of female athletes in a male dominated world.
Women today need good lesbian role models, and there are a few around. Lily Tomlin and Lena Waithe are both out and proud and have spoken out against injustice, and seeing them pop up on Neflix and the big screen always brings me joy. In particular, I love that Lena wears her lesbianism like a proud badge and would be instantly recognisable as one of the tribe in pretty much any context.
But Lily Tomlin, now 81, didn’t come out until much later in life. She revealed in 2019, that in 1975 she was offered the cover of Time to come out as a lesbian, but she didn’t want to be known just for being gay but also as an actor. I have sympathy – why should she be defined only by her sexuality? Why should any of us? But the reason for me to do it would be because we owe it to the younger generations and for those women that live in circumstances that make it much harder for them to come out unless they’ve got serious back up. What would’ve happened if Lily had come out in 1975? It could have been so beneficial to the lesbian and gay cause. I wonder if she regrets it? It’s certainly not her responsibility to stand up for other lesbians, but I reckon those that can, should.
Amy Winehouse, sadly, is the lesbian role model we never had. Although she once said in an interview, “I am not a lesbian until I’ve had four sambucas”, only since her death has it become widely known that Amy had been involved in intimate relationships with women. Imagine had she lived and been brave enough to come out?
Martina is a great feminist, and that, as far as I am concerned, makes her the very best role model. Hell, she even read my forthcoming book and gave it a great cover endorsement, which made me feel so proud. I could never have imagined this when I would watch her in awe on TV, wondering how she got the strength, as a public figure, to ignore the slings and arrows and be out and proud.
We need more role models like Martina. Younger lesbians need women to aspire to of their own generation as well as older. Until we end anti-lesbian prejudice and discrimination, those of us that are able to do so need to stand up and be counted.
Feminism for Women: The real route to liberation is published by Hachette on 2 September 2021.
Julie Bindel is a journalist, author and feminist campaigner. She came out as a lesbian in 1977 aged 15 and has never looked back.
Martina Navratilova holding the Wimbledon Championships trophy in 1982, Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy Stock Photo.