LGBT Pioneers Abound in Women's Tennis History

Anyone who has been paying attention to the world of sports recently may have noticed the many developments regarding LGBT equality and the possibility of an openly LGBT player in the various professional sports leagues. The discussions taking place in leagues such as the NFLMLSNHL, and MLB are a fantastic advancement toward the acceptance of LGBT people in sports.  However, one sport has been on the forefront of the discussion of LGBT inclusion for decades; women's professional tennis.

For proof of the inclusion of LGBT identifying women in professional tennis, one need only look at the long list of distinguished players. They include such recent greats as: Lisa Raymond, who lays claim to 11 Grand Slam titles as well as bronze in mixed doubles at the London Olympic Games, and Amelie Mauresmo, who has reached an overall world #1 ranking and claims two individual Grand Slam titles. Even as far back as the 1930s, Helen Jacobs took the tennis world by storm. It was widely known that she was a lesbian when she rose to the world overall #1 ranking in 1936, after winning Wimbledon and four consecutive US Open Titles from 1932-35. What most likely bolstered advocacy and acceptance for LGBT players in women's professional tennis, however, was the amount of media attention received by high profile tennis players in the late 70s and early 80s. In 1976, the New York Supreme Court famously overturned the United States Tennis Association's ban on transgender tennis professional Renee Richards, allowing her to compete in the US Open and eventually reach an overall ranking of 20. The most notable openly lesbian tennis players might be 30 time Grand Slam winner Billie Jean King, who was outed in 1981, and Martina Navratilova, who is the most successful women's player of the Open Era after winning 59 Grand Slam.

The fact that some women's tennis players, if not the very best to have ever competed, do not identify as straight serves as a reminder that athletics and the LGBT community are not mutually exclusive. What is less certain is why this sport has progressed to such heights and from so early on. One of the reasons for the prominent history of LGBT inclusion in professional tennis might be because it is not generally considered a traditional team sport. Stars in the game do have to deal with potentially negative fan biases, the possibility of sponsorship loss, and reactions from what could be hostile opponents and/or environments in training academies.  But as significant as these and many other factors are on the decision of a professional tennis player to come out, the fact that these players usually need not worry about the effects their sexual orientation or gender identity has on team dynamics is important. This highlights the need for continued effort by professional athletes, who participate in traditional team sports, to show their acceptance for openly LGBT teammates or opposing players. When comparing women's tennis to any other sport, one can't help but think that the locker room environment fostered in some team sports hinders the acceptance of an openly LGBT athlete; athletes that have been accepted in women's professional tennis for over 30 years.