Anyone who didn’t grew up in the 1970s and 1980s might not understand why it was so difficult for Billie Jean King to come out as a prominent athlete and public figure. If you were gay back then, you mostly had to live as though you weren’t — no matter where you lived, no matter who you were. Unless you were prepared to carry that banner 24/7 and let others try to define you that way, there were no public displays of affection, no overt cues, certainly no marriages, nothing. I graduated high school in 1983, when the AIDS epidemic was beginning to ravage the gay community and our government was doing absolutely nothing about it. I had friends who were obviously gay to those of us who knew them well, but even they could not come out and say they were. Not even to their closest friends. That’s why all the progress we’ve made between then and now is so utterly dramatic and profound. The gay community can take full credit for this: their tireless activism, their commitment to acceptance was not going to wait any longer for society to catch up. It is such a great thing to have lived through this evolution of a culture, even if the current presidency is a disgraceful step backwards, at least for the more conservative pockets of America — and sadly it turns out those are some deep pockets.
The aim of Battle of the Sexes, according to its directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, was not just to make a documentary on the dramatic life of Billie Jean King but to also tell a modern love story that could appeal across the board. To make a movie that would be safe for young people to see, whether they lived in conservative or progressive America. As the mother of an out LGBT teen myself, I can say that I’m always grateful when young people can see a film reach a broad collective audience, and not just appeal to the segment of people who want something more hard-hitting. As such, because Battle of the Sexes is both gay and straight-friendly, there has been some pushback from the gay community (as there was with Moonlight) that the love story is “sugar coated” or toned down. It’s always one the more discouraging things about Oscar season to see the way films are put through a degrading process that can systemically strip them of everything there is to love about them. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that entertained me more this year than this one. And much of that has to do with being given the opportunity to celebrate the life and pioneering efforts of Billie Jean King, on every level, for all her varied achievements.
This is a year when so many women are being celebrated on film and American culture at large. All the more painful because it is a year after the first female presidential candidate for a major political party was taken down by a united effort of a country that apparently just wasn’t ready. But we can now be grateful that this is also the year when a film about Billie Jean King’s sexual discovery can be openly shown alongside her success as an athlete, and the same year an out black female director, Dee Rees, has a major Oscar contender. And it’s the same year that several films in the race celebrate the strength and power of mothers, from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to Lady Bird.
Female sexuality is not often truly explored in mainstream Hollywood films. It’s depicted a lot but mostly from the male perspective. Even today, many of the films that explore lesbian relationships often have a queasy touch of needing to appeal to the male sexual appetite. But Battle of the Sexes unabashedly portrays the discovery of a woman’s trapped and hidden impulses. Billie Jean King has said that she first felt great shame when she realized she was gay, back in 1968. She had difficulty coming to grips with the truth about herself, and so she did what a lot of women did back then — she shielded it from view. Remember, the earlier permutations of the feminist movement mostly shunned the individual issues concerning the rights of marginalized women, particularly black women and gay women. Many prominent feminist voices in the ’70s were terrified of being thought of as an angry mob of lesbians — the stereotyped label many tried to pin to them. So Billie Jean King was left to fend for herself, without the loud and proud support that would follow in the coming decades.
Her coming-out story can also be seen as a cautionary tale. She was outed by her lover who sued her publicly then attempted suicide. But Battle of the Sexes ends before then so it doesn’t deal with that point in her life story. This is “Part One” of the life of Billie Jean King. We know who she became. We now know what she stands for. We now understand how important she was and still remains. This is a film that celebrates the moment when her backhand startled America into facing a new reality, celebrates who she wanted to be and where her confidence would take her. That is perhaps why it’s such pure joy to watch. We’re living through some dark dark days, where sensitive, heartfelt films can often offer sweet relief. This is one of them. So here’s to you, Billie Jean King. We offer you our gratitude and our undying admiration on National Coming Out Day.