Billie Jean King: Caitlyn Jenner helps transgender tolerance

The Associated Press

Billie Jean King says Caitlyn Jenner has given people clarity about transgender issues beyond the progress already made four decades after they shared the international sports spotlight.

“The interview … really helped people to be clear in understanding, especially about gender vs. sexuality,” the 71-year-old former tennis star told The Associated Press. She was referring to Jenner’s interview on ABC’s Diane Sawyer in April. “Everybody’s always getting very confused with that. Then they finally realized they have nothing to do with each other.”

King won the last of her 12 Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon in 1975, a year before Jenner, now 65, earned the unofficial title of “world’s greatest athlete” by winning gold in the decathlon at the Montreal Olympics.

“Finally Caitlyn will be,” King said. “It’s been a long journey for Caitlyn, and I’m really happy for her.”

King occasionally traveled in the same circles with Jenner, given they were two of the most recognizable athletes in the 1970s.

King said, “We actually did a commercial together, but I don’t think they ever showed it.”

King was 29 when she defeated former professional tennis player Bobby Riggs, 55, in the famed “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973, putting gender issues in the spotlight.

When she started the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, King helped pros accept a transgender player in their ranks — Renee Richards, who was denied the opportunity to play as a woman in the 1976 U.S. Open.

The New York Supreme Court ruled in Richards’ favor, allowing her to join the women’s pro tour in 1977.

King said she called the players together after meeting with Richards for four hours. “I said `We’re going to have her on the tour, so get used to it.’ Some were unhappy, some were trying to figure it out. But it worked out fantastic,” King said. “The players ended up loving Renee.”

King played doubles with Richards, who reached the U.S. Open women’s doubles finals in 1977 with Betty Ann Stuart. Richards, who was also a renowned ophthalmologist, later coached Martina Navratilova and “really improved her backhand,” King said.

King marvels at how attitudes have changed since the early 1970s.

“Being educated, learning, having knowledge is so much better,” she said. “Usually things become less shame-based the more you know. An unknown is what people usually fear the most.”

Richards is still King’s eye doctor and “One of the best people I’ve ever known. She’s been a great role model.”

While Richards fought through the courts for acceptance, Jenner came out as Caitlyn via Twitter and was immediately named the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for the upcoming ESPY Awards on July 15.

King, who was outed as a lesbian in 1981, won the award for individual contributions that “transcend sports” in 1999.

“Caitlyn’s in for a whirlwind. She already has been, but it’s going to be crazy,” King said. “I think it’s really appropriate that Caitlyn’s won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.”