Battle of the Sexes should come with a trigger warning for us oldish dykes who watched women’s tennis in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in order to catch glimpses of women who might be, well, you know. Sure, the film has some groan-inducing lines (most of which are delivered by Alan Cummings) but there is also gut-wrenching anguish in watching a powerful woman (tennis great, Billie Jean King) crumple under 1973 American norms, while beating the shit out of a lovable but also horrible male-chauvinist pig (former tennis great, Bobby Riggs) in perhaps the most famous tennis exhibition of all time. Those of us who lived parallel (thought not nearly as public) lives might sense this despair more acutely than those who had no such worries, making it difficult to assess: is the film really that good at relating the damage of subjugating our sexuality? Or was I merely reliving the years that I had to pretend to be straight, pretend not to love the woman I loved?
Until recently, coming out was almost always dangerous—not only to our careers and our relationships but also to our bodies. And so hiding was (and sometimes still is) a necessity. At the same time, the erasure that comes from camouflage steals something from a person. Layers upon layers of secrecy prompt ridiculous schemes and unnatural sensitivity to the slightest hint of detection. We’re like soldiers sweeping a combat zone, alert to the sniper who may be poised in a tree-branch waiting for the perfect shot to take us out. There are two routes that could help us avoid detection: diversion (marrying someone of the opposite sex) or stealth (offering up an asexual persona). Billie Jean King opted for the first, marrying Larry King in 1965, and at least as portrayed in this film, he is an admirable character. Through him, it’s clear how the compromise sets out a wide net of grief. Like most husbands and boyfriends of queer women, he knows something is not quite right. There is a sense that he is resigned to his fate.
And of course there is a villain in the film. Margaret Court, the Australian tennis star who lost to Bobby Riggs in an earlier challenge, threatens to reveal Billie Jean King’s lie of heterosexuality. Earlier this year, the real Margaret Court reemerged to make clear her continued disapproval of queerness, stating that lesbian mothers are depriving their children of fathers and that trans kids are brainwashed in a process similar to ones used by Nazi Germany. She also reiterated her claim that women’s tennis is full of lesbians who are recruiting young female tennis players into Sapphism.
No one in this film is stupid, but likewise no one really has a sense of how to behave, and as in real life, their internal wars often dictate their actions. Still, the villain, motivated by personal pain or general evil, was and is a real character in the lives of women who hide their queerness for the opportunity to play tennis or serve in the military or teach high school geometry.
I left college in 1990 with a teaching certificate and a girlfriend in the Army. We had been madly in love for three years already, but it was terrifying to leave the cocoon of campus, where no one questioned our relationship—we were roommates, maybe even L.U.G.s (lesbians until graduation). We knew two other lesbians: a fellow math major and her high-school-teacher girlfriend. I got a job teaching at a rural high school, near my girlfriend’s Army base, and an apartment forty-five minutes from the school. I didn’t want to meet any of my students in the grocery store or worse, stepping out of one of the two lesbian bars in the area. My girlfriend had housing on base, but she lived with me, mostly. The solitude we created was one-part romantic, one-part necessity, and the necessary part tainted the romanticism. We were out to my parents (who lived on the other side of the state) but not to her parents (who lived in the next town over). We made up boyfriends and dates and straight stories to tell our coworkers. We found a small collective of lesbian soldiers on base, all of whom played softball (naturally) and married their clean-shaven beards (just like Billie Jean King). Meeting dykes in the Army is much easier than meeting dykes on the faculty of a tiny high school. (In four years, I never came out to the other lesbian on the faculty, who once took me to her parents’ peanut farm where she still lived. She never came out to me either.)
We found women’s tennis sometime in those early years. I had become aware with Martina Navratilova in high school, watching the French Open and Wimbledon and US Open, cross-legged on the floor of my neighbor’s TV room. After serving, her long legs took her to the net, where she blasted returns before they could bounce, aggressive, bold, masculine. She was a woman, no doubt, but she owned that court in a way that made me take notice, even though I had never picked up a racquet and I was sure I would marry my high-school-sweetheart boyfriend. I couldn’t describe how she made me feel, couldn’t even question it. But there was something good—and something bad—happening in my body when I watched her run and swing and then smile, with her head hanging low as she walked back to serve after a point. She became the lesbian figure I needed to see, even after college, even after I fell in love with a woman.
Martina Navratilova was bisexual, she said, but we lesbians thought we knew what that meant. B-for-bisexual was part of the acronym that described us, but that was a political moniker. We were blooming separatists outside of work and extended family, bonding over discussions of feminist literature and viewings of movies like Personal Best and Desert Hearts. We shared k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge CDs. We gathered at Indigo Girls concerts and Stella Street, the lesbian bar situated in the corner of a strip mall in a town nearby. Ours was a narrow slice of queerness; we were thirsty for lesbian voices and bodies and minds. We were marginalized as women, as well as dykes, and so we marginalized and re-labeled bisexual women, claiming they were unable to make up their minds. We worked in traditionally female careers or careers where women were expected to act like men (mostly), and so there were pieces of our selves that we left at home or in our car’s CD player or never acknowledged at all.
In her book, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes, “Rule of thumb: when something needs to be willfully erased in order to get somewhere, there is usually a problem.” The problem for us was invisibility. The mere assumption we were straight—we were good girls who didn’t look like men, so we must be straight—was deceptively demeaning. And to this day, this is a difficult thing to express, perhaps impossible. What is interesting about the Nelson quote is “rule of thumb,” a cliché that harkens to a time when it was legal for a husband to beat his wife as long as the switch he used was no wider in diameter than his thumb. The cliché reminds me of another: “under his thumb.” And it is true that our figurative beatings were acceptable because of the slight instruments used (replacing “her” with “him” and peeling the Army-base entrance sticker from the car window before parking at the lesbian bar and maintaining separate bedrooms in our apartments), as well as the injuries they caused. We were certainly under a societal thumb, subject to rules that we could not follow but also could not openly flaunt. As we understand—at least theoretically—now, these microagressions, when taken as a whole, pound us into different shapes, deform our true selves so that we are unrecognizable, even in mirrors.
I thought I had put all of that behind me. My girlfriend had become my wife, and we have a child who is about to graduate from high school. Likewise, the rules we must follow have altered so swiftly and unexpectedly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how things used to be, or at least I don’t want to remember. We are no longer radical but ordinary, and I sometimes still bristle under that assumption as well. With age comes understanding, but sitting in that darkened theater, surrounded by straight couples presumably out on Saturday night dates (I scanned the audience when the lights were up, but did not see any fellow female travelers, friends of Sappho, family), I was struck by the horrifying thought that I had been deprived of my youth, in no small part, because of the secrecy, because of the trauma of hiding myself, and that I had embraced traditionalism because I could not be openly radical. This is a dramatic thought, and it is also just a fact. It is stunning to me because I cannot not fully appreciate the subtraction of myself, even in 2017, when I am legally married to my wife and looking forward to empty nesting with her for the remainder of our lives.
Who would I have been? I cannot fathom, and in some ways, I don’t really care. I don’t mourn for that person I could have been but never could have known. She is not a ghost; she never existed.
Still, watching the fictionalized Billie Jean King triumph and simultaneously give up so much, I cried. Sitting with my friends, who are married to men, I let tears roll down my face, for Billie Jean King and for Larry King and for myself and for the boyfriend whose life I nearly ruined and for all of the pain that these Technicolor scenes pulled from long-buried memories. In 1973, Billie Jean King was a champion for feminist women; she was a champion for lesbians. After the match, some of these women openly cheered her victory; some also privately cried for her defeat.
Billie Jean King could have lived a quiet life with another woman, loving her. But she couldn’t have also been a magnificent tennis star. She needed Larry King, her friend and manager, as well as her husband. She needed Virginia Slims. She needed her fans, most of whom needed her to be straight. But like with Martina Navratilova and k.d. lang and Emily Sailers and Amy Ray, twenty years later, there were thousands of women who saw her clearly, who knew instinctively that she was like them. And so, whether any of these famous artists and athletes knew it or not, their choice to subjugate their sexuality, to fold their whole selves so that some parts were not obvious to everyone, that choice meant that they could be famous, that we could see them. In that seeing, we knew we were not alone.
It is painful to witness even a fictionalized account of Billie Jean King’s struggle, especially as she kicked Bobby Riggs’s sorry ass. There is such victory in that moment, such grace in her win. She merely had to be a good tennis player, while he needed a circus and bravado. Still, as she sits in the locker room (in the film) weeping after winning the match, I knew what she was weeping for. No one comes for her. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs’s estranged wife enters the men’s locker room so that they can reconcile. In his defeat, Bobby Riggs has his family near. In her victory, Billie Jean King is alone.
We oldish dykes, we’ve been there. We’ve been alone in a triumphant moment, unable to share our pride and happiness with our true loves. We’ve had to enter a party alone or with a “friend” only to watch our girlfriends from across a crowded room. We’ve told lies upon lies, spent holidays apart from our girlfriends and wives, become fluent in exchanging pronouns, hidden ourselves away on lesbian-only cruises or vacations or bars or bookstores. I’m an oldish lesbian, so I don’t know if this mechanism of deceit is still required, everywhere or in certain places or in certain families. I suppose it is, but I’m too old for it now. Still, the damage is done. The shaving away of dignity has left me just a bit off kilter, with lasting trauma that resurfaces from time to time, like in a movie theater.
Featured image via Creative Commons.