Martina Navratilova is much more than the world’s best ever female tennis player.
She is also a champion for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights (as well as for animals and underprivileged children) and an icon and inspiration for millions of people around the world.
As London opens the 2012 Summer Olympics today (27 July) we reveal our exclusive interview with her, conducted at the Out and Equal Global Workplace Summit in the UK capital last month, where she was a keynote speaker.
When you came out in the 1980s did you imagine that 30 years later in the Olympics there might still only be a handful of well known openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes?
Is there a mission statement for the International Olympic Committee?
Yes and it includes equality.
For gays and lesbians or just for all?
I’m not sure it’s as specific as that. [Later checks confirmed it insists on non-discrimination for all but does not reference LGBT people specifically.]
I haven’t looked at it and I keep meaning to look at it and even my academy the gays and lesbians are not included and I need to get on that.
But yes and no. The sports world is very archaic, and particularly the team sports but I think the athletes are just too paranoid about coming out and I think if they did they would realize it was ok.
You know homophobia is easy to do when it’s generic but it’s very difficult when it’s specific. It is easy for a player to make jokes about fags or whatever but if one of the team is an out gay player, they are not going to be making those jokes. And so I think if the athletes came out it would all change.
But the team sports is where it is difficult because particularly for the younger ones in colleges, you may have a homophobic coach. And if you come out the coach does put you in the team and you don’t get to play.
On the other hand the tennis community has been out and supportive. We were the first sports group who got behind AIDS awareness largely due to Arthur Ashe being infected. Did we get behind it more because he was infected due to a blood transfusion and he wasn’t gay? If he had been gay would we have been behind him in the same way? I don’t know.
But in some ways the sports world has been ahead of the curve on social issues – even the gay stuff because there was no discrimination on the outside but on the inside in team sports it was definitely there.
Still I have always said the biggest thing we can do to advance the cause is to come out. If just a few would come out while they are still players, the floodgates would open.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for sportspeople not to come out is about sponsorship. Is that realistic?
It’s total bullshit. First of all that was a concern 30 years ago and cost me plenty of money but nowadays it wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s a plus or minus anymore. If it is a minus it is so minor. And, after all, how many athletes get endorsements? Very few. It really is the cream of the crop that get any outside sponsorship. Even good footballers just have their shoe deal. Are they going to get a drink deal? How many? It’s just a cop out really.
Do you think it is possible to encourage more athletes to come out? The government in Britain has started a charter for sport to tackle homophobia and that doesn’t seem to have changed that.
It will. You put the legislation in place and you just can’t be prejudiced against it any more. Of course the grassroots are important but it has to come from the top down as well. It makes a huge difference.
On to other subjects, how confident are you that the US will win gay marriage and will the election make a big difference?
Absolutely. I think more so than ever. Romney is just so unpredictable because he has shifted so much but he is beholden to the Conservative wing and there is no way he will come out in support of this. So Obama’s re-election is huge on so many levels but for the social issues the Republicans are going backwards, trying to put the women down and gays, they don’t even mention them.
Gay marriage is a huge issue. I think it will happen. I gave it 10 years about eight years ago so we are close to that. Under Bush we had no chance but now that Obama has spoken out in favor it is only a matter of time but I think it will happen before the end of his second presidency, no doubt.
So how confident are you that Obama will be re-elected?
I am not confident at all. Because there is so much money involved on the other end and they just lie through their teeth. They will say whatever and it has no bearing on reality. I hope he’ll win but it’s going to be close.
The marriage issue – it’s not about the right to get married, it just gives you equal standing in society. For me that’s the biggest issue and we just need to keep going in that direction.
I’ve always said the biggest thing we can do is to come out and when I spoke in the March on Washington in 93 that’s what I said. And when I spoke 10 years later I said you have to come out, keep coming out, make it personal. That’s how you push for equal rights.
Is it a regret that you haven’t been able to get married yourself?
Well, I’ve made some bad choices when it came to partners but I would have liked to have the opportunity to at least make it legal. And I still want to do it in the future. I’m in a relationship now and it’s not possible. It would make life a lot easier on so many levels and it’s a basic human rights.
Beyond the legal side and society’s recognition, do you think it would change the nature of your relationship?
It’s so different for us because gays have not had the possibility. I don’t know. Ask me after I get married, if that ever happens, and I will tell you what it feels like.
You spend time in both the UK and US. Are there things you wish you could take from one country and import into the other?
The UK is so regulated, so you don’t have so much freedom, people get carried away with it. When you are driving I think you spend more time looking at your speedometer than the road because you are so terrified of getting a ticket in the mail. They take it too far one way and you are on a camera everywhere which is kind of scary. If it’s just to catch the criminals, great – but it’s misused and terrifying that way.
But on the other hand it is so much more progressive on social issues in the UK. It is really ahead of the curve and the US is so far behind. Anything which has to do with sex we are really messed up in the States. I think it’s still left over from the Puritans. There is a law in Florida about the size of bathing suits and you can’t go topless and everything is sexualized. It drives you crazy.
So we are talking about gay marriage and somehow they stand against gay marriage because it’s a gateway to polygamy and bestiality. And you are like ‘really’?
When it comes to anything sexual we have some issues. When I did Dancing With The Stars not only did I have to wear a bra but I had to put nipple covers on in case there is a wardrobe malfunction. God forbid there should be a female nipple on TV because that’s pornography in America. We are just so puritanical in that regard.
Lots of places around Europe are even more liberated about this kind of stuff…
That’s true but the UK is so far ahead of the US. The Czech Republic has so only been a democracy for a little over 20 years but they are much further along with social issues than we are in the States.
The Out and Equal conference is about improving global LGBT workplace rights. What lessons do you want people to learn there.
It is about the corporations making the workplace a safe place. A supportive environment. And again it goes from the top down. If the head of the company is homophobic, then it is ok to be homophobic everywhere. It gives them license to be. But if they stop it at the top it trickles down.
That’s where Out and Equal do such a good job, promoting openness and support of LGBT people and stopping the bullying and name-calling. Ideally one day it will be a non-issue.
Europe and the US, particularly since Hilary Clinton’s speech, have been involved in more global LGBT rights. Do you feel that’s an important focus and somewhere those countries can make a positive difference or is there a danger they could do more harm than good by being seen to dictate?
When you are dictating equal rights, you can not go wrong. It’s just the right thing to do. And when they say it’s our culture, well the culture is wrong. Just because it’s your culture, it doesn’t make it right. Violence against gays and lesbians is just wrong.
If you have to be militant about it then that’s what you do. There are 79 countries where you can be jailed for being gay or even executed and that’s wrong and we know it. By saying that, you are not being a bully, you are just pointing out that they are wrong.