On May 1, 1981, Billie Jean King stood in front of a packed room of media members in a Los Angeles hotel. By the former world No. 1 player’s side was her husband, Larry King; her parents, Bill and Betty Moffitt; and her lawyer, Dennis Wasser.
Larry introduced her, the Billie Jean King that the world had known for 15 years. Little did the world know it was about to meet a different Billie Jean King, one who was tired of living in fear.
“I felt very strongly about this,” she spoke on that unforgettable day. “I’ve always been above board with the press and I will talk now as I have always talked, from my heart. I’ve always felt it’s important that people have their privacy, and unfortunately someone in my life doesn’t think it’s very sacred. I did have an affair with Marilyn.”
With that, the 12-time Grand Slam singles champion had become the first prominent female athlete to come out publicly. In the decades since that day, Billie Jean King has become an icon on numerous fronts, paving the way for women in pro tennis and the LGBTQ+ community.
King wasn’t able to come out of the closet on her own terms, however. It was a secret lover that forced her out of it, stealing King’s chance at doing it her own way.
The Lawsuit From the Secret Lover
Billie Jean King was married to Larry King, a former college tennis player and the man behind the idea of a women’s pro tour, since 1965 — much of her professional career.
Their marriage grew complicated when King had an affair with a woman named Marilyn Barnett from 1972-79. Barnett was a hairdresser who also worked as King’s personal assistant in the ’70s. Barnett did everything with (and for) King. She traveled with her. She cooked and cleaned for her. She was her right-hand woman.
According to King in her autobiography “All In,” Barnett’s possessive nature led to the two stopping their physical relationship in 1973. Barnett remained living in the Kings’ Malibu beach house until 1978 when King gave her a notice to leave.
That’s when things begin to get a bit wild, so buckle up. According to the New York Post, Barnett all but extorted her, using King’s fear of being outed against her. She also once tried to commit suicide on the Kings’ property, which left her paralyzed:
“Soon after, Barnett threatened to sell personal letters King had written to her to the tabloids. She also tried to take her own life, once leaving a suicide note before throwing herself off the balcony of the Malibu property.
“Just when the Kings thought they had struck a deal to pay her off, Barnett’s lawyer revealed that his client had found additional personal letters that were worth ‘much more than our agreement.'”
It wasn’t until April of 1981 that Barnett officially filed a “palimony” lawsuit against King, seeking the house she had lived in with them and half of King’s earnings over a seven-year period. The case was thrown out, but this was just the beginning of a long journey for King.
“I had been outed,” she wrote in her autobiography “All In.” “My worst nightmare had come true.”Advertisement
She told the world who she was in a press conference, but she called the relationship with Barnett a “mistake” and said she was “very disappointed and shocked that Marilyn has done this, not only to herself in a very destructive way but to other people who have cared for her.”
Marilyn Barnett robbed Billie Jean King of the ability to come out when and how she wanted, when she felt it was the right time. She also cost King millions of dollars in doing so.
King Lost Endorsements After Coming Out
King never won a Grand Slam title after her public outing, but she still had some hefty endorsements prior to it. That changed quickly.
King wrote in “All In” that she lost at least $500,000 (worth about $1.6 million in 2022) within two months after she was outed. Murjani Jeans pulled her $300,000 contract, as did a Japanese fashion deal worth $90,000. Wimbledon had plans to put her name on a line of clothing, but it axed that. She was even called a “slut” by one CEO who fired her.
Still, players supported her. She told The Washington Post a couple days after that press conference that “everyone has been absolutely fantastic. I was astounded. And I really appreciate it, because the press and the public can think anything they want to about this.”
King has since become a human rights pioneer and icon. She and ex-husband Larry, who stayed with her through the lawsuit, separated in 1987 after King fell in love with fellow tennis player Ilana Kloss, who she’s been with ever since. The two even secretly tied the knot in 2018. As for Marilyn Barnett, she died in 1997 at 49.
Billie Jean King, now 78, can say she lives a life true to herself. She continues to be an inspiration to women, athletes and members of the LGBTQ+ community to this day.