By Martina Navratilova Exclusive to Between The Lines
On Wednesday, Oct. 18, I will turn 50. I think it’s a natural time to reflect on the amazing changes that have taken place. I certainly don’t feel old – I am in better physical condition now than I was 10 years ago, and I don’t have any of the traditional physical symptoms or mid-life crises to report. I’ve taken care of my body and it’s has paid off-before my retirement from professional tennis last month, I won one last Grand Slam title. What a thrill to end my career on a high note – my partner Bob Bryan and I won mixed doubles at the 2006 US Open. The ball didn’t notice my advancing years, so why should I?
I’ve always said that timing is everything, so when I was asked to write this essay about my personal role in the creation of gay history, I felt the timing was right. Now, when I think back on the all that has happened within the LGBT community within my lifetime, 50 years no longer seems like an arbitrary interval of time. From my new perspective, I see a half-century of events that have added up to incredible changes. And that’s certainly an important reason to stop for a genuine reflection.
There was the year that I left my home country, then communist Czechoslovakia, to live in a country where I would be free to chase my dream without the specter of a faceless and menacing government watching my every move, spying on my family, controlling my travels, and confiscating most of what I earned. Ironically, today, in the name of protecting our democracy and freedom, my chosen country’s government is behaving a lot like the totalitarian communist regime I left behind.
In 1981, I chose to come out and tell the truth about myself. Although I had no idea of it at the time, I now see that moment of truth as significant not only for my own personal evolution, but, because my life was played out in public, my coming out played a role in the struggle for human rights for all of us. At the time, I wasn’t trying to make a political statement; I wanted to be true to myself. If I couldn’t face my fear, how could I face my opponents? It’s no coincidence that my years of tennis dominance began after I came out. I couldn’t win if I had to leave part of me off the court.
For many years, corporate sponsors wouldn’t touch me. Despite the fact that I was at the top of my sport, I wasn’t asked to endorse products, and missed out on the lucrative deals that my contemporaries were enjoying. I put that down to simple bigotry. Even today a part of me is still waiting for a call from Wheaties.
One of the most moving moments in my life was participating in the 1993 March on Washington. We spoke our individual truths, but with one voice so loud that we made a safe place for others to do the same. Standing on the stage and looking over the throngs of people, I spoke about how this free place is where we can all do our best and contribute the most. This is where we can really “get in the game.” And if we want to change history, we have to speak our own truths and support others to speak theirs.
I was so inspired by the strength and solidarity I witnessed, I wanted to make the spirit last longer than a weekend. Two years later, two friends and I found a way to harness the economic power of the LGBT community and really make a difference. We launched the Rainbow Card that funds the non-profit Rainbow Endowment. In essence, we created a fund raising tool that enables individuals to contribute to the LGBT community through the simple act of using a credit card. With less than 2 percent of all philanthropic dollars in the Unted States targeted specifically to lesbian and gay causes, the Rainbow Endowment has emerged as one of the nation’s top funding sources to the LGBT community. Through its grant making program, the Rainbow Endowment has contributed nearly two million dollars to organizations empowering the LGBT community.
And finally, there’s 2006, this amazing year when I was able to participate in the 1st World Outgames in Montreal. It was at this event that I experienced the difference between being tolerated and being accepted. I witnessed, for the first time, a GLBT event that was not organized solely by us, but for our community. I felt that I was no longer part of an embattled group of “outsiders” fighting to be merely tolerated rather than ever really accepted. For that week in Montreal, everyone was gay. The Outgames weren’t just a GLBT event, they were a Montreal event, a Canadian event, and the Outgames are now on the way to living up to their name as a World event.
When I turn 50, I won’t be alone. Statistics report that one out of 76 million Baby Boomers turns 50 every 7.5 seconds. How refreshing that math problem becomes when we realize that since the GLBT community is 10 percent of the population, it’s a fact that we are clocking fiftieth birthday parties at the rate of almost one baby Boomer per minute!! If we can focus that energy and economic power, what can’t we accomplish? Timing is everything, and now is our time.
I look forward to making history with you!