It seems like a lifetime ago that a preposterous and unwritten rule of thumb existed; if you're gay or lesbian and want to enter an LGBT tennis tournament, you might be wise to consider using a fake name. While that was indeed something to ponder, particularly if you didn't want to run the risk of getting fired from your job, it was bittersweet advice for many. Yes, 30 years ago that's exactly what some players felt they had to do. And yes, some employers found out they had "tennis playing lesbians" in their midst (The shock! The horror!) and prophetically, these players were unceremoniously let go.
Fast-forward all these decades later, and we have one of the world's most important and iconic tennis venues, and home to the United States Open, named after a very "out" tennis icon turned activist and humanitarian: Billie Jean King. Ironically, the longest running LGBT tennis tournament (35 years) is named the United States Gay Open (USGO). The USGO has gone from a dozen courts at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to the prestigious courts of Stanford University. While the greatest woman ever to play the game, Martina Navratilova, was handily stripped of millions in endorsements upon her coming out, French superstar Amélie Mauresmo came out, lost virtually nothing, and actually picked up some well deserved hardware along the way. Transgender player Renee Richards defied the ignorance to become a top-ranked women's player in the 1970s; her legend was recently burnished by a glowing 2011 documentary.
This brings me to the governing body of our sport, the United States Tennis Association. Like parents, you can't always choose the powers that be when you join a club or organization. You can, however, affect change as far as policy, particularly if you are holding the proverbial purse strings by way of a membership. USTA would hardly go hungry without the tens of thousands of dollars the LGBT community openly provides them annually, and semi-annually through membership and USTA team fees. Yet despite that, the governing body of my beloved sport, has openly, and with pride, embraced me and my fellow LGBT players. While I've always felt their support (particularly in my hometown in NorCal) it was somewhat under the radar. So imagine my shock when the USTA fiercely pushed a new and evolved national agenda embracing not just black Americans, Latinos, Asians, and female members, but my gay brothers and sisters as well.
One might think this isn't a big deal in this day and age, but considering the IOC's poor relationship with the gay community, its "turn-a-blind-eye" attitude at Russia's horrific human rights violations of their own gay citizens, it makes me proud, and it makes me feel safe to know the USTA has my back. At a time when our countries youth is electing suicide over being bullied simply for being gay or perceived gay, there's an organization of influence and affluence that not only continues to open doors, but also minds.
"Gay tennis" has evolved from a fake-name mentality of survival, to a grassroots force that hosts tournaments all over the globe. One such tournament celebrating a major milestone is the 20th Palm Springs Open Tennis Tournament, Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance championship, where more then 300 players from all over the country and the world will be participating. Like Billie Jean King herself might say, "You've come a long way, baby!"
This year’s tournament will be held over the Thanksgiving weekend (November 29 - December 1) at the following venues: Plaza Racquet Club, Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Las Palmas Country Club, and Monterey Country Club. Over the last 19 years this event has raised over $90,000 for local desert charities. The net proceeds from this nonprofit tennis tournament will be donated to AIDS Assistance Program in Palm Springs.
For more information on the Palm Springs Open and other LGBT tennis tournaments in the Palm Springs, CA area, please contact Nabil Najjar at: [email protected]
Sean Taroli is a PTR certified tennis coach, and a 30 year member of the worlds oldest GLBT tennis organization, the Gay & Lesbian Tennis Federation (GLTF) of San Francisco. Sean currently resides in Palm Springs, CA where he coaches privately. He can be reached via email at: [email protected]