Alison van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen are the first openly gay couple to team up and play at Wimbledon. The Belgian couple, who have spent 3 years together off-court, recently spoke out about regarding the issue of sexuality in tennis.
The number of openly gay players in tennis is quite small regardless of gender, but there are significantly more out women than men. Since World War II, there has been only one openly gay man - Brian Vahaly, who only came out about his sexuality a decade after retiring - while openly gay women include such champion names as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Amélie Mauresmo.
Uytvanck and Minnen have urged more vocal and unequivocal support for same-sex relationships, and believe that this will help men especially to come out. On why exactly it is so hard for men to come out, Uytvanck noted several reasons, including the stereotypes surrounding gay men and the possible loss of sponsorship.
Billie Jean King, the Wimbledon champion who competed in the infamous 1973 match against the self-confessed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs (of which a movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell has been made), faced a slew of struggles with coming out that the Belgian couple do not face today. While Uytvanck and Minnen report that their coming out has had mostly positive responses (despite having to “turn-down” their relationship when in less tolerant countries like Egypt), King was not so lucky.
King’s love affair with Marilyn Barnett, her hairdresser, was made public after Barnett sued the tennis champion for what sensationalists called “galimony”. King then fought with her publicist and attorney to publicly speak about her sexuality, and she lost all of her endorsements. She has been fighting for freedom, equality, and inclusivity all her life, and in 2009 was awarded the Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama.
Many companies, such as Google and Amazon, make a point of displaying LGBTQ Pride flags and positive messages for the community during June (which is widely regarded as “Pride month”); these same companies, however, have been criticised by activist groups and individuals for not doing enough to create material equality and inclusivity, and instead pay a lip-service to the LGBTQ community. While the backlash that King experienced might, to the millennial or “Generation Z” individual, seem almost medieval in its severity (despite being only 38 years ago), there are very salient fears that players who come out today - especially men - might experience similar consequences.
Kevin Anderson, the losing finalist in last year’s Wimbledon men’s single, spoke last month about the stigma attached to being an openly gay man in tennis. He noted that it was a struggle, but he expressed hope that even just one man’s coming out would “open the gate” for others to follow suit. Novak Djokovic, Anderson’s conqueror, expressed a similar sentiment, saying he would welcome a player’s coming out as “brave”.
Uytvanck pointed out that her and Minnen’s experience was largely positive, but that this might not always be the case. Vahaly, the only openly-gay male tennis player since World War II, admitted that homophobic comments were a part of “locker room culture”, and might be another barrier keeping men locked inside the closet.
Uytvanck faces the world number one, Ashleigh Barty, in the singles on Thursday. She, and her partner of three years, hope to be the floodgates that Anderson spoke about, inspiring others to bravely love themselves and change the culture from Vahaly’s reported acceptable homophobia to King’s dream of equality and inclusivity.
Come out, come out, wherever you are. Come outside and take a breath of fresh air.
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