As part of PinkNews.co.uk’s contribution to LGBT History Month, columnist and tennis nut Ben Leung reveals how one of the sport’s greatest heroes has been forgotten because he was gay, and asks why in 2007 lesbian sports stars are two-a-penny while footballers seem to be stuck the closet.
You don’t have to be a tennis fan to have heard of Roger Federer. On Sunday, the world’s best tennis player easily secured his third straight win in the Australian Open, and his tenth Grand Slam victory to date.
His latest win also places the Swiss genius amongst an elite group of six men who have reached double-digit wins in Grand Slam tennis, the others being Pete Sampras, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Bill Tilden.
The last-named is probably the least famous of the sextet, partly due to the fact that Tilden has been dead for well over half a century.
However, no sport is cruel enough to deny its talented sons and daughters the accolades they deserve – unless there’s something dark lurking in the background.
Indeed, the reason Tilden remains a largely forgotten figure to this day owes a lot to the fact that he was gay, and it wasn’t helped by his rather colourful and controversial life on-and-off the court, which appalled this middle-class sport in America during the inter-war period.
Nicknamed ‘Big Bill’, Tilden was born William Tatem Tilden II in 1893 and was the most prolific figure in men’s tennis during the 1920s and 30s, winning ten Slam titles including seven US Opens (then called the U.S. Championship) and three victories at Wimbledon.
He also led America to victory in the Davis Cup seven years in a row, and was ranked the equivalent of today’s world’s number one for seven years running.
In short, he was, at the time, the greatest player the world had ever seen.
But for all of his greatness, his legacy has been allowed to slip into tennis obscurity due to his homosexual past, which includes being jailed twice for sex with minors.
It is this ‘sordid’ past which has made Tilden such an outcast in the sport of tennis.
His life ended prematurely under tragic circumstances, too: broke, alone in Los Angeles and aged just 60.
Although he was posthumously inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame six years after his death, the fact that his legacy has been effectively airbrushed out of tennis history is testament to how homophobic sport can be.
For many, tennis might seem to be the most gay-friendly of all the sports: Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Conchita Martinez, Gigi Fernandez and currently, France’s Amelie Mauresmo have all been trail blazers for homosexuals in sport.
Of course, it wasn’t always that easy; both King and Navratilova were outed against their own accords back in the early 80s, with both women losing the support of their sponsors almost overnight.
Two decades later, not one sponsor pulled out when Mauresmo revealed her sexuality in 1999.
Indeed, Navratilova commented last year that no one cares about a woman’s sexuality in tennis, and that it is easier for athletes to come out in individual sports rather than team ones.
That said, she isn’t aware of any male tennis players who is openly gay.
The Czech-born legend also commented that: “Sport is such a macho world that for guys to be gays just goes against the culture…male athletes do not come out because they feel they would be ostracised.”
This damning verdict by one of the most influential sportspeople of the 20th century underlines how a long way there is to go for homosexuality to be accepted in mainstream sport.
This is particularly in men’s sport and in team sports, which might help explain why Bill Tilden’s achievements remain in the tennis wilderness.
All of this makes last week’s reports on PinkNews.co.uk about two gay German footballers all the more interesting.
The two men concerned are well-known figures in the Bundesliga or German premiership.
Though neither is willing to come out, as it would be “professional suicide,” they did agree to disclose their secrets to a sports magazine on the condition of anonymity.
Bizarrely, the editor of RUND magazine – who conducted the interview – argued that the Bundesliga should look to Britain’s Football Association for guidance in tackling homophobia in football.
Now, the last time I checked, there isn’t a single footballer in our Premier League who is openly gay.
Yes, the FA have done a lot in kicking out racism since the 1980s, and have also set up a body to specifically tackle homophobia in the sport with some behind-the-scene success.
But this is an issue which a committee alone will never be able to sort out.
Sure, they can impose fines and sanctions on any club found in breach of this policy.
However, to deal with homophobia in football – and sports in general – a complete culture change is required.
That means everyone from the chairmen, the agents, the sponsors and the teams all the way down to the ordinary fans having to accept an openly gay footballer representing their club or even country.
The first three are the easier hurdles to overcome but the standard practice is that players should not declare their homosexuality as many managers believe no single player is bigger than his team, and that one’s sexuality should remain a private issue.
Besides, unity and team spirit are crucial to success or failure, and by having an openly gay player within the squad, it might unsettle some of the team members who may not be homophobic, but might have reservations about sharing a shower or having physical contact with a gay player.
The biggest obstacle to overcome though, is the fans on the terraces.
Club supporters are notoriously loyal to their teams, which is unique to the sport.
They act as the unofficial spokesmen for their favourite team through good and bad times.
They are also their own team’s harshest critics. If you play well, they love you. Otherwise, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if you got spat on through the tunnel.
And if you are gay, don’t expect any affectionate or pro-gay chanting from your own fans, and certainly not from rival crowds.
You don’t need to be a football aficionado to know how cruel the crowd abuse can be from the terraces – just ask Victoria Beckham, Graham Le Saux and Ashley Cole.
None of them is gay, yet the level of abuse hurled at them was pretty nasty. So, can you imagine the crowd abuse if a player was out?
Therefore, in my opinion, unless the football culture changes overnight – which it won’t – then closeted gay players thinking of coming out should postpone the announcements until after their retirements.
I am fully aware that this attitude goes against the spirit of this website, and that many of you will probably think I’m talking trash here, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you.
But from a logical point of view, remaining in the closet makes complete sense. Unless you happen to be an exceptional player and allow the football do the talking, then it’s really not worth the hassle.
Firstly, there is your own mentality to think of: would anyone wish to be subjected to the horrible chanting, or sniggering looks from fellow players, the homophobic banter in the locker room, as well as the impact of commercial considerations if one was to come out?
We are talking about someone’s livelihood here.
Numerous black players suffered racial abuse during the 1980s, none more so than prolific England and Liverpool striker John Barnes.
Luckily, he let his football do the talking, but that the racist abuse never really subsided until the 1990s.
Justin Fashanu, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. Despite being the first million-pound black player in the English League, he suffered from constant racist abuse, and his career went down the drain after coming out in The Sun in 1990.
No big clubs wanted to sign him, and his life drifted from one minor club to another.
He committed suicide in 1998 amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a minor.
Fashanu’s demise would undoubtedly have dissuaded many more from following in his path.
For me, the only way round this problem is for a well-known sports figure, who’s brilliant at what he does, and has the ability to transcend all discriminatory barriers, to declare his sexuality.
Until then, the tragic examples of Tilden, Fashanu and countless other sportsmen are not going to encourage any active players or competitors from coming out any time soon.
The case concerning the two Bundesliga players privately admitting their sexuality may seem insignificant, but it is the first of many steps in tackling the issue.
What’s for sure is that gay sportsmen still have some way to go to match their lesbian counterparts.
Then again, anyone who knows their sports will tell you that female team sports are not exactly lesbian-friendly either.
LGBT History Month seeks to reclaim the position of LGBT people in the curriculum and in wider society. For details of events, go to www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk