Billie Jean King’s Coming Out Story: How a Secret Lover Forced Her Out


On May 1, 1981, Billie Jean King stood in front of a packed room of media members at a hotel in Los Angeles. Alongside the former world No. 1 player was her husband, Larry King; his parents, Bill and Betty Moffitt; and his attorney, Dennis Wasser.

Larry introduced her, the Billie Jean King the world had known for 15 years. Little did the world know he was about to meet another Billie Jean King, one who was tired of living in fear.

“I felt very strongly about that,” she spoke on this unforgettable day. “I’ve always been honest with the press and will now speak like I’ve always spoken, with my heart. I’ve always thought it was important for people to have their privacy, and unfortunately someone in my life doesn’t think that’s very sacred. I had 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 many fronts, leading the way for women in professional tennis and the LGBTQ+ community.

However, King couldn’t come out of the closet on his own terms. It was a secret lover who forced her out, stealing King’s chance to have it her way.

The trial of the secret lover

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Billie Jean King had been married to Larry King, a former college tennis player and the man behind the idea of ​​a women’s professional circuit, since 1965 – a large part of her professional career.

Their marriage became complicated when King had an affair with a woman named Marilyn Barnett from 1972 to 1979. 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 his right arm.

According to the king in her autobiography “All In”, Barnett’s possessive nature led the two to end their physical relationship in 1973. Barnett remained to live at the Kings’ beach house in Malibu until 1978, when King gave her departure notice.

Outside the courtroom, the press interviews Marilyn Barnett, accompanied by her lawyer, Joel Ladin, in 1981.

This is when things start to get a little crazy, so buckle up. According to New York Post, Barnett nearly extorted her, using King’s fear of being exposed against her. She also once attempted suicide on Kings property, which left her paralyzed:

“Shortly after, Barnett threatened to sell personal letters King had written to the tabloids. She also attempted suicide, once leaving a suicide note before throwing herself off the balcony of the Malibu property.

“Just when the Kings thought they had reached an agreement to pay her, Barnett’s attorney revealed that his client had found additional personal letters that were worth ‘much more than our deal’.”

It was not until April 1981 that Barnett formally filed a lawsuit against King, seeking the house she had lived in with them and half of King’s seven-year earnings. The case was dismissed, but it was just the start of a long journey for King.

“I had been unmasked” she wrote in his autobiography “All In”. “My worst nightmare has come true.”

She told the world who she was at a press conference, but she called the relationship with Barnett a “mistake” and said she was “very disappointed and shocked that Marilyn did this, not only to herself in a very destructive way, but also to other people who took care of she”.

Marilyn Barnett robbed Billie Jean King of the ability to go out when and how she wanted, when she felt it was the right time. She also cost King millions of dollars.

King Lost Approvals After Release

Billie Jean King is taken to court for the Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs.
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King never won a Grand Slam title after her public release, but she still had heavy endorsements before that. That changed quickly.

King wrote in “All In” that she lost at least $500,000 (worth around $1.6 million in 2022) within two months of its release. Murjani Jeans withdrew its $300,000 contract, as did a Japanese fashion contract worth $90,000. Wimbledon intended to put her name on a clothing line, but that was scrapped. She was even called a “bitch” by a CEO who fired her.

Still, the players supported her. She said The Washington Post a few days after that press conference that “everyone has been absolutely fantastic. I was amazed. And I really appreciate it, because the press and the public can think whatever they want about it.

Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss attend the 5th Annual Blue Diamond Foundation at Dodger Stadium on June 12, 2019.
Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage

King has since become a human rights pioneer and icon. She and ex-husband Larry, who stayed with her during the trial, separated in 1987 after King fell in love with fellow tennis player Ilana Kloss, whom she has been with ever since. Both same secretly married in 2018. As for Marilyn Barnett, she died in 1997 at the age of 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.

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