My American Dream: City of Angels
Billie Jean King, Wimbledon 1975, 2023 Oil on linen 60 × 45 inches; 152.4 × 114.3 cm
Billie Jean King, Wimbledon 1975, 2023
Oil on linen 60 × 45 inches; 152.4 × 114.3 cm

I was born in 1966, so was still an impressionable kid growing up when Billie Jean King was making her legend in tennis, and for feminist rights.  She had a great impact on me and my family (who also played tennis!).  As liberals in 1970’s Denver Colorado, our family loved watching Billie Jean King not just play tennis, but also perform as a cultural hero for women’s rights, and later, as an out lesbian, for LGBTQ+ rights.  She still is a dynamic living cultural icon who serves to remind and inspire people around to world for all she stands for.  This image is of Billie Jean King holding the Wimbledon trophy after winning the Women’s Singles event in 1975, but I hope also acts as a triumphant image for all civil rights.

While painting, I listened—TWICE–to all 16 hours of her self-narrated biography, ALL IN, in addition to watching documentaries about her and her life, which was so moving. I also listened to Elton John music, one of her best friends–whose “Philadelphia Freedom” was written for her and her team the Philadelphia Freedoms and mixed-gender professional doubles tennis league (along with 70’s feminist singer/songwriter classics like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and more!).  BJK was such a pioneer for the women’s rights movement from the 60’s forward, and the feminist revolution that she is still a revered icon that helped to shape the world not just of tennis, but for women and the LGBTQ+ movement currently.  Outed by her former girlfriend unwittingly in what became a lawsuit in the public eye, Billie Jean was forced to confront her public with her orientation, that eventually became the out and proud spokesperson for queer rights everywhere today.

I remember my folks, who loved to play and watch tennis, calling us to the television set to watch Billie Jean King in her matches.  At the time, she was inspiring not just as a powerful female player, but that she also wore glasses and had short hair—both my sister and I had to wear glasses at an early age and faced the “four eyes” beratement at school, and just in that she gave us empowerment.  But in her aggressive, intense, and emboldened play and sensibility, Billie Jean King also showed us what it was to be, at that moment in the early 70’s, a gender bending, non-conforming idea of what it was to be a woman. Our family embraced the cultural likes of Helen Reddy and her “I Am a Woman” song, MS. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, and the ERA movement– and even the Virginia Slims “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” slogan (that emblazoned the Virginia Slims Circuit of women trailblazers that King helped to begat) were a huge influence for my family and generation.   

Confronting the misogyny of tennis in her time, creating her own circuit (and later, the as mentioned, the World Team Tennis organization of mixed gender professional tennis league!), King was a public spokesman for Feminist movement, the ERA, and was a hero in my youth, who actively, in both her sport and her actions, showed the world what it was to be a powerful woman standing up for woman’s rights.  When in the early 80’s she was forced out of the closet, she (after a time where she was admittedly embattled not to fully embrace her identity given the oppressive nature of the times) became an icon as a powerful lesbian leader, and an LGBTQ+ leader whose powerful cultural influence still pervades.  She is both a legendary tennis athlete and historic legend for equal rights of all kinds. For over twenty years she dominated tennis, winning 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles, and mixed doubles tennis titles and 20 titles at Wimbledon. I still remember the 1973 famous “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs, where she defeated the “misogynist pig” Riggs portrayed, becoming a symbol for women’s rights in my youth.  As a cultural leader, she has been given many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barak Obama in 2009 for championing the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, and has even has a library named in her honor in Long Beach CA, her childhood home.

My sister is wonderfully an out lesbian who also is cultural engaged in her politics and her work, being a therapist for LGBTQ+ youth, and I hope I keep the flame alive both in my artwork and my teaching as a tenured Professor of Art at the University of Southern California in addition to my activism.  Billie Jean King has been an icon and a model for us personally as a successful, happy queer person (who also has been married with her decades long partner in life and tennis Ilana Kloss) who is also strong, super successful, ambitious, and proud, fighting the good fight both in tennis and her life, not just for herself, but the rights of agency women and the LGBTQ+ communities.  It was my honor to create this image, which hopefully is allegorical for all her triumph amidst challenges and controversy.

I’m proud that an ink and watercolor version of this image is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum, as part of a 4 drawing series “Rising Up!”, along with queer icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, David Wojnarowicz /Act UP, and Harvey Milk.