It is with some reluctance that I return to the subject of Billie Jean King, her affair, her homosexuality, her tennis and how, in the end, she has become a symbol of a time when candor meant nothing, but to apologize meant everything. If I am wrong about that, I apologize.
But I am not. Billie Jean King has come back with a vengeance. After being accused of having a homosexual affair with her former secretary, she ran the media gauntlet by which one purges oneself of all sin: She called a press conference, confessed to Barbara Walters and then was interviewed by People Magazine. She now has been restored to a state of grace.
It would not, I swear, be worth taking another look at King were it not that she is following a formula and were it not also that what she is doing -- the whole candor number -- is not admirable, but reprehensible. She has, in effect, turned her back not only on her lover (which is her own business), but on what she herself is or was, no matter how apologetically: a homosexual. Not since Quisling has one person sold so many others down the river.
She did this by first characterizing her affair as a mistake. It was never clear whether the mistake was having an affair or having a homosexual affair or having a homosexual affair with someone who seven years down the road would cost her a lot of money. That, as anyone can see, is definitely a mistake. But it becomes more and more clear as the interviews glide by that the mistake was having a homosexual affair.
This is step number one on the long road to public acceptance. What you do is admit what you have been and then say you are no longer that. You begin by telling the world how you got to be that awful person (alcoholic, homosexual, dope addict, pill popper or any combination thereof) and attribute it not to some decision you yourself made, but something called Events Out of Your Control.
In King's case, it was the self-admitted busy schedule of her husband that left her cold and lonely the very same year Marilyn Barnett became her secretary and then her lover: "I had," Larry King confided to People Magazine, "an incredibly busy schedule which was very fulfilling for me but not so fulfilling for Billie Jean, who was running around playing tennis." He did not confide why Billie Jean did not take up knitting or, if sex or companionship was the issue, a man, but no matter. The stage is set for step number two.
This is the step where you announce that you are no longer what you used to be. In Billie Jean King's case, this means that she is no longer a homosexual. Indeed, she says she never really was. She may have a case here, since one love affair may not a homosexual make, but she protests too much -- and poses for too many pictures with a husband who until recently was not, in a larger sense, in the picture at all.
At any rate, she has put a lot of distance between herself and her former lover and between herself and her former self. This is where what seems like candor is not candor at all. She is tattling not on herself, but her former self, admitting nothing about what she is today, only what she has been and that, as we have been told ad nauseam , was a mistake. In this, King is no different from a bevy of politicians and others who claim the bottle or pressure or whatever made them do what they did. They confess, but they do not own up.There is a difference.
There is a cheating quality to what King and the others have done. They do something, sometimes for quite a long time, and then duck the consequences when they get caught. They refuse to pay the piper, accept responsibility for who they are and what they have done. In King's case, it means making homosexuality into an aberration -- a mistake. It becomes something you do when your husband is terribly busy -- not a life style or a sexual preference you yourself have opted for.
It's hard to fault King for being and doing something that should have been none of our business in the first place. Her sex life is her own affair and you have to feel sorry for the way it got into the public domain. But once that happened, it would have been better if she simply owned up or shut up. Instead, she's tried to co-opt the lynch mob by leading it to the person she says she used to be and, by implication, all homosexuals. It's the wrong thing to do, but that's all right. She can always apologize.