The plot was an old one, worn out even before the Billie Jean chapter. The revelations, the admissions, the star shredded in print . . . we'd seen it all before.

Our public people are not allowed privacy anymore. There is no security in their secrets, only vulnerability.

Sooner or later someone scratches the surface of their private lives and 200 million critical eyes see their "flaws." We hold them up against a standard of conformity or purity.

Last year it was Anita Bryant. Her stock rose when she attacked homosexuality and then it plunged over a messy divorce. Now Billie Jean King's image crashes over a homosexual affair and a non-divorce.

One revelation lost Antia Bryant her Florida oranges. Another may have bumped Billie Jean from future endorsements.

We keep strange ledgers on our superstars. On one side of the Billie Jean scorecard are the facts of her tennis life. At 5'4 1/2" tall, with 20-400 eyesight, and one hell of a lot of grit, she won 19 Wimbledon titles. With ambition and generosity, she became the founding mother of big-time, big-money women's tennis.

On the other side of the ledger is her past. The world now knows what a smaller circle has known for years.

For the moment, the weight of this new information -- dredged up from a well of bitterness -- overbalances all the rest. For the moment, the articles and interviews claim that her homosexual affair negates all these accomplishments. She may be blacklisted from the business of being admired.

Maybe Billie Jean was prescient three years ago when she described the public fascination with downfalls. "The trouble with most people is they do not cherish the good things. They want things to fail because it makes them feel bigger."

But there is something more than routine gossip in the clamor that follows this plot line. There is the dark edge of hatred toward homosexuals that streaks throughout our culture.

There are times, and this is one of them, when the judgement against people who love each other is far more hostile than the judgment against people who hurt each other.

As Anita Bryant realized when her campaign against gays collided with new understanding, "I could see that a lot of people got involved in the crusade who had a personal vendetta about gays. They harbored hatreds."

When I was young there were no "homosexuals," no open discussion of gay "life styles," no gay liberation parades, no movies like "Fame," no court cases over senior proms. Now, in a more open age we are all confronted uneasily with questions (our own and our children's) about sexuality.

There is a genuine confusion and a widespread discomfort among "straights" toward "gays," toward bisexuality and homosexual affairs. A subdued Billie Jean, sitting with her husband, told Barbara Walters, "I'm amazed at how many friends I have," and amazed at how well her parents handled the news. What I am talking about, though, is hatred and fear -- the king of vitriol that is guaranteed to come in my mailbag just from writing about this issue.

For some people, homosexuality pushes a button of profound hostility and terror. I saw this two months ago with unusual clarity in a prison in upstate New York. I was in a classroom of a hundred prisoners taking college credits. When the subject turned to homosexuality, these young male inmates expressed utterly inflexible views: Homosexuals were bad, unforgivably bad.

I was struck with his experience because I know that inmates often lead a homosexual life style in prison. The hatred they expressed must also have been directed inward.

But I was even more impressed with the utter rigidity of their sense of "right and wrong." These moralists were, after all, in jail. The men in front of me included robbers and rapists and drug addicts. They were men who had hurt for a living. And yet they looked down from their prison pulpit at a "lower class" of human beings: homosexuals.

I'm sure that Billie Jean's reluctance to be open about this time of her life came from a profound understanding of that core of bigotry. Now at least she is free from discovery.

But I cannot help wondering why it is so hard for people to learn what even Anita Bryant discovered: "The answers don't seem so simple now. I'm more inclined to say live and let live."