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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Taking it to Court

12/9/2011 3:00:00 PM

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Earlier this week, Australian tennis legend Margaret Court gave an interview to The West Australian in which she came down strongly not just against gay marriage, but gays themselves.

Among the controversial statements made by Court, now a pastor in Perth’s Victory Life Church:

 * “Politically correct education has masterfully escorted homosexuality out from behind closed doors, into the community openly and now is aggressively demanding marriage rights that are not theirs to take.”

* “"[Marriages between a man and a woman] are not perfect, often dysfunctional and despite the fact the role models may be distorted and even severely flawed, there is no reason to put forward alternative, unhealthy, unnatural unions as some form of substitute.”

* "To dismantle this sole definition of marriage [as between a man and a woman] and try to legitimize what God calls abominable sexual practices that include sodomy, reveals our ignorance as to the ills that come when society is forced to accept law that violates their very own God-given nature of what is right and what is wrong."

* "The fact that the homosexual cry is, 'We can't help it as we were born this way', as the cause behind their own personal choice is cause for concern. Every action begins with a thought. There is a choice to be made."

Her remarks drew fire not just from readers, who took to Court’s Twitter account to lambaste her, but from her former colleagues who beg to differ.

“I respectfully disagree with Margaret’s position on gay marriage,” Billie Jean King shares with the Sweet Spot. Out since 1981, King has long been a champion for human rights, gay rights among them. “We have to commit to eliminating homophobia because everyone is entitled to the same rights, opportunities and protection.”

Martina Navratilova, another vocal advocate for gay rights since she came out in 1981, is also not having it. “Seems to me a lot of people have evolved as has the Bible, [for example regarding] slavery. Unfortunately, Margaret Court has not.  Her myopic view is truly frightening as well as damaging to the thousands of children already living in same gender families.”

For Court’s countrywoman, doubles great Rennae Stubbs, her words carried an added sting. "As a young Australian tennis player, I aspired to be like Margaret Court," says Stubbs, who came out publicly in 2006. "This is why it has been very difficult to understand her words of hate directed towards homosexuals. It is unfortunate that someone with her stature has chosen to propagate discrimination and I disagree with her comments wholeheartedly."

This isn’t Court’s first foray into anti-gay public speaking, in the past campaigning against laws, passed in Western Australia, which granted some equal rights to gays and lesbians. Court also famously accused Martina Navratilova and other lesbian and bisexual tennis players of ruining the sport and setting a bad example for younger players.

“I have tried to talk to Margaret,” Navratilova says, “but to say she’s completely close-minded on the issue is an understatement.”

Both King and Navratilova have hopes that the rest of Australia won’t follow Court’s lead, and in fact perhaps use this as an opportunity to get educated about equal rights for all.

“The more we talk openly about issues like gay marriage, the more we learn about each other,” King says. “It is a blessing the people of Australia can live freely and express their own opinions because we need open dialogue to help us move forward.”

Echoes Navratilova, “Here is hoping Australia will be on the right side of history and human rights, and become yet another democracy granting equal rights to all her citizens.”

"What I love about Australia," says Stubbs, "[is] we have the freedom to voice our own opinions albeit negative or positive. I truly believe Australia will continue to move forward to eliminate discrimination, bullying and hate, no matter who is perpetuating it."

With the Australian Open just over a month away, Court’s latest in a line of anti-gay statements will be fresh on the minds of those who might not be able to avoid cringing when players (gays and lesbians among them) step onto Margaret Court Arena.  How long can the former Show Court One, named after Court in 2003, remain a celebration of the best of tennis when it’s becoming more and more associated with a steady stream of hate speech?  How long can having a stadium named after anyone continuously calling an entire group of people unhealthy, abominable, unnatural and wrong be good for business?

I usually reserve this space to argue a point, but I’m certainly not going to change anyone’s mind on where they think gays or gay marriage belong in the universe in 1000 words or less. Certainly not anyone going by their interpretation of their own religion.  I will, however, point to some things going on in the news this week

This week, several students in Williamsville North High School were suspended after the bullying of 14-year-old gay teen Jamey Rodemeyer, who committed suicide in September.

This week, Tyler Clemente’s family spoke for the first time since the death of their son five months ago. Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his freshman roommate allegedly used his webcam to catch him kissing another man and then streamed it online. Said his mother, “We're trying to find a new way to celebrate Christmas. I'm sad – and trying to get through it.”

Also this week, this went viral on youtube:


These aren’t isolated incidents. An entire series of “It Gets Better” videos were spawned by the alarming rate of gay teen suicide. Tragically, Rodemeyer filmed one of his own before taking his own life (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Pb1CaGMdWk). Bullying is soul-killing, as is simply hearing messages in everyday life that tells gay kids they’re not normal.  Messages Court doesn’t seem in short supply of.

I agree with Billie Jean and Martina that discourse is a good thing. And as human beings we all have the rights to our opinions. But as public figures, I believe we have the responsibility to take care in choosing how we express those opinions to a very attentive world, because it’s a lot more than free speech on the line. It’s lives.

At the end of the day, it’s how you conduct yourself off the court that makes you great.

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Follow James at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.