Tennis Star Martina Navratilova, Among First "Out" Pro Athletes, Congratulates NBA's Jason Collins

NBA basketball player Jason Collins swept sports headlines this week when he publicly revealed that he is gay, becoming the first professional male athlete to do so while still active in a major U.S. team sport. Collins noted that he was inspired by tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who became one of the first openly gay sports figures when she came out in 1981.

Navratilova, the winner of 59 grand slam crowns, and a record nine Wimbledon singles championships, joins Democracy Now! to discuss Collins' announcement.

"Jason has been a breath of fresh air, and a pioneer," Navratilova says. "It takes a lot of guts to come out to your friends and family, as for most gay people, coming out is the most traumatic experience in their life. He has done a lot for the gay community and I thank him for that."

When asked to compare her experience coming out to Collins', she said: "My response was much more--much more mixed. And, you know, some positive on one end: When I lost the U.S. Open finals to Tracy Austin about a month after coming out, the crowd was very supportive. But for the most part, it was negative. The media certainly roasted me. I had my share of, you know, "Here's Martina's love nest," or "Good Versus Evil," as one columnist headed a column about me playing against Chris Evert. So, it was pretty nasty, but, you know, you just kind of deal with it.

She adds: "The funny thing that I just realized today is that Jason came out, and it's--not only is the response positive, but the press wants to talk about it. It's a big story. With me, it was a big story, but it was like on an embarrassing level, you know, the way the press portrayed it. I certainly didn't get an invitation to speak on Good Morning America, because it was like still a taboo subject. It was such a negative subject, it made headlines, but in a very bad way."

Navratilova notes that before coming out, she was worried her sexual orientation would jeopardize her application for U.S. citizenship. "I never felt being gay was anything to be ashamed of, so I never felt apologetic. ... But still, to make it public to the whole world is a different story. I really couldn't come out until after I got my citizenship, because back then, it could have been a disqualifier. I could have been denied my U.S. citizenship because I was gay. So I didn't--I stayed quiet. ...

"I defected in 1975 from Czechoslovakia, then Czechoslovakia. And I got my political asylum and applied for U.S. citizenship, which was due in 1981. And if I came out as gay, the Naturalization Service could have said, 'No, we're not going to give you your citizenship because you are gay.' That was a disqualify--it could have been a disqualifier to get my citizenship, so I kept quiet. I didn't lie. When reporters asked me, I just didn't answer the question. I said, 'That's private, and I'm not going to talk about it.' And then, once I got my citizenship, you know, I didn't have to hide anymore."

Democracy Now! also gets Navratilova's reaction to another advancement for LGBT rights: the legalization of same-sex civil unions in Colorado. Back in 1992, she helped file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Colorado amendment that prohibited state and local regulations that extend minority civil rights protections to homosexuals and bisexuals in Colorado.