The gay sporting genius airbrushed from the history books

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Although the world of professional openly gay athletes continues to grow, there was a time when you could name them all on one hand.

NFL star David Kopay is largely considered the first gay athlete to come out of the closet and is credited with changing the way gay athletes are viewed, but as early as the 1920s tennis legend Bill Tilden had put his mark on gay sports history.

With three Wimbledon titles, seven US open Championships and leading the US Davis Cup team to 7 victories, Tilden was considered by some to be the greatest player to ever grace the court.

It was his personal life and his penchant for underage boys, however, that made him a controversial character in the tennis world, and eventually he was almost swept under the carpet as one of the gay sports communities dirty little secrets.

Bill Tilden was born into an extremely wealthy Pennsylvania family in 1893, and was at birth extremely sheltered by his family.

His parents had lost three children to diphtheria before Bill was born, and they smothered him with attention as to avoid a fourth loss.

His father insisted that his child take up a sport, and by the age of seven, Bill had won his first tennis tournament.

Initially the defiant Bill didn’t like the sport and rebelled against his father, but later used it as an outlet from his often-traumatic life.

His mother died when he was only 15, and his father sent him to live with his aunt away from their estate to help ease his grief. It was there that Bill decided to drop out of school and pursue the sport full time.

While his lanky, lean body and strong sports agility made him a natural for the sport, it was his lack of commitment and discipline that at first held him back from greatness.

Tilden used the tennis court as a stage and often looked upon tennis as a theatre production rather than a sport.

He would often come on to the court with decadent overcoats and lavish outfits that would have made even Serena Williams jealous and made no bones about his homosexuality, which often upset the tennis community.

In another trademark and overly confidant move, Tilden would begin service games with four balls in one hand, quickly serve three aces and throw the fourth ball into the crowd.

He also would smoke on the court and would still easily defeat his competitors. It was that type of arrogance that would eventfully earn him great criticism from other competitors.

Tilden also had distaste for the growing women’s game and felt like it was an embarrassment to this sport.

Long before Billie Jean King proved the power of women in sports by defeating Bob Riggs in the legendary “Battle of the Sexes” match, Tilden reportedly challenged top female competitor Suzanne Lenglen and easily defeated her in straight sets. He would later state that it was proof that women had no business in tennis.

As Tilden retained more titles and his bank account continued to grow, his gay vibrato also began to become a bigger topic.

In 1918, he teamed up with then 14 year old Vincent Richards and made a successful bid to win the US doubles championship.

The two men’s relationship off the court was a controversial topic, but Richards was just one of the many line of young boys that Tilden would have suspected relations with.

At the age of 37, Tilden returned to Wimbledon and became the oldest champion ever when he took home the trophy.

After that victory, he all but retired from the sport and began to pursue his dreams of becoming a Hollywood big shot.

Tilden began to sink his amassed fortune into unsuccessful theatrical and film projects and would continuously lose money on the ventures.

He was also banned from many tennis clubs because of his homosexuality and his brazen defiance for the candour that that the prestigious sport is known for.

In 1946, Tilden was arrested when he was caught having sexual relations with an underage boy on Sunset Boulevard.

Although both men said the relations were consensual, Tilden was sentenced to 7 months in prison.

A few years later Tilden was once again sentenced to a prison term when he was caught making advancements toward an underage hitchhiker.

In his play Big Bill, which details Tilden’s life, A.R. “Pete” Gurney quotes the court transcripts where Tilden tells the judge:

“I am not a criminal! I am a tennis player. I feel awkward saying this, but I consider myself an artist, an artist of the game. Other people have said so too.

“I have to create! And now that I’m getting too old to create my own game, I have to create it in others. I have to pass on what I know.”

Following his arrests he was all but shunned from the tennis community and was almost written out of the sports history.

However, his accomplishments and his outspokenness did make a profound difference in the game and to the gay community not making any apologies for being a homosexual.

In 1953 at the age of 60, Bill Tilden died of coronary thrombosis.

The once-great player who came from a wealthy background and at one time earned upwards of $500,000 (£250,000) dollars while on tour had in his possession $88.11 which was the only amount of money he had left.

In his instructional books Tilden would often say, “Champions are born in the labour of defeat.”

For the gay sports movement no quote could be more profound. As athletes like John Amaechi, Billy Bean, and David Pichler come out and face a much more accepting society, it is important to remember all of the people who have made the steps before them.

Bill Tilden was perhaps not the best role model for the gay community, but his willingness to be open about his life and his unapologetic attitude is something that has made it possible for other sportsmen to be accepted no matter what their sexual orientation.

History is not always pretty, but it is through history that we can learn to build a better future.

Dylan Vox © 2007; All Rights Reserved.