Martina Navratilova Angers Gay Marriage Advocates with 'Homophobic' Divorce
By David Salter | Article Date: 7/10/2009 12:00 AM
Last weekend, as the curtain fell on the international tennis season's most glamorous and famous event—Wimbledon—the focus of both the tennis and gay communities switched to one of the sport's (and the gay rights movement's) biggest all-time stars: Martina Navratilova. Navratilova is an iconic figure, whether she's battling Chris Evert on the tennis court or battling anti-gay legislation in a court of law. Now, the pioneer is embroiled in her second highprofile and reportedly nasty separation from a long-time partner—and her legal approach has many gay marriage activists fuming.
Navratilova was sued last week by Toni Layton, with whom the tennis star had a serious and public eight-year relationship that included a private commitment ceremony. That ended with Navratilova having Layton forcibly removed from one of the four multimillion dollar properties the two reportedly shared. Layton is not only suing under domestic partnership law in the state of Florida, which was one of several states besides California that also passed a ballot measure to ban gay marriage last November, but her lawyer has also threatened to release "many dark secrets from Navratilova's past and present life.”
To onlookers, the entire situation in unmistakably reminiscent of Navratilova's first highly publicized conflict with a former partner. In 1991, ten years after Navratilova came out as a lesbian (just as her fame and power on the court were in full climb), ex-lover Judy Nelson sued the multimillionaire tennis champion for $7.5 million, using videotapes from two “wedding ceremonies” the two had undergone. Layton, who arguably has the benefit of a cultural climate more accustomed to—if hardly generally accepting of—the concept of same-sex marriage, makes a similar claim to what she says is the half of the couple's property they had acquired while together.
Where the plaintiff's arguments seem more than similar, so too is Navratilova's defense to her prior one, which is the source of marriage advocates' ire.
In 1991 another former girlfriend Rita Mae Brown reported that Navratilova was arguing that she and Nelson had, in Brown's words, a “contract for sex” that “therefore was against public policy.” The two settled out of court for a rumored $3 million. That Navratilova and her legal team are again arguing that her relationship with Nelson was neither a legal marriage—a certifiable truth—but nor did it merit being considered as such.
To gay marriage advocates, Navratilova is, as a Queerty.com editorial put it, “exploiting the current status of same-sex marriage for her own personal advantage.” In a June 29 column on Salon.com, Louis Bayard denounced the star as one who was “willing to use the legal system to extract herself from another unhappy relationship,” and that “Martina Navratilova can no longer cast herself as an apostle for gay rights while using a homophobic legal code to deny her ex-partners alimony.”
Still, other gay rights activists and supporters argue that Navratilova's defense is specific to her relationship with Nelson and not the institution of same-sex marriage in general. One blogger noted that “Martina may feel it's a bit much to ask her to forfeit millions now to make a point about the 'deeply inhospitable' Florida legal system that gave her no benefits or security of couplehood when they were together.”
It remains to be seen both whether or not Navratilova's defense proves effective in the new case, and it is even less clear what either outcome will appear to signify for both the future of the gay marriage movement and the place one of its biggest, longest-standing poster children and, until the new controversy erupted this week, one of its most famous advocates.
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