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While I don’t share an American teen experience with the contributors to this book, I have been out in America since I got my U.S. citizenship in 1981, at age twenty-five. People have called me brave for living as an openly gay person in the public eye for so many years. But why should it require bravery simply to be who you are?
I want gay teenagers today to feel safe and accepted and comfortable coming out. I don’t want them to be afraid. In my experience, being the best at something requires you to fully know yourself and to be able to be yourself with others: No wasting energy hiding something that is simply not wrong. No making choices to keep your “secret” rather than achieve your potential. No living a lie because you feel you must to be successful.
As a professional tennis player, when I came out, my focus wasn’t on things like losing endorsements or handling the press or even sacrificing personal privacy. The biggest thing on my mind was being true to myself: I realized that I couldn’t go on being a champion on the court if I was leaving half of myself off the court. I know some people felt I could have reached my potential without it; but now, looking back, I know I couldn’t have.
That’s my advice to every young person: Consider the cost of not being yourself. When you hide who you are, you come at life from such a negative angle that it makes you feel like you’re not as good as the person next to you—you yourself feel less than. And that is no way to become a champion. It also affects you on a personal level: You need to love yourself before you can do the same for someone else.
One of the most important things anyone can do is to read and get educated. That’s what helped my father come to terms with my being gay. I hadn’t planned on telling my parents I was gay unless they asked. When I was twenty-five my father said, “You and your girlfriend live like man and wife.” And I said, “Well, yes.” And he immediately said, “What did we do wrong? Did you have a bad experience with your boyfriend?” I tried to tell him it didn’t have anything to do with him and that the boyfriend had been just fine (though not brilliant . . .).
He was confused. He said some things that weren’t very nice. But we never stopped talking. He decided to read some books to educate himself. I didn’t give him any books; my father took it upon himself to get ones he felt were fair and impartial. And what he read helped him realize that neither he nor I had anything to do with it. It was unusual, but it was perfectly natural. Within a year, he came around to the point where what he cared about was me being happy, not that I was gay. Which is exactly how it should be.
That’s why this book is so important. It will help educate and enlighten. And its editor, Mitchell Gold, is the right guide. When I first met Mitchell at a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Community Church, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. One thing we have in common is our belief that prejudice of any sort, for any reason, is unacceptable. And each of us in our own way is committed to doing all we can to obliterate it—Mitchell with this book and his nonprofit organization, Faith in America, and me with the Rainbow Endowment, a philanthropic group that supports gay causes.
When Mitchell told me he was putting together “an exposé of a mental health crisis in this country that can easily be solved”—the pain, depression, isolation, and fear gay teens past and present have experienced—I couldn’t have agreed more about the need for a book like this. I, too, believe this crisis can be solved with simple human compassion, respect, acceptance, and understanding. This is a problem being created by prejudiced people looking to cause drama and to foment hate. It’s really no different from the Ku Klux Klan.
If you are heterosexual, I ask you to read this book with an open mind and have compassion for the unnecessary pain gay teens go through. Please know that your support can make a huge difference in the lives of your gay family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. When I first came out, the public support I received from Chris Evert, my on-court rival and longtime friend, made such a difference to me. Her acceptance made other people’s prejudices easier to bear.
If you are a member of the gay community, please share this book with your family and friends. The stories it contains will encourage them to work with you to create lasting change.
To the parents, educators, and clergy of gay teens, please give gay kids the acceptance and support they need. To politicians, when you legislate, remember that the lives of these young Americans are in your hands. And to the members of the media, many of whom I’ve come to know over the years, please take the time to ask the tough questions of people in power so they don’t get away with denying other people their rights because of religionbased bigotry once again.
It is astonishing to see the negativity that comes out of the supposedly loving environment of the church. Religion plays such a divisive role—which is so sad because it is supposed to bring people together. Lately, it is being used to separate people more and more. As if we didn’t have enough problems in our world today . . .
Thank you for trying to understand and doing your part in ridding our world of all prejudices.
—Martina Navratilova, September 2008
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