Earlier this week there were volcanic eruptions of bile on Australian Twitter accounts at the news that the “homophobic” tennis legend Margaret Court had been made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), the country’s highest award.
Court is one of Australia’s greatest sporting heroes. In the 1960s and 70s she won 24 Grand Slam women’s singles titles, 19 Grand Slam doubles titles, and 21 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. After retiring from professional tennis, she found God and became a Pentecostalist pastor in Perth.
Court brought to her preaching the same vigour she displayed in her sport. She campaigned against the legalisation of same-sex marriage and has criticised homosexuality and the transgender movement. “I believe implicitly in what the Bible tells me,” she said in 2016. “I do not cherry pick to be popular. God has made his feelings clear, and they are my feelings, too.”
So, unsurprisingly, this latest award has sparked outrage. A transgender GP in Canberra handed back her Order of Australia medal, along with pro-choice campaigner Dr Caroline de Costa and Uniting Church theologian Alistair Macrae. Euthanasia activist Rodney Syme is threatening to return his. Kerry O’Brien, a prominent journalist, refused an award.
The Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, tweeted: “I don’t want to give this person’s disgraceful, bigoted views any oxygen. But when others insist on rewarding them with this country’s highest honour – I think it’s worth saying again: Grand Slam wins don’t give you some right to spew hatred and create division. Nothing does.”
At 78, Court is as tough as ever. I’ll pray for him, she responded (which was described in the media as a “brutal swipe”). “I love my nation and I want to see our nation as a lighthouse nation to others, and that we can show other nations how to do things right. That’s the most important thing, and it’s very sad when a minority group gets to dictate how the country is run.”
All this vitriol reflects badly on the consistency of these celebrities. What about philosopher Peter Singer, who was made an AC in 2012? He has given a tick to euthanasia, abortion of the disabled, infanticide and bestiality. Can we assume that they agree with his repugnant views? Court’s opinions are mild by comparison.
One of her most often-quoted remarks is that modern “tennis is full of lesbians”. (And she added: “We’re there to help them overcome. We’re not against the people.”)
What’s wrong with saying that, if it’s true? And apparently it is. A lesbian sports writer for The Guardian, Kate O’Halloran, immediately riposted: “Margaret Court is right, tennis is full of lesbians. So is AFLW, soccer, cricket, you name any women’s sport and the same (mostly) applies. It’s an open secret that anyone who has played these sports or has momentarily observed them is aware of. And it’s not a fact to be ashamed of.”
And then Court allegedly said that transgender children are from the Devil. Well, if you don’t believe in the Devil, this aspersion can’t pack much of a punch. But in any case, she never said it. What she did say in a rambling radio interview was: “You can think, ‘I’m a boy’ and it’ll affect your emotions and feelings and everything else. That’s all the devil.”
What she probably meant was: “that’s all the work of the devil”, a slur which, if the gentleman doesn’t exist, lashes like a wilted lettuce leaf.
Much of the criticisms of what Margaret Court says fall into two piles: one is a heap of quotes which are controversial but true; the other is a heap of quotes she never said. But they work: they have a chilling effect upon free speech. People who hold traditional Christian views on sexuality will be more reluctant to speak their minds after seeing how Court has been bullied.
Her sanctimonious critics have something in common with her. They both censure deviations from orthodox texts — but hers is the Bible and theirs is Twitter. I know which I respect more.