Eight years with Martina: A dispassionate account Author says her goal is wider understanding

May 24, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

When Judy Nelson began her relationship with tennis star Martina Navratilova, even Ms. Nelson's mother didn't understand.

"She asked me the funniest question," Ms. Nelson says. "She asked, 'Which of you is the man?' I told her neither, that we're both women. And she said, 'In that case, I really don't understand.' "

Understanding is Ms. Nelson's catchword. It is the reason for her new book, "Love Match, Nelson Vs. Navratilova."

"I just hope it will help some people to a better understanding in terms of relationships within families where it might apply," she says. "I'm hoping people can come to appreciate that there's not much difference between a heterosexual and a homosexual relationship. I'm hoping that people will look at me as a somewhat normal individual and be less afraid and more willing to open their minds to alternative lifestyles."

Judy Nelson became a well-known and easily recognized woman in the sports world when she became tennis star Martina Navratilova's love interest and lived openly in a gay relationship with her for eight years.

The relationship finally disintegrated into a court battle over what in the heterosexual world would be known as a divorce settlement. Ms. Nelson and Ms. Navratilova, who were married in a private ceremony in Australia, had a written partnership agreement, and after Ms. Navratilova walked out, Ms. Nelson expected her to uphold the agreement. The two eventually settled out of court.

The promotional blurbs for the book promise an insider's look at this relationship. But for those who pick it up thinking they will find juicy details, forget it.

Until the last chapter, there is not much of Ms. Nelson here. It's cool, straightforward. It's an outline waiting for a heart.

"At the time I started this, a year and a half ago, it was difficult for me because I was still feeling the loss," says Ms. Nelson, 47. "But I hope it says something about feeling restricted and about patterns. I left one relationship for another kind of relationship and fell right back into my old patterns -- the only patterns I knew. That won't happen again."

The book is basically about lifestyle choices and about feeling equal in a relationship.

On this afternoon in Washington, the second stop on a 10-city tour that will conclude in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday, she speaks to a packed house at Lambda Rising, a bookstore that "celebrates the gay and lesbian experience." The crowd of mostly women will ask her hard questions. Her blue eyes wide and direct, she will answer. At times, she thinks she is telling them more than they want to hear.

It is important, she says, for the people in the gay community to look at their personal relationships and determine the expectations within those relationships.

"One of the biggest fears heterosexuals have about the gay community is that we move from relationship to relationship," Ms. Nelson says. "They think we don't have a value system, but we do. And it is very important that we look at our relationship and determine our responsibilities.

"I think it is essential to define the responsibility. Then, if it doesn't work out, you'll know where you stand."

Ms. Nelson was asked: Is she a lesbian or was she simply attached to Navratilova and Rita Mae Brown, an author and also a former lover of Navratilova, with whom she now lives with on a Virginia horse farm?

"I would say if I've had a relationship with a woman for eight years, you could call me a lesbian," she said. "If I was to fall in love with a guy, you could still say I've been a lesbian. I don't care what you call me. I can relate to lesbian. But, I think, to make any progress we have to get over the anger and fear.

"And if we're asking heterosexuals to make changes, then we have to make some too and maybe one of them is changing labels. I think we can put the labels away and just be people." She smiled at the audience.

"I can tell, by looking at your faces, that you don't agree with me," she says. "But this is my concept. I'm trying to give you something I know about. I know if I'm sitting at a dinner table with a group of people and start talking about homosexuals, everything stops. People think, what a rude subject to bring up. But if I'm with the same group and I say exactly the same sentence but use the term same-sex couple, things go on, the conversation continues to flow. It's exactly the same thing, but it's not up against the same wall of fear and negativity. Maybe we need to make some changes too."

But getting through to strangers, on either side of the wall, is difficult. And Ms. Nelson later relates a conversation she had one night with her adult son, Bales, after it was apparent she and Ms. Navratilova would not be able to fix their relationship.

"In the course of the conversation, Bales said, 'Now you can find a good man to take care of you,' " she recalls. "I was stunned. But that's just how ingrained our thinking is, and it is very difficult to get away from it, even when you have a clear understanding and acceptance of the other person. It's just so much easier to do what's expected, and that's why so many women are afraid to change and be who they really are."

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