Margaret Court, the former Australian tennis player who has sparked controversy in recent years because of her views on LGBTQ+ issues, will be recognised with Australia’s highest honour.
Court, who has worked as a Pentecostal minister since her retirement from tennis, will be awarded the Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AC), the highest category of honour awarded as part of the Australia Day honours on Tuesday.
Court was a vehement opponent of same-sex marriage in Australia before the 2017 postal survey, and has become a controversial figure in tennis because of her stance on LGBTQ+ rights.
While the list of Australia Day honours was under a strict media embargo, it was released on social media and reported on Friday.
News of the award has sparked a furious backlash.
Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, when asked about the honour, said “calling out bigotry is always important”.
“I don’t give out those gongs. That’s not a matter for me; that’s for others. You might want to speak to them about why they think those views, which are disgraceful, hurtful and cost lives, should be honoured.”
Later, Andrews tweeted that he doesn’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.”
The federal opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, noted Court had already been honoured by the Council of the Order of Australia for tennis skills, when she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia – a lower honour – in 2007.
“I think it’s clear for everyone to see that making her a Companion of the Order of Australia has nothing to do with tennis,” Albanese said.
Scott Morrison has refused to comment on Court’s honour. On Friday, the prime minister said: “I can’t comment on an award that is done through an independent process that hasn’t been announced or I have no official knowledge of those things.
“Those announcements will be made on the appropriate day [Australia Day]. It is a system that recognises Australians from right across the full spectrum of achievement in this country. So I can’t really offer a comment on something that is speculative.”
In the lead-up to Australia legalising same-sex marriage, Court publicly vowed she would stop using Qantas “where possible” in protest against its public support for marriage equality.
Court has also claimed “tennis is full of lesbians”, that transgender children were the work of “the devil”, and has told Christian radio that a “gay lobby” was trying to “get [into] the minds of children” through Australia’s Safe Schools anti-bullying program.
Margaret Court arena, one of the prominent courts at the Australian Open’s Melbourne Park tennis centre, was named to honour the 24-time grand slam winner. There have previously been calls to rename the arena because of Court’s views.
After news of her award was leaked on Friday, Court said, “all my life I’ve had those views and I was just saying what the Bible says”.
“I should always be able to say my views biblically, being a pastor and helping people with marriages and family. And I’ll never change those views.
“I have nothing against people – I love the people. We have them come into our community services, all kinds – whether they’re gay, transgender, whatever they are.
“We never turn a person away and I think it’s been tried to be made out that I’m somebody that I’m not really. And I think that is very sad,” Court said.
Court has previously denied accusations of racism and claims she supported apartheid in South Africa, noting she had played tennis with Evonne Goolagong Cawley – an Indigenous Australian player – in South Africa.
“Evonne and I went in there and played for the black people … I have 35 cultures in my church and I love them all,” she said in 2017.
Court’s Companion of the Order of Australia is being awarded “for eminent service to tennis as an internationally acclaimed player and record-holding grand slam champion, and as a mentor of young sportspersons”.
The 78-year-old was labelled the “crazy aunt” of tennis by John McEnroe at the 2020 Australian Open, when she received an on-court honour to mark the 50th anniversary of her grand slam – when she won all four majors in 1970.
“There’s only one thing longer than the list of Margaret Court’s tennis achievements: it’s her list of offensive and homophobic statements,” he said on Eurosport.
“Just a few examples. During the apartheid regime in South Africa, she said: ‘I love South Africa. They have the racial situation better organised than anyone else.’ What?
“About transgender children and LGBTIQ: ‘It’s all the work of the devil – tennis is full of lesbians. It is sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality.’ ”
Former tennis great Martina Navratilova has criticised Court’s public comments on the LGBTQ+ community as “pathetic … in every way”. “Amazing how strong her homophobia truly is,” Navratilova said on Twitter in 2020.
On Friday, Navratilova renewed her calls for Margaret Court Arena to be renamed after Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
Court holds the record for the most grand slam singles titles, despite winning her last in 1973.
The Australia Day honours previously generated outrage in 2020 when controversial writer and media commentator Bettina Arndt was recognised for services “to gender equity through advocacy for men”.
With Australian Associated Press