EXCLUSIVE: Lendale Johnson on Being The First Openly Gay Tennis Player & More

Credit: Lendale Johnson

It’s important when you are a public figure to wear many hats doing what you do. Lendale Johnson is a classic example of that as he’s an actor, model, and tennis player who holds the distinction of being the first openly gay star in his particular sport.

Over the years he’s gained recognition for who he is in tennis by several, notably the iconic Billie Jean King, while also honing his craft in other areas of what it’s like to be famous. From a variety of businesses to his upcoming TV series Deuces and Love it appears as if the sky is truly the limit for him as his career continues to grow.

Lendale exclusively chatted with us at Instinct about his younger years, when he chose to come out, why he thinks homophobia in sports hasn’t changed and what’s next for this talented individual. Take a look. 

At what age did you start to figure out that you were gay? 

I knew at a very early age I was different than the other boys. Didn’t know what that was, at that age you’re too young to understand. I was about 4 or 5. I was the only child, one Christmas my dad bought me an Easy Bake Oven against my mom’s wishes. He was literally always spoiling me. The packaging had 2 white girls on it, and if I remember correctly it was mostly pink. My family and parents are very religious. Having a gay son was not something talked about at the dinner table. The black community has a ton of homophobia inside of it, it’s a very serious problem. I deal with it everyday of my life and I’m very fortunate to have fans, parents, friends and family that love and support me living my authentic life.

Did you come out around that same time or did it take a while to do so?

I came out after high school but before that I came out to different people in my life. People need to understand that coming out is a very scary and complicated process, there’s no timeline. You come out making calculated decisions, it’s a spiritual process.

Have you experienced any personal homophobia in your sport and if so how did you handle it?

It did happen during my junior career and I kept it movin’ but not during my professional career. If it happened, it would’ve been behind closed doors or too subtle for me to notice.

What is your overall take on homophobia in sports in 2020?

Nothing has changed, people are just more vocal and proud to be homophobic in public which is totally f***ed up. Religion plays a huge role, in particular Christians’ are some of the worst homophobic people in this country period. Many of them are hypocrites. How can you call yourself a Christian when you’re the main ones judging others? According to the Bible, written by mankind, Sin is sin. It’s equally weighed against you.

I’m so proud of all the other athletes that have come out this year, clearly the onslaught of homophobia attacks is not stronger than their will to live authenticity. Tom Daley, Megan Rapinoe and Dutee Chand were expected to compete in Tokyo this year for the Olympics (if Covid-19 didn’t happen) along with 100 other out athletes. Which is so beautiful, it gives me tears of joy.

There’s been some improvements recently but do you still think we have a long way to go for our 100 percent acceptance?

We have a long way to go, I don’t have the answers. I wish I did, I’m sure everyone who’s pro-LGBTQI+ does.

How does it feel to be the first openly gay black tennis player in history?

Well there’s no greater feeling when 39 Grand Slam Titles holder Billie Jean King praises you on social media. She’s a living LGBT sports icon. Support from Djokovic, Federer, & Andy make me smile but honestly it all makes me feel like I am doing something to help myself and others. There’s a ton of pressure on me with my sponsors, partnerships, and I love a challenge. BJK and Serena both agree pressure is a privilege. I’m using my black gay pro athlete privilege unapologetically, I have every right to.

You also have a reality show in the works! Tell us what it’s about.

Yes, I do. It’s called Deuces and Love. Production is just about wrapped, we have been filming since 2019 and 2020 has been production hell. Several Hollywood stars were just here in New York this month filming B-Boys Blues directed by former Empire star Jussie Smollett. I used that as an opportunity to film part of show while they were here. 

Deuces and Love, titled “deuces” is to represent the fight and struggles of life named after the tennis score. Because if you’ve made it to deuce in tennis scoring, that means you’ve been through much more than you’d like. My mission is to bring awareness to the social issues presented in the lives of black and LGBTQ communities, especially black trans women like Laverne Cox. I want to bring to light the social and religious issues in my community, the tennis world, and in Black Hollywood.

Being a double minority I deal with racism inside the LGBTQ community and homophobia inside my black community. I have partnered with Asutra.com, they believe in active self care. By taking care of yourself on purpose, you’ll feel better both physically and mentally, allowing you to take on anything. I’m here for it, Venus Williams is both part owner and Chief Brand Officer.

Ultimately what are your biggest goals moving forward, both professionally and personally, that you want to accomplish?

For me it’s about setting a good example for people who look like me and or resonating with anyone. A positive connection is a positive connection and we all need more of that during this time of uncertainty. 

Regarding professional tennis my current goal is to safely compete, everyday is an opportunity to improve. I’d love to work on my doubles ranking as well, it’s been hard to find a player to align with during the pandemic. Also the ITF (International Tennis Federation) has cancelled about 5 of my tournaments I entered this year and that’s extremely disheartening but the safety for everyone is more important.

Personally I have been dating more than I did in 2019, I’m on a mission to carefully settle down with Mr. Right and it’s funny because I was worried my dates would be uncomfortable being on camera during dinner or whatever we happen to be doing. But so far most of the guys I have been dating are OK with it.

I just landed a virtual speaking conference at MIT for Black Entrepreneur’s with the help of Jonah Travis. He’s the founder of Knoow.co, a new company that eats waiting times around the country (USA). 

But yeah those are my many goals, I need to find a few more sponsors to align with my brand, I want to do more speaking gigs, book more celebrities (after you work for Katie Holmes you’ll understand) at my celebrity tennis academy in New York (@jhpta on Instagram), book a few more roles as an actor, write a book, film more commercial ads (I just finished one for THE-WELL.com, it was a little difficult but I loved end result. If you’re looking for immunity support look no further), and possibly create a dating app for Black gay men. Grindr is not my cup of tea but it’s all we have. I tried out City Swoon, an online gay speed dating service and loved it. We need more of that during this pandemic, it was a big breath of fresh air meeting so many dates safely in the comfort of my own room within the hour.


Additional Note – 

In May of this year, 2020, OutSports covered the story of Jeremy Sonkin, another out Professional Tennis Player.

Jeremy Sonkin has longed battled racism and homophobia in tennis. But a renewed love of the sport has led him to strive for success in the 35 and over professional circuit.

In the fall of 2017, I decided that I was going to do what I had regretted not doing for so long — play on the professional tennis tour in the 2018 season.

I didn’t know it then, but 2018 would soon become the most important and transformative year of my life.

I knew that if I was going to do this, it was going to be as my authentic self, completely and totally unapologetically out and proud.

Bravo for those that are out and proud in our professional sports.

 

What do you think?