Earlier this week, I was privileged to attend a press conference given by Martina Navratilova to promote the exhibition match she is playing this Saturday.

The word “hero” gets tossed around a lot these days. Some guy in a burning building grabs a baby and runs to safety and he’s a hero. He’s not a hero, he just did the right thing. A young actor sobers up, begins to concentrate more seriously on his craft and wins a boatload of accolades and awards. Lucky him. The U.S. is “reeling” after the president receives oral in the Oval Office and the country reacts by “electing” the moral hero on a horse, George W. Bush.

Martina Navratilova is a hero, my hero. When I was a gay kid navigating the world around me through secrets, lies and cons, I would watch the out Navratilova play tennis on television. I don’t know how, but I always knew that being gay was natural, something I had been since birth. If society had a problem with it, then it was society’s problem. I just needed to get my ass to the University of Texas at Austin so that I could be me without the games. But in the meantime, there was Navratilova beating the crap out of her opponents with an athleticism fueled by commitment, determination and love of the game.

Navratilova was the butt of many jokes back then. Saturday Night Live and late night talk shows had many cheap laughs at her expense. Commentators and news personalities would do all but roll their eyes whenever they referred to her “traveling companion.”

Martina was out before it was at least somewhat acceptable to be out. Even today, many gay actors and musicians remain closeted for fear of rejection and financial hardship. Gay athletes only come out after they’ve quit the game. Way to have it both ways!

At the press conference, Ms. Navratilova was candid, charming and witty. She spoke about the many charities and causes she supports and her life as an older athlete. She answered questions ranging in topics from her game to whether or not she would run for public office–she said no because she saw herself as more of an advocate.

I arrived early to the event to make sure I’d get a good seat. I also made sure to smile at her in that way that would let her know that I’m more than just a fan, I’m family. She locked eyes with me on several occasions and for that I was grateful. Unfortunately, I blew my opportunity to be formally introduced to her because I didn’t want to seem pushy or rude. I knew the man who sat with her during lunch and it was only my sense of propriety that kept me glued in my seat. In retrospect, I should have been pushy and rude. Hell, I get a lot of practice walking the sidewalks of Tokyo.

Ms. Navratilova is a class act and I hope to catch her game this weekend.