Few have done more for LGBTQ visibility in sports over the last four decades than Martina Navratilova. During her illustrious tennis career—she has one of the great athletic résumés in any sport—Navratilova won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and a remarkable 31 major-doubles crowns. In the process, she raised eyebrows and consciousness by coming out early in her career, bringing her partner to matches and being coached for a time by the first professional trans tennis player, Renée Richards. In addition, she has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights every step of the way. Which is why it was so shocking to hear that Athlete Ally, an advocacy group for LGBTQ people in sports, recently expelled Navratilova from their advisory board on charges of “transphobia.”
At issue was a column that Navratilova wrote for the London Sunday Times, in which she argued that trans women should not be allowed to compete in women’s sporting events. She called it a form of cheating. The offending piece was titled “The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent.”
To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires…. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.
Athlete Ally reacted swiftly. In a statement, the organization said:
Athlete Ally unequivocally stands on the side of trans athletes and their right to access and compete in sport free from discrimination.… Martina Navratilova’s recent comments on trans athletes are transphobic, based on a false understanding of science and data, and perpetuate dangerous myths that lead to the ongoing targeting of trans people through discriminatory laws, hateful stereotypes and disproportionate violence.
I reached out to Martina for a response. She told me, “I am very disappointed with how Athlete Ally has handled the reaction to my article. I will add to this further in the future, for now it’s all I want to say as I just got home from Europe.”
I also reached out to Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the ACLU and a trans activist. He said: “Athlete Ally’s decision was absolutely, 100 percent, correct. For the past several months, Athlete Ally has been instrumental in stopping proposed bills in state legislatures that would bar trans athletes from participating in sports consistent with who they are. Supporters of these bills peddle the same arguments that Martina made in her column. Athlete Ally could no longer support their organizational mission if Martina remained on the Advisory Board. Trans people have so few non-trans allies and it is so easy to attack us. It hurts when members of our LGBQ family lead those attacks, and I hope Martina learns and grows and opens her mind to experiences that differ from her own.”
Cyd Zeigler the founder of Outsports, the trailblazing LGBTQ sports website, had this to say: “This is nothing more than another publicity stunt by an organization [Athlete Ally] whose sole purposes are to get attention and raise money for itself. If they had any interest in actually doing the important work, they would have worked with Martina, a legend in our community, to find common ground. Martina should thank her lucky stars she’s rid of her association with this feckless organization.”
Zeigler went on to say, “But the notion that trans women in sports are all cheaters who can’t be beaten ignores history and science. Sadly Martina has now found one area where she agrees completely with the very Trump supporters she has spent most of her last three years attacking as misinformed and dangerous.”
This story is wrenching, and not surprisingly, enemies of LGBTQ struggle are jumping on it with disturbing glee. The right-wing editorial page in the New York Post commented joyously on this controversy, under the headline, “The insane gay backlash against Martina Navratilova.” “So now this longtime gay icon is being ostracized for her heterodoxy by those she so vigorously championed when it was professionally risky. For shame.”
The shame lies with the guttersnipes at the New York Post. The reality is that there is no scientific data showing that trans women are more likely to be successful in women’s sports. There is also zero evidence that there is a push by trans women to take over the women’s-sports world. The denial of their right to take part in sports only leads to further marginalization and oppression. The fear that they are somehow encroaching on women athletes is actually a definition of transphobia.
Athlete Ally said on Tuesday it will “extend once again to Martina the invitation to learn from this experience, to study the data on trans athletes in sport, and to examine how statements like hers further stigma and discrimination.”
I hope the dialogue continues. Martina Navratilova needs to be a part of this struggle for LGBTQ people in sports, but not if the “T” is cast aside.