Last month, tennis legend Martina Navratilova wrote some now-deleted, unfortunate tweets about trans-women athletes.
Her initial tweet was about trans women athletes competing as women while having a penis. It read:
Clearly that can’t be right. You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard…
Two days later, I weighed in by retweeting the offending tweet: “Welp, guess Navratilova is transphobic.” I also said, “No, you are not ‘pro- trans people’ if you say that trans women with a penis must not compete in women’s sport.” I made the points that her position is transphobic. Genitals do not play sports.
Many others confronted her, but Navratilova did not feel the need to back down from her position.
“I don’t need to look into this as far as I can tell you,” she wrote. “I stand by what I said and when I don’t know something I will check it out. When it comes to sports, we need to make sure we have a level playing field. That is all in [sic] talking about-fairness. The end.”
What Navratilova failed to see was that her tweets, whether they were intentional or not, were doing harm to trans women. Her comments were immediately picked up by anti-trans publications and used as justification for their own positions.
Doing something transphobic vs. being a transphobe
Cultural commentator Jay Smooth has a fantastic video on the distinction between what someone did (e.g., say something transphobic) vs. who someone is (a transphobe). When confronted, many people try to turn holding them accountable for what they did into a conversation about who they are: “I’m not transphobic, I have a trans friend!”
It’s a serious mistake for someone to think they can’t commit transphobic actions unless they intend the actions to be transphobic. Particularly when trans-antagonism is socially endemic, many instances of ‘well-meaning’ transphobia happen by people who don’t consider themselves transphobic.
There are many ways to be transphobic, just as there are many ways to be racist. And having a couple black friends doesn’t immunize someone from being racist, let alone confronted about public racist behaviors.
The same is true for Navratilova: While she has a close relationship with some trans women, including former pro tennis player Renee Richards, this doesn’t immunize her from having transphobic beliefs or committing transphobic acts.
In this case, there are real, tangible, factual issues with what Navratilova said publicly. A penis has absolutely nothing to do with sport performance. Genitals are irrelevant to hitting a tennis ball, riding a bike, or throwing a javelin. Recognizing this, the International Olympic Committee updated its transgender policy in November 2015 to remove the genital-surgery requirement.
Navratilova is supporting an outdated policy that was deemed unnecessary and unfair to trans women years ago.
Treating trans women with a penis as not ‘real’ women is, indeed, transphobic. Supporting the false claim that trans women can just up and declare themselves female, and that’s it, is transphobic. Being legally recognized as female is a difficult, complicated and sometimes impossible (depending on where one lives) process.
Eventually Navratilova gave what I think was a disingenuous “apology.”
“Ok- I take it back,” she wrote. “Clearly I do t know what u am [sic] talking about. So once again- I will defer to Renee Richards as she certainly knows what she is talking about. I will find that tweet and delete it. All I want is fairness. Thank you.”
I’m not saying Navratilova is a transphobe. That’s not my point at all. But when the overt transphobes, like Julie Bindel, think that you’re on their side, I think that warrants a serious reconsideration of your actions. Navratilova did say she would double back and do some research on the subject to educate herself. I hope she does.
Suggestions on responding to criticism
Yet looking at these exchanges between Navratilova and me, as well as other trans women, how could this have gone better?
I know that being called out publicly never feels good. It’s always embarrassing and feels bad. Yet sometimes people who think their intentions are good make mistakes. Here’s what not to do, as a cisgender person supporting trans inclusion in sports, when someone points out those mistakes.
In the moment, do not make the calling out about you and your feelings. When you step on someone’s toes, and they yell at you to get off, get off their toes and apologize. Definitely don’t demand that they ask you nicely.
Moreover, don’t respond to criticism saying that you might as well not be supportive of the harmed group of people if they’re going to be mean to you about you harming them.
Here’s what you can do.
1. Acknowledge that, yes, you did the harmful thing that people are calling attention to.
2. Apologize, and mean it. If the harm was public, the apology needs to be public.
3. Delete the harmful content (if possible).
4. Listen to the criticism and thank the people calling you out. People often only call out if they genuinely want the person to do better.
5. Commit to doing better, and put in the work.
I still have hope for Navratilova.
Nobody is perfect. I’m not perfect. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect. But we should be held accountable for our actions, especially when we hurt people. When people say that something you said or did hurt them, believe them. Don’t try to minimize it or point to what you ‘intended.’
Here’s an analogy: suppose that you accidentally break my favorite coffee mug. Sure it’s worse if you intended to break it, but even if was an accident, you still broke my mug. You should acknowledge that you broke it, apologize, do something to fix the harm, and then promise to be more careful in the future.
And you should mean it.