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Martina Navratilova on trans athletes: ‘Letting men compete as women is unfair’

The tennis legend says transgender inclusion in sports is “insane and it’s cheating.”

BNP Paribas WTA Finals: Singapore 2016 - Day Seven
Martina Navratilova
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Martina Navratilova, who first came out as lesbian in 1981, came out again Sunday as a transphobe.

In an op-ed for The Sunday Times of London, the tennis icon wrote a clear-cut explanation of her perspective that transgender women athletes should not be allowed to compete as women.

Navratilova states her belief that trans women are men who “decide to be female,” and that to allow them to compete with women is “insane and it’s cheating... it is surely unfair on women who have to compete against people who, biologically, are still men.”

And while she is rightly revered for her 177 career titles, 59 Grand Slam titles, and for being a strong advocate for both the LGBTQ community and human rights, Navratilova is not a scientist. That fact did not stop her from making unsubstantiated claims in her op-ed about hormone levels; she also repeated long-debunked claims that doctors are prescribing hormones to children who identify as trans.

“Simply reducing hormone levels — the prescription most sports have adopted — does not solve the problem. A man builds up muscle and bone density, as well as a greater number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, from childhood. Training increases the discrepancy. Indeed, if a male were to change gender in such a way as to eliminate any accumulated advantage, he would have to begin hormone treatment before puberty. For me, that is unthinkable.”

Navratilova first waded into the debate over transgender inclusion in late December with a tweet that won praise from right wingers and condemnation from trans advocates and allies: “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women,” Navratilova tweeted. “There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.”

The backlash from LGBTQ twitter, particularly transgender cycling champion Dr. Rachel McKinnon, an Outsports contributor, prompted Navratilova to delete her tweet, and she committed to listening and learning on the issue.

“I am sorry if I said anything anywhere near transphobic- certainly I meant no harm,” she tweeted. “I will educate myself better on this issue but meantime I will be quiet about it. Thank you”

The tennis star did not go so quietly, however, engaging in a bitter public feud with McKinnon on Twitter, in which Navratilova accused the trans woman of bullying, and called her “a nasty human being.” McKinnon pressed her to apologize for tweets that she labeled “transphobic.”

“People: genitals are IRRELEVANT to sports performance. Totally irrelevant. The difference between a trans woman (especially on testosterone blockers) with a penis...and a trans woman without a penis is NOTHING. So focusing on the genitals IS transphobic #SorryNotSorry #Facts”

In subsequent tweets, Navratilova again promised to look deeper into the issue. She was tagged on Twitter with links to articles, including some provided by this author, and appeared genuinely interested in hearing all arguments related to trans inclusion in sports.

At the time, Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler praised Navratilova for her offer to educate herself, and gave her the benefit of the doubt as to her intentions.

“Certainly she did not mean to give fuel to anti-trans forces on the Right who aim to undermine decades of forward movement toward equality. And I don’t believe for a second she meant to upset or undermine trans athletes anywhere,” Zeigler wrote. “It’s encouraging to see Navratilova say she will do some listening and learning to better understand the issue. That’s a great start, and the mark of someone who just wants to do the right thing.”

But it appears, the right thing for Navratilova is discrimination against trans athletes who have not undergone sexual reassignment surgery, writing that “unfairness introduced through human action and chemical means should be condemned and outlawed.”

If Sunday’s op-ed is the result of research by Navratilova, she left no doubt her original opinion has not changed. In fact, she said as much:

“Ever the peacemaker, I promised to keep quiet on the subject until I had properly researched it. Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened. To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation 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.”

McKinnon, who is blocked by Navratilova on Twitter, tweeted a link to the op-ed Saturday night, and was blunt.

“Remember when I said that it looked like Martina Navratilova is transphobic? Holy. Fuck. She went FULL transphobe. Damn, y’all. She sure holds a grudge. She also has NO idea what years of HRT does to some trans women’s sperm (i.e., eliminates the ability to make it after a long enough time). Also, what about the trans women who have genital surgery? Hmm? What the fuck does making babies have to do with anything?”

For a lesbian, Navratilova does seem overly concerned with penises. In one curious point, she differentiated between trans and transsexual women — specifically, expressing support for post-op trans athletes who have had surgery to create a neovagina and in the process remove both penile and scrotal tissue. “Let me make a critical distinction between transgender and transsexual athletes,” she wrote. “Transsexuals have decided to change their gender and have had the deed done, surgically. They have made the full commitment. They are few in number and rarely enjoy a competitive advantage.”

As an example, Navratilova mentioned, as she has previously on Twitter, her former coach and friend Renée Richards, the trans pioneer who won the right to play in the Women’s U.S. Open. In addition to deadnaming her, she proceeded to use her “friend” to make her ultimate points about regrets, fairness, and bullying.

“I also deplore what seems to be a growing tendency among transgender activists to denounce anyone who argues against them and to label them all as “transphobes,” Navratilova wrote. “That’s just another form of tyranny.” She added that she remained concerned about her tangle with McKinnon, using language that suggested she viewed their engagement as one between a woman and someone in a stereotypically male, predatory role:

“I worry that others may be cowed into silence or submission.”

The champion cyclist responded to Navratilova in an online conversation with Outsports.

“Navratilova’s latest piece in the Sunday Times is both disturbing, upsetting, and deeply transphobic,” McKinnon said.

“She trades on age-old stereotypes and stigma against trans women, treating us as men just pretending to be real women. She seeks to deny trans women equal rights to compete under the rules. And the current rules, such as the International Olympic Committee since 2003, explicitly welcomes trans women to compete at the highest levels. I suppose it’s too much to ask for Martina to simply do the same.”

Navratilova’s op-ed was one leg of a trifecta of “gender critical” articles in The Sunday Times: one about a trans athlete sent to prison for attacking officials with a knife for requiring hormonal testing, and another attacking government-run gender clinics and Mermaids, an advocacy group for trans and non-binary children. The issue of gender identity in the U.K. has become a flashpoint in both feminist segments and the broader society, with Fleet Street amplifying the voices of those questioning the validity of trans people.

Those voices will be especially significant this week as Olympic champion Caster Semenya appeals a rule instituted by the IAAF to require women with higher than typical testosterone levels to undergo hormone treatment in order to compete. In her op-ed, Navratilova weighed-in on the case, as it is set to be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland Monday.

“I hope she wins,” Navratilova wrote, saying the rule change “seems to me to be a clear case of discrimination by targeting Semenya.” The South African silver medalist is not transgender, but according to The New York Times, reports have surfaced that Semenya may have been born with hidden testicles, or a condition called hyperandrogenism, causing her to have higher than typical testosterone levels. Those reports have not been verified.

In view of Navratilova’s own struggles coming out as lesbian in 1981, Semenya’s fight and Richards’ experiences, she does offer consolation in her op-ed to McKinnon and other trans athletes for being “victims of prejudice,” or for at least claiming to be, concluding, “...there can be no excuse for such ignorance and nastiness.”

Athena Del Rosario, a former NCAA soccer goalie who’s now a coach, came out in Outsports in 2017. She tweeted her disappointment to us, upon seeing Navratilova’s op-ed:

“Oh geeze she thinks I’m a cheater without even knowing shit about me. What a loser. As an athlete being called a cheater is just about the worst thing. Martina, you re trash. I’m not above insults. You’ve got a more manlier body than me you bag.”

Outsports reached out to Navratilova for comment, but as of press time has not received a response; a U.K.-based anti-trans group that she follows, “Fair Play For Women,” instead offered a thread of tweets supporting her claims.

CORRECTION: The original post incorrectly identified Athena Del Rosario as a hockey goalie. We regret the error, and we’re sure all the soccer players Del Rosario stopped from scoring wish we had been right the first time.