Outsports co-founder apologizes after Navratilova 'Stonewall Spirit' honor sparks outrage

Clockwise from upper left: JayCee Cooper, Athena Del Rosario, Chloe Psyche Anderson, Christina Ginther, CeCé Telfer, Martina Navratilova, The Stonewall Inn - Haley Videckis/Getty Images/AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The Stonewall Uprising on June 28, 1969 marks the first time when lesbians, gays and transgender people united in active defiance against what current N.Y.P.D. Commissioner, James O’Neill called "oppressive and discriminatory laws" in his recent apology to the LGBTQ community for police actions during the Stonewall Incident.

The Stonewall Rebellion is an especially significant and symbolic event for the trans commuity. It galvanized the trans rights movement with the emergence of the first two trans rights activists: Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The Associated Press reported last month that Rivera and Johnson will be honored with a public monument in New York City. AP explained that "[s] ome witness accounts identify them as leaders of the rebellion. Advocates for the rights of transgender people consider Rivera and Johnson to be pioneers of the movement."

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Outsports is running a series honoring 30 athletes deemed to have "Stonewall Spirit" because they "echo the actions of the heroes of June 1969." Recently, Outsports featured Martina Navratilova as one of its "Stonewall Spirit" athletes. The feature, written by Dawn Ennis, described Navratilova’s chronicles in paving the way toward broader inclusivity for female as well as lesbian and gay athletes in sports. The tennis legend’s "Stonewall Spirit" profile went on to call out her recent attacks on Trans Athletes.

After making numerous unsubstantiated claims against trans athletes in February 2019, Navratilova drew a swift response from the trans community and its allies. Athlete Ally cut ties with the tennis legend stating that Navratilova’s assertions "perpetuate dangerous myths" about the transgender population. Various health, fitness and athletic publications came forward with scientific research debunking Navratilova’s assertions. In April 2019, Men’s Health magazine featured an article "Sports Stars Claim Trans Women Have an ‘Unfair Advantage’ in Competitive Sport" stating:

"[S]cientists at Loughbough University reviewed 31 national and international transgender sporting policies, and found no evidence that trans women have a sporting advantage (in fact, they found that a majority unfairly discriminated against transgender people). To this day, there's no evidence that trans women on hormone therapy have an advantage over athletes born female."

While LGBTQ allies stood by the trans athletes, Outsports seemingly not only broke ranks with trans athletes in recognizing Navratilova – many felt violated by its long-standing ally who intertwined the kudos given to the tennis icon with the symbolic and deeply meaningful Stonewall Rebellion.

"It makes me feel betrayed" says track and field athlete CeCé Telfer, "Outsports is contradicting what they stand for and what Stonewall stands for."

USA Powerlifter JayCee Cooper says "portraying Martina Navratilova as an athlete representing ‘Stonewall Spirit’ is a gross misunderstanding of what Stonewall was and is. To say that [Navratilova] is demonstrating the spirit of Stonewall is offensive."

Team USA Beach Handball player, Athena Del Rosario points out the Spirit of Stonewall was "the LGBTQ community uniting together and saying ‘We have had enough!’ They put themselves in harm’s way because they knew the way they were being treated was wrong. They stood up for each other in spite of the consequences."

Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler gives an apologetic response to the outrage expressed over the Navratilova "Stonewall Spirit" designation: "I am so sorry. It was a mistake to call it ‘Stonewall Spirit.’ Cyd says emphatically. "In hindsight we should have called it something else. We just wanted to recognize LGBTQ athletes who made an impact in sports. For 20 years Outsports has been committed to being an ally and supporter of trans inclusion. Again I am so sorry."

Cyd explains the rationale for honoring the tennis icon: "Jim [Buzinski], Dawn [Ennis] and me were unanimous on Martina. Her statements against trans athletes cast a very dark shadow over her legacy. At the same time we couldn’t deny the history Martina has blazing a trail for women in sports as well as LGBQ people in sports." Cyd also points out "how much [Navratilova] suffered for being her true self" after coming out in 1981.

Navratilova’s sexuality became a target for worldwide ridicule. She was ostracized and became a punchline for homophobic jokes. Although Cyd calls her out as a pioneer for LGBQ athletes – just 3 years after the tennis champion came out, the International Olympic Committee implemented the first trans athlete inclusion policy. The NCAA soon followed with their own policy. It’s not unfathomable the ripple effect of Navratilova’s coming out was a contributing factor to the acceptance and adoption of these trans-inclusive athletic policies.

But the Olive Branch extended by Outsports was received with mixed emotions by trans athletes who see Navratilova’s comments continuing to cause harm.

"I appreciate the apology from Outsports." JayCee says. "It is good that Outsports acknowledges the harm [Navratilova] has done. If Outsports had called [the recognition] ‘LGBTQ Athletes Who Made A Mark In History’ then it would make more sense. But the fact it is under the Stonewall Spirit name still sends a harmful message. There are very real consequences that reverberate not only in sports but in real life. We are seeing an increase in assault. In the case of black trans women – an increase in murder. A lot of it comes from the othering and misunderstanding of trans people."

"I accept the apology." CeCé says. But the track athlete believes honoring Navratilova is harmful and only adds credibility to her claims against trans athletes: "She is an athletic icon and a lesbian icon, her clout perpetuates common misconceptions about the LGBTQ community and especially the trans community. Because Martina Navratilova is making these statements people think it must be true. "

According to Athena, "Martina Navratilova is being quoted in legislative hearings to ban trans athletes in High School sports. Her comments are being used to move forward anti-trans legislation."

"[Trans people] lose so much." volleyball player Chloe Anderson says. "We lose our families, our friends, and then such a powerful person comes out with such an ignorant attack making the lives of all trans people more difficult."

These concerns are highly valid. Today the trans population remains among the most oppressed and stigmatized demographics in the world. Research by the National Center for Transgender Equality "paints a troubling picture of the impact of stigma and discrimination on the health of many transgender people." Due to family rejection, social stigmatization and discrimination, compared to the cisgender population, trans people experience:

  • 3 times higher rates of substance/alcohol abuse
  • 8 times higher rates of anxiety and major depressive disorders
  • 9 times higher rates of suicide attempts
  • Up to 4 times higher homicide rates for trans women
  • Up to 75 times higher homicide rates for African American trans women - highest of any demographic

In spite of these grim statistics, involvement in an affirming athletic environment has been found to be an effective way for trans people to beat the odds stacked against them and is the reason removing barriers for trans athletes is crucial.

"Support makes such a big difference in the quality of life of trans people." Chloe says. "Being involved in Sports helped my emotional well-being."

JayCee adds athletics "help against social stressors trans people face. It provides a safe peer group so we don’t have to live in isolation."

In light of the Outsports apology, Chloe asks that the trans ally does more: "Educate people by featuring trans athletes who’ve been excluded from sports - who just wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on their life."

Christina Ginther played women’s tackle football for two seasons in the Women’s Football Alliance and is now part of the newly-formed Minnesota Pride. As an LGBTQ advocate, her trans-inclusive healthcare policy led to Minnesota becoming the 15th state to ban trans healthcare exclusions. She went on to establish a state legal precedence for trans athlete inclusion after prevailing in her lawsuit against the Minnesota Vixen and IWFL.