clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Martina Navratilova reflects on her advocacy, the March on Washington, trans athletes and more

New, 1 comment

The tennis legend tells Outsports that every trans athlete deserves a path to inclusion in women’s sports.

2019 WTA Finals - Day 8
Martina Navratilova has been a loud, fierce advocate for her beliefs her entire life.
Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Since 1965, Martina Navratilova has won more overall Grand Slam tennis titles than anyone else. She and Billie Jean King were the first active professional athletes in the United States to come out publicly. Since then she has spoken out for equality and visibility and been vocal about her support of other social-justice issues.

Like other legends — Cher, Madonna — she’s known by one name: Martina.

Still, over the last couple of years some in the LGBTQ community have questioned at least one of her positions, with Martina venturing into the conversation about trans athletes in women’s sports.

Yet for her entire life, Martina has always tried to do what she felt was the right thing to do, becoming a community leader along the way.

Talking with her in a recent phone conversation, Martina reflected on a life of advocacy, stretching back to her high-profile defection from the communist Czechoslovakia, advocating for women, her work with the community, and yes, trans inclusion in sports.

Advocating for the ‘gay community’ in the 1990s

The seminal moment in Martina’s life as a gay woman and advocate came in 1993: the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.

“That was the first time I felt totally accepted by everybody,” Martina told Outsports. “When I used to be introduced on the court for a match, some people would boo or whistle. There was always someone who didn’t want me to win.”

Martina attributed those boos to her public coming out in 1981. She was one of the best tennis players in the world at the time, finishing that year ranked No. 3 having won the doubles title at Wimbledon and the singles title at the Australian Open.

Yet even with her success, and her Cold War hero status as a defector, some Americans still booed her as the AIDS crisis built to a frenzy of homophobia in the United States.

At that March on Washington in 1993, Martina was a featured speaker and surrounded by support from people in her own community for the first time.

“I did a speech, and it felt like everyone there wanted me to win,” she remembered. Marching in the streets with an overwhelming number of gay people like her, Martina felt comfortable that April day like never before. “That was a pivotal moment for me, when we were the majority walking the streets of DC.”

It was leaving the March on Washington that Martina first found an important path for her advocacy for her community: financial activism.

“I was with two friends from Philly, and as we were heading back I made some new friends. Kate Clinton, Suzanne Westenhoefer — To this day I’m best friends with these people. But as we were driving away from the march I was like, God I want to do something that lasts more than a weekend.”

US tennis legend Martina Navratilova plays with a
Martina Navratilova returned to Washington, DC, for a second gay rights march, in April 2000.
Photo credit should read SHAWN THEW/AFP via Getty Images

One idea floated amongst the group was to start an LGBTQ bank.

“No, that’s too Republican,” Martina remembered thinking. Martina is, in case you hadn’t noticed on Twitter, not a fan of Republicans.

When someone raised the idea of an affinity credit card, the concept lingered. It was still a bit “Republican,” but doable. They’d try to get it done.

It took Martina and her team two years to find a company willing to launch the effort.

“Some of the banks said, ‘We know this would make money but we can’t do this in public,’” Martina said. “They wanted to do it in the closet, which pretty much defeated the purpose.”

The Rainbow Card finally launched in 1995, with Travelers Bank, Subaru and Visa on board. Years later, other organizations would follow her lead to raise money, creating affinity programs with credit cards. The Rainbow Card eventually drifted into the background, but a lasting legacy was cemented.

Supporting LGBTQ Loyalty Holdings

Now Martina is turning her financial activism to LGBTQ Loyalty Holdings, an investment group that allows people to put their money in companies that support the LGBTQ community.

Billy Bean, MLB executive and former baseball player, is on the LGBTQ Loyalty Holdings board.

For Martina, financial activism is an integral part of pushing society to build inclusive spaces for the community.

“It’s important to keep the visibility going,” Martina said, “and most of all to give our community the power to invest in companies that support our community and build good relationships with the companies we’re investing in, so you don’t have to do the due diligence yourself.”

It’s something she’s been committed to most of her career.

She remembered investing some money with a broker in the early 1990s, telling them she wanted to invest in only “socially responsible” companies. When she checked in on her investments, she found some of her money was sitting with oil and tobacco companies.

She withdrew her funds.

“I was like, ‘Which part of socially responsible did you not understand?’” She remembered asking. “So since then I’ve always focused on those companies, and this fund provides that due diligence. It directly speaks to the community.”

Since coming out in 1981, she has consistently used her voice and her visibility to shift how people view gays and lesbians, never shy to speak up and have her voice heard.

Trans athletes and women’s sports

Recently, Martina has found herself on the outs with some LGBTQ advocates, as she has brought her voice into the conversation about the inclusion of trans women in women’s sports.

When Martina penned an op-ed in 2019 calling trans women in women’s sports “cheats” — a statement for which she soon after wrote “I’m sorry” — Athlete Ally dropped her as an ambassador for the organization in a public way.

Martina said she found out about the move from Twitter, which stung; Athlete Ally told Outsports they had contacted her ahead of the announcement.

The response to that article from other leaders in the LGBTQ community was harsh and swift. While debates continue to rage, even amongst LGBTQ people, about the best way to include trans women in women’s sports, that word — cheat — packed a punch.

With her years of advocacy, Martina found it hard to watch some people in the LGBTQ community turn against her as she dove head-first into the debate about trans women in sports.

“It felt pretty devastating,” she said. “You can do a thousand good deeds, but when you’re judged by this one thing, it was really disappointing.”

Martina’s entree into this conversation was rocky at best, including a Twitter exchange with trans athlete and advocate Veronica Ivy, as well as the op-ed a couple of months later that offended so many in the community.

A path to participation for all women

Still, Martina said she is now fighting to make sure that every girl and woman — including trans girls and women — has a path to participate in girls’ and women’s sports.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” she said of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, headed by Olympic champion and staunch Title IX defender Nancy Hogshead-Makar. “We don’t know what that path should look like. Maybe it will change over the years.”

For now, Martina’s suggested path for trans women in competitive sports includes some kind of transition requirement for trans girls or women who have started puberty. She points to her own experience as a youth, competing with athletes while growing up in Czechoslovakia. She said she stopped being able to compete with many athletes once they hit puberty; Athletes she could beat at age 8 quickly became untouchable.

“Once they hit puberty, they became a lot stronger,” she said. “And if you’ve gone through puberty, we have to mitigate that.”

In contrast, there are a number of LGBTQ leaders who say trans youth and high school athletes should be allowed to compete with zero transition requirements, as is the policy in some states like Connecticut and Oregon.

Opposing bans on trans athletes

Talking with Martina about trans athletes, you get the sense that she has relied a lot on the perspective of Renee Richards, her longtime friend. Richards, the trailblazing trans tennis player whom Martina once beat in a Grand Slam women’s doubles final, and who once coached Martina, is among those who feel that trans women in competitive women’s sports should engage in some medical transition before competing.

It’s not uncommon for some of the trans trailblazers in sports, like Richards and golfer Mianne Bagger, to approach the participation of trans athletes in women’s sports with an embrace of transition requirements.

Conversely, Martina also stands in opposition to people who seek to ban trans women entirely from women’s sports.

To that end, earlier this year Martina was part of a trio of women who penned an op-ed in The News and Observer in North Carolina arguing that bans on trans girls from girls sports — like that being debated in the state at the time — went too far, and a path to inclusion for trans girls should be maintained. She co-authored that piece with trans athlete Juniper Eastwood, in addition to Duke Law professor Doriane Coleman.

“So many trans men and women have said they agree with us,” Martina said of the group’s position requiring some kind of medial transition before competing. “I didn’t get into this fight for myself. I’m fighting for every girl and woman who is competing and wants to have the chance to win. I’m glad I’m a part of this group trying to find a solution.

“We’re trying to find a fair solution.”

Martina has also vocally criticized tennis legend Margaret Court for routinely spouting anti-LGBTQ beliefs, including attacks on trans youth.

Still, plenty of trans and LGBTQ advocates are keeping Martina at arm’s length on this issue. As mentioned above, a growing, influential chorus wants trans girls and women to compete in high school sports with no transition requirement. Some LGBTQ people advocate for the same no-transition policy even in college sports or the Olympics.

Others point to a term — “biological males” — used by the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, and at times Martina, to describe trans women. The term has fallen into disfavor amongst some trans advocates, who say that “biological” characteristics of any sex are so diverse no “biological” characteristic can define someone’s sex.

“I don’t understand how saying ‘biology’ offends some in the trans community and people who try to work with the trans community,” Martina said. “Renee Richards has no problem saying ‘biological male’ or ‘biological female.’

“Look, I don’t want to offend anybody, but I also feel like I need to speak facts and not feelings.”

And that’s where the debate is today within the community. Some advocates want access to competitive sports for trans athletes (depending on the level of sport) with no transition requirements; Martina and others think a transition requirement is reasonable. Some want to eradicate terms referring to “biological sex;” Martina and others say it’s science.

The debate over how to include trans athletes in sports will continue for the foreseeable future, as attitudes shift and more research is done on the topic.

Regardless of where that conversation goes, the last four decades of Martina’s life will remain a testament to her legacy. At a time when gay men and lesbians were most heavily under attack — in the 1980s with the AIDS crisis and the 1990s with marriage bans and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — Martina raised her hand and entered the fight, even before many of today’s LGBTQ athletes were born.

She continues to fight today for what she believes in, always in her own way.