Over the past 40 years, tennis legend Martina Navratilova has become as well-known for her off-the-court advocacy as she has for her collection of trophies as a title-winning tennis player. She came out as gay in 1981, and has lent her voice to a number of progressive causes since then, chief among them gay rights and women’s rights.
But over the past couple of weeks, her legacy of equality and inclusion has taken a big hit. Earlier this month, Navratilova wrote an op-ed for the Sunday Times with a self-explanatory title, “The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent.”
In the days since, as Navratilova has doubled down on her comments, she has been praised by anti-trans organizations and condemned by activists with whom she normally aligns, including Athlete Ally — a nonprofit aimed at ending homophobia and discrimination in sports. Navratilova was an Athlete Ally Ambassador and a member of the group’s Advisory Board, but after her op-ed was published, they’ve since parted ways.
But the true impact of Navratilova’s words were felt in South Dakota, where state representatives have been trying to pass House Bill 1225, which, if enacted, would force high school students to compete in sports based on the sex on their birth certificate, not their gender identity. On Monday night, the bill failed to win the majority of votes required to proceed in a 34-34 deadlock. But for the LGBTQ community, it was too close for comfort, and the fact that Navratilova’s own words were weaponized in the effort to take sports away from transgender children did not escape attention.
In fact, as the bill’s backers traded in horror stories masquerading as arguments, darkly warning that being transgender was tantamount to having a mental illness and insinuating that the lion’s share of such children come to regret their decision and detransition, Rep. Lee Qualm (R) passed around a Wall Street Journal opinion piece based on Navratilova’s comments to everyone in the chamber, and read an excerpt from it out loud.
“World-class tennis legend Martina Navratilova, a long-time champion of gay rights, who came out in 1981 as gay, made these statements,” Qualm said. “‘Allowing transgender women in women’s sports is cheating. 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, perhaps win a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires.”
Qualm continued reading, “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.’”
In Navratilova, Qualm found a convenient ally in his effort to foment the anti-trans fear-mongering he needed to support his bill, using her legacy as a champion for gay rights as cover for his own transphobic ends — in this case, picking and choosing which children would be allowed to participate in youth sports.
It was as clear a case of natural consequences as you’ll ever encounter. Nevertheless, on social media, Navratilova expressed shock that her words had been used in this manner, insisting that she’d been taken “out of context.”
How the hell does one jump from a top level athletic competition to basic human rights? I don’t know. And anyone reading the article couldn’t possible come to that conclusion. Talk about taking things out of context…
— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) February 25, 2019
Unfortunately, while Navratilova might have intended her comments to only narrowly pertain to instances when transgender women are competing in elite athletic competitions, she used the exact language and reasoning that is deployed on a daily basis to perpetuate discrimination against the trans community.
In its statement cutting ties with Navratilova, Athlete Ally very deftly outlined the way her comments were dangerously uninformed:
Within her op-ed in the Sunday Times, Navratilova referred to trans women as men who “decide to be female,” and that to allow them to compete with women is “cheating and unfair.” First of all, trans women are women, period. They did not decide their gender identity any more than someone decides to be gay, or to have blue eyes. There is no evidence at all that the average trans woman is any bigger, stronger, or faster than the average cisgender woman, but there is evidence that often when athletes lower testosterone through hormone replacement therapy, performance goes down.
Trans women athletes aren’t looking to take over women’s sport. They are women, and want to compete in the sport they love, just as any other athlete would. In fact, they’re largely underrepresented. Trans athletes have been allowed to openly compete in the Olympics since 2003, and yet no transgender athlete has ever gone to the Olympics. Professional trans women athletes are extremely rare.
The good news is, the bill in South Dakota didn’t pass.
Since 2014, the South Dakota High School Activities Association has had a policy saying that, “All students should have the opportunity to participate in SDHSAA activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s records.” There haven’t been any problems with that particular policy, and for now, at least, it remains the law of the land.
Libby Skarin, the policy director at ACLU South Dakota, told ThinkProgress that she was incredibly relieved by the outcome.
“It was literally as close as it could possibly be,” Skarin said. “I really thought we would be fighting it on the Senate side.”
However, she knows the fight is far from over. Skarin has worked in South Dakota for five years, and almost every year at least one bill attacking transgender rights has been proposed. HB 1225 was the fourth anti-trans bill to be proposed this session.
Op-eds from respected voices like Navratilova’s aren’t making her job any easier.
“It is so upsetting and so disheartening, because I think sometimes people who have these large platforms don’t realize how impactful their words are,” Skarin said. “Already we’re seeing her words be used to keep trans kids from playing high school sports. It is just so disheartening. It’s hard to express how heartbreaking it is.”