Tennis legend Martina Navratilova’s recent statements regarding biological males competing against women in sporting events provoked an angry response from activists who accused the winner of 59 Grand Slam titles and longtime spokeswoman for LGBT rights of attempting to “dehumanize trans people.” She was removed from the advisory board of Athlete Ally, a group advocating for LGBT concerns in sport, and faced severe criticism for stating her view that forcing female athletes to compete against biological males is “insane” and “cheating,” given the average physical differences in strength, musculature, and bone density between males and females.

“First of all, trans women are women, period,” Athlete Ally asserted in its reaction to Navratilova’s comments. “They did not decide their gender identity any more than someone decides to be gay, or to have blue eyes.” 

The question of how one arrives at a nonconforming gender identity is a matter of debate, but publicly transitioning from one gender to the other is doubtlessly a decision. No one claims that significant numbers of people undergo surgery or hormone treatments in order to compete athletically against the opposite sex, but the evidence is indisputable that some advantages of a male anatomy are retained by transgender females—as Navratilova discovered after publicly committing to “educate” herself on the issue. “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,” she wrote in the Sunday Times, reiterating that it is absurd that “hundreds of athletes who have changed gender by declaration and limited hormone treatment have already achieved honors as women that were beyond their capabilities as men.”

Fairness, not intolerance, is the issue when it comes to trans women competing in women’s sports. Athletic competitions are between like and like: weight classes, age, experience. Children’s athletics are organized by age group, with the understanding that children of different ages have different skills and abilities. In fact, many children’s sports are co-ed at young ages, because the physical differences between children of different sexes are often negligible as they affect the sport. There’s no reason to separate eight-year-old soccer leagues by sex, because boys and girls at that age compete evenly.

For adults, however, the differences are profound, and a male athlete who has gone through puberty will have a basic physical advantage over women no matter how many female hormones he takes. This point is clarified by the fact that there is no controversy about trans men competing in men’s sports, and there have been positive efforts to let women compete. Ann Meyers was paid $50,000 to try out for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers in 1980 as a PR curiosity; Manon Rhéaume tried out as a goaltender for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and played in 24 professional minor league hockey games. And Navratilova’s former girlfriend Nancy Lieberman played for a men’s professional basketball team, the Springfield Fame of the USBL, in 1986. But letting biological males compete for money or prizes against females tilts the competition in favor of the male; it’s unsporting.

Hearing Navratilova called a transphobe is ironic because she was one of the earliest supporters on the professional tennis circuit of Renée Richards. Richards, born as Richard Raskind, was an ophthalmologist and solid amateur men’s player who underwent sexual-reassignment surgery, won a 1977 lawsuit against the USTA, and competed in her mid-forties on the women’s professional tour, ranking as high as 20. In her first U.S. Open, the 43-year-old Richards lost in the women’s doubles finals to a team including the 21-year-old Martina Navratilova. The two became friends, and Navratilova hired Richards as her coach after the latter’s retirement from tournament play.

Yet Renee Richards, the pioneer of trans athletics, has walked back her belief in the justice of her cause. “I think transsexuals have every right to play, but maybe not at the professional level, because it’s not a level playing field,” she now says. “I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.”

It’s hardly likely that Navratilova, a lesbian who came out at a time when her decision surely cost her endorsements and other opportunities, employed a transgender woman as her coach when trans persons were virtually unheard of in the public sphere, and advocated for LGBT causes for decades, is an anti-trans bigot. Anti-bullying, yes. Throughout her long career, she has never let herself get pushed around.

Photo: Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women


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