Burn Your Idols

Martina Navratilova’s recent remarks show she is no longer a useful symbol for queer liberation.

Martina Navratilova

As you may have heard, tennis legend Martina Navratilova was back to making headlines last month after penning a transphobic opinion piece in the Sunday Times. She was expounding on an earlier (since deleted) tweet in which she called for the exclusion of trans women from women’s sports, saying that

You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a women would not fit that standard.

While still claiming ignorance on the topic, Martina claims to be trying to “open up the debate about equality and fairness in sport”, which apparently is done by continuing to pick on the most vulnerable of populations.

Without quoting excessively from her transphobic tirade, Martina’s fears are as follows: she worries that a man could potentially so desire a successful tennis career that he would “decide to be female”, take hormones, win a bunch of tennis matches, and then “reverse decision and go back to making babies.” She did not feel the need to address the fact that nothing remotely close to this has ever occurred. In fact, as evidence for her claim, she points to…Lance Armstrong, for some reason? Martina’s fearmongering here is no different from conservative politicians who pushed bathroom bills based on the myth of the male predator who would disguise himself as female. Not only is there no evidence on which to base these fears; they’re fabricated to push agendas rooted in the resentment of the other.

Martina’s obsession with the phallus as symbol for manhood not only betrays her ignorance of intersex people; her rhetoric also shows a lack of awareness of what trans women are. They are not men who ‘decide’ to be women. They are just women. And to think that a man would simply pretend to be trans, and accept all the costs of transitioning and living as a trans person, simply to win some tennis matches, is frankly absurd.

In her follow-up apology letter, she claimed that her “aim was to encourage a more scientific, rather than emotional, conversation.” But her argument was expressly ascientific. Despite what Martina and her conservative allies would have you think, this is not some new, unexamined issue. Numerous researchers have examined trans athletes, and the clear weight of the evidence that trans women who receive hormone therapy will on average perform at the same level competing amongst other women as they did when they were competing amongst men.

Trans women should not feel the need to have surgery or hormone therapy if they don’t want to, and we should not require them to do so as a requisite to play competitive sports. But Martina’s argument addresses those who have medically transitioned, and that a clear consensus exists on this topic shows that she has neglected to examine the ever-growing body of evidence available to the public before deciding to open her mouth. Now she’s backpedaling, attempting to save her image without admitting any fault.

Transphobia in sport is not new, and likely has increased in response to the growing number of visible trans athletes. But institutionally at least, sports have become much more open to trans athletes in recent years. Both the IOC and the NCAA have instituted policies that allow trans athletes to compete without having to undergo an arduous gender-reassignment surgery. We’re slowly heading in the right direction, but still Martina wants to pump the breaks.

Historically, Martina has been revered in the queer community. She came out in 1981, at the peak of her remarkable tennis career, and has rarely shied away from using her platform to advance the cause of gay rights. Unfortunately for her, to be a queer icon, “there must be some standards,” to use her own words. And it has become abundantly clear that she no longer meets them. If Martina’s vision of queer liberation is a trans-exclusionary one, then she is of no use to us going forward, regardless of her past advocacy.