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The Unmaking of Martina Navratilova
The 18-time Grand Slam champion and outspoken lesbian has emerged as a firebrand in the debate about trans women in sports.
It is no secret that tennis holds a special place in my heart.
The Federer vs. Nadal rivalry was a staple of my childhood and teen years, cementing the sport as one of my favourites to watch. Years later, it would also become the first sport that I ever wrote about professionally, composing match previews and aggregating news for a meagre $5 an article while I was still in university.
As my fascination with the sport morphed into professional interest, I began to consume as much tennis content as possible, seeking out old grand slam matches from the 1980s onwards. I watched John McEnroe serve, volley and tantrum his way to Wimbledon royalty; Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi’s all-American rivalry, and the rise of the Williams sisters.
Yet among the players who caught my attention the most was Martina Navratilova, the iconic 18-time Grand Slam champion and outspoken lesbian. Beyond her absurd dominance on the court—dominance that led to her winning 59 major titles, the most in the Open Era—Navratilova’s backstory carried the sort of socio-political themes that would become the crux of my later work.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Navratilova defected from the communist state at the age of 18 in 1975—the height of the Cold War. She sought political asylum in the United States and was subsequently granted temporary residence. Navratilova eventually obtained US citizenship in 1981, which was the same year she was outed as a queer woman.
For over four decades, Navratilova has openly identified as a lesbian and earned recognition as both a prominent gay rights advocate and a trailblazing figure in women's tennis. It is precisely this background that amplifies the gravity of her recent turn against fellow members of her community.
Over the past few years, Navratilova has come under significant criticism for her attacks on transgender individuals. In 2018, Navratilova took to Twitter to announce 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 woman would not fit that standard.” This led to a publicized spat with Rachel McKinnon, the first transgender woman to win a world title in track cycling.
The tennis legend penned a controversial oped the following year claiming that trans athletes amounted to “cheats,” which led to her being removed from the advisory board of an LGBTQ+ nonprofit organization she helped co-found in 2011.
“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 and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires,” she wrote in the oped. “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.”
While Navratilova initially walked back her stance, she has since continued to take aim at trans athletes and their allies. She was revealed as one of the signers of a letter supporting Idaho's law barring trans females from competing in women's and girls' interscholastic sports, and spoke out against Megan Rapinoe after the retired USWNT legend was quoted saying she would have no problems competing against a trans woman.
Earlier this week, Navratilova made headlines telling Daniel Radcliffe—the actor best known for playing the role of Harry Potter—to “be quiet” over his public support of trans women. Her criticism stemmed from a three-year-old essay Radcliffe had written for The Trevor Project where he stated that “transgender women are women.”
After criticizing Radcliffe, Navratilova kept the momentum going when she slammed a video of US secretary of the interior Deb Haaland speaking with drag queen Pattie Gonia, referring to the drag queen as a “pathetic parody of women”.
The video was recorded at the Stonewall National Monument in Greenwich Village, New York City to celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month.
Most recently, Navratilova took an even darker turn when she took to social media to mock British columnist Owen Jones for endorsing cultural and religious diversity in a back-and-forth interview with an unnamed Tory delegate who argued against immigration and multiculturalism using fascist rhetoric.
“Owens getting schooled, so to speak,” she wrote on Twitter, which led one user to comment: “Martina Navratilova is cheering for fascism in order to stick it to owen jones."
Jones also responded to Navratilova’s comment: "What’s tragic is that I doubt Martina Navratilova even believes what she’s endorsing here. She’s angry about my support for trans rights, so ends up cheering on anyone who criticizes me - even people with these unbelievably gruesome opinions."
Jones delves into the core of the TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) conundrum. While TERFs assert that their anti-trans stance is driven by a desire to safeguard women, their inclination to align with far-right elements for the sake of bolstering their ranks highlights the overlap between far-right ideologies and anti-trans sentiments. By endorsing a fascist figure in opposition to a trans ally, Navratilova runs the risk of becoming as conspicuous as J.K. Rowling among celebrities who have ventured down this divisive path.
What makes Navratilova’s case particularly tragic is the fact that she has long been known as a progressive figure and an outspoken role model for the community. She holds informed stances on topics such as gun control, abortion rights, U.S. politics, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, Navratilova’s stance on trans athletes in women’s sports is informed by the ongoing debate surrounding transgender rights in the Western world—a debate fuelled by divisive politicians who are more than happy to use her quotes in drafting their anti-trans legislation.
Navratilova’s stance is also being adopted by major international sports federations. The World Athletics Council, which regulates track and field competition, adopted the same rules as swimming did last year in barring athletes who have transitioned from male to female and have gone through male puberty, even though there are currently no such athletes currently competing at elite levels. The WA ban was also criticized by researchers who pointed out that existing studies do not show any enhanced performance or perceived advantage for trans athletes as compared to their cis gender counterparts.
Ultimately, witnessing Navratilova's transition from a trailblazing gay rights advocate to a reactionary firebrand is a disheartening journey that reflects a great deal about the current landscape of both sports and society.
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