Martina Navratilova on Wimbledon and why she won’t be silenced in the trans sport debate The Sunday Times 07.07.19
Martina Navratilova was so puzzled when people started calling her a “Terf”, she had to google the acronym to find out what it meant. The former tennis No 1 and veteran LGBT campaigner had seen a tweet, arguing that anyone who self-identified as a woman should be allowed to compete in women’s sport. Navratilova didn’t consider herself an expert in transgender politics, but didn’t think her “gut reaction” would be contentious. “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,” she tweeted back.
“And then I just got a deluge. ‘You’re so hateful and you’re so ignorant and you’re a transphobe and you’re a Terf.’ I’m, like, what the f*** is that?”
A trans-exclusionary radical feminist is the go-to insult hurled at pretty much anyone online who dissents from trans activists’ political orthodoxy. Navratilova was stunned: “I was attacked by my people.” She was equally alarmed to find herself supported “by the other side. I don’t want to make sides, but the right-wing people were saying, ‘You’re right, this should never be allowed.’ And that’s not what I was saying either.” She apologised for causing offence, deleted the tweet, and “I was, like, maybe I know nothing about what I am talking about. So I said, ‘Let me educate myself and get back to you.’ ”
That was back in December. When we meet in June, she arrives with the purposeful haste of someone who lives out of a suitcase, then leaves for the airport straight after the interview. Now 62, she lives in Florida with her wife and two stepdaughters, commentates on tennis all over the world and is an active campaigner for LGBT rights — but for the first two weeks of July, a commentary box in southwest London is the only place she wants to be. “Wimbledon is the one. Life in the UK stops during Wimbledon. You know, the mother is not cooking for the kids — ‘You’re on your own because I want to watch.’ The whole country watches. So that’s the tournament everybody wants to win. If there’s one trophy they want to have, it is this one.”
If she could go back and play in one Wimbledon from the past, which would it be? “2012! So I could also play the Olympics, back to back, on grass. Yes please! Yeah, 2012 would have been great, with Andy and Roger and Serena. Serena in her prime and me in my prime — that would be fun.” Who would win? “I think it would be a toss-up. It depends on the surface, it depends on the day. But, you know, I would like my chances and she would like hers. And it would be a great match — or matches. I would love to have played her 20 times,” she grins. “That would be fun.”
I’m curious to know how she found the transition to commentating, but she looks surprised and laughs when I ask if she taught herself by practising in front of the telly. “No, you just commentate on what you see. I know I’ve gotten better as I understand not just when to say but when not to say something. I’d rather speak as little as possible and say stuff that people can’t google. I don’t want to tell them statistics or who beat who so many times, I want to tell them not what is happening, but why it’s happening. I try to stay out of the way and tell people something they didn’t think about.”
Last year, Navratilova was staggered to learn that the BBC was paying fellow commentator John McEnroe “at least 10 times” more than her. The revelation emerged when the corporation was forced to publish its stars’ salaries. “We were told one thing, then the facts came out and they were something else.” Has the pay gap been corrected? “Once it was out in the open, they fixed it. I get paid [the same] per outing, or whatever you want to call it. It’s on a level playing field.”
Having lambasted communism, championed equal prize money for female players and campaigned for gay rights, Navratilova must feel she has consistently been on the right side of history. But the charge often levelled against anyone who queries self-identified trans people’s entitlement to all the rights of their nominated gender is that they’re on the “wrong side of history”, which must be an uncomfortable place for Navratilova to find herself. She has a brisk, warm energy and a playful smile — so when she tells me she doesn’t even have time to work out these days, I wonder why she made time for an issue virtually guaranteed to land her back in hot water again.
“My wife says, ‘Why did you stick your nose in it?’ ” she smiles. “It doesn’t affect me personally at all, I am not competing, I’ve got no dog in that fight. But I can’t help myself. For me, my life has always been about fairness. And when I see something unfair, I speak up.”
Late last month, we got to see her education in a primetime BBC1 documentary, The Trans Women Athlete Dispute, where the nine-times Wimbledon champion talked to people on all sides of the debate. I ask what she learnt from making the film. “Number one, I learnt how long it can take to transition — and my empathy has grown sky-high. I knew it was hard, but you see the pain and the emotional rollercoaster that transgender men and women go through, and your heart goes out. Nobody chooses that. Just as I didn’t choose to be gay, they don’t choose to be transgender. I totally understand that.” She pauses.
“This isn’t about being ‘for’ or ‘against’ trans. We want to include. But if you include everyone, someone is pushed out. Women have fought so hard to compete in sport. There are still countries where women cannot compete in anything. And now we have it, we’re getting pushed out in a way where we feel it’s not fair.”
For Navratilova, the debate broadly divides into two categories: self-identified trans sportswomen, and those who have undergone medical transition. “For me, self-ID is a non-starter. Yes, you can participate. But you cannot compete at the top level as a female because you feel [you’re] a female. I respect that [feeling], I honour that, 100%. But you still have a male body that hasn’t been touched at all.” The more complicated question for Navratilova is the second category.
An American player, Renée Richards, underwent reassignment surgery to compete as a woman in 1977. She became the poster girl for trans sportswomen, and — following retirement — Navratilova’s coach and good friend. Later in life, though, Richards reflected that had she transitioned in her early twenties, not her forties, “no woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.” When I quote her, Navratilova nods.
“That’s exactly right. Which is my point. You don’t want women and girls coming into a race and saying, ‘I’m racing for second because this woman was a man, she’s five, six, seven inches taller, weighs 21kg more and is so much faster — I have no chance, no matter what you do with the drugs.’ ” Doesn’t any competitive advantage trans women may enjoy get eliminated by the compulsory reduction of testosterone levels? Navratilova smiles. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
Different sporting bodies impose different maximum levels, but even one of the lowest — that of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) — “is still five times higher than I have right now”, she says. One interviewee on the documentary argued that trans sportswomen who comply enjoy no more than a 5% advantage. “It doesn’t seem that much,” Navratilova acknowledges, “but it’s everything. Let’s say you play football, and you need to run 10 metres to the ball. Five per cent is half a metre. You’re going to get there first. They say, ‘But you can make up for that in skill.’ No, you cannot teach speed and you get there first. I don’t care how skilful I am, if that other player gets there first they have the ball and I’m screwed.”
Don’t all sportspeople have to contend with the genetic advantages of their rivals? “I can deal with the height. I play against taller women, I’m intimidated but, you know, I have skill and I can hang with that. And if they get in the gym and they’re stronger, then OK. But men can do 10 pull-ups easily. When I was in unbelievable shape, I did 10 pull-ups. But no matter what, I couldn’t bench-press 250lb. I know a transgender woman who is in her forties and she doesn’t train, and she’s fully transitioned in every way, and she can still bench-press 250lb.”
I ask what she makes of the argument that men’s physical advantage is not biological but merely cultural. “That’s what’s been suggested: that if women had been competing for 100 years like men, they would be at the same level as men. No,” she scoffs impatiently. “It’s not physically possible. So that is not an argument — just a silly thing to say.”
The certainty ebbs when I ask for her solution. The creation of a third gender category for trans athletes is sometimes proposed, but she looks unconvinced. “It depends on how many people there are. I mean, you don’t want to compete against yourself. ‘I am the world champion — but no one else was there’?” She shakes her head. “Look, we’re trying to find as equitable a solution as possible, but whatever solution there is, someone will be unhappy.”
To complicate matters further, the IAAF recently ruled that the South African runner Caster Semenya cannot race more than 400 metres unless she takes medication to reduce her testosterone levels. Semenya was born a woman, with a condition called hyperandrogenism, which produces naturally elevated levels of testosterone.
An editorial in the British Medical Journal described the ruling as “unscientific”, citing lack of evidence about testosterone’s effects and calling the cut-off figure arbitrary. Navratilova condemned the ruling as unfair because Semenya was “born that way”. Wouldn’t trans sportswomen argue they were just “born that way” as men?
“But they have to do stuff [to become women]. Caster was born that way. Transgenderism is different from hyperandrogenism, so whatever decision they make can’t be the decision you then apply to transgender athletes, because they’re different categories. Caster’s an anomaly, she’s an exception. Whereas potentially, any man…” Could self-identify as a woman? “Of course that’s not going to happen, but the potential is there. Whatever the percentage [of women with unusually high testosterone levels] in the general population is, that’s not going to change. Whereas with transgenderism, the population has changed quite a bit, hasn’t it?”
NHS England reports that referrals to gender dysphoria services increased 240% in the five years to 2018 — with 3% of the population (or nearly 2m people) projected to make contact with transgender health services at some point in the future.
Navratilova has that uncompromising clarity of mind and unshakable self-assurance common to elite athletes. But when I ask how she explains the recent dramatic growth of the transgender population, she sounds uncharacteristically reticent. “Well, that I don’t know. You’d need to ask a sociologist.” Anyone who has dipped a toe in the online debate on transgender rights can guess how bruising six months of immersion must be. I don’t think it’s trans activists’ ferocity that makes her pick her words with care, though, but her own conflicted loyalties to irreconcilable values.
Navratilova was born in what was communist Czechoslovakia, and grew up in a society so relentlessly monocultural that she was barely aware of homosexuality’s existence until her first sexual experience. She was 18, it was with a girl, and “I’m, like, ‘Oh, that’s what it is.’ I think if I was a child today, I would know earlier that I was gay, because it’s more in the open.” As she had been a “total tomboy”, refusing to wear skirts or grow her hair long, if she were 10 years old today, might she instead have wondered if she were a boy?
“If I was 10 now, I think other people would be saying, ‘Wow, maybe you were born a boy. You just have a girl’s body.’ And I know I wouldn’t have gone in that direction. I’m very headstrong and I know what I want, who I am. But if I didn’t, I would maybe have been considering it, and I think what’s happening now is people transition, then they want to detransition. And now they have had their breasts removed. Now they have reconstructive surgery. It’s just insane. People are pulling the trigger, so to speak, too soon. I would like people to slow down. The brain isn’t fully formed until 20 years old or something. We change. You just don’t want to make an irreversible mistake.” There are no definitive figures on the number of people detransitioning.
In the next breath, she points out: “Some kids know when they are seven, eight years old. And more power to people that know and stick with it. They go for it. And they were right. So you cannot judge that or relate to it because everybody’s experience is different. However you ID yourself, however you want me to address you, whichever way — it’s absolutely fine. But that’s a separate issue from competing at an elite level.”
After she wrote about her concerns regarding trans sportswomen in The Sunday Times in February, an organisation called Athlete Ally, which supports LGBT sportspeople, promptly denounced her as “transphobic” and removed her from their advisory board. Is she braced for another onslaught from the trans community after the documentary goes out?
“I could go completely down the trans route: let’s have an open field, everybody can compete — then women will be upset with me. And if I go completely the other way, transgender are going to be upset with me. So I’m going to upset somebody, no matter what I say. For me, this has been about fairness for women and girls. That’s who I am and, by the way, I left a communist country because I couldn’t say what I wanted to say without repercussions. Now, if people attack me, it is what it is.”
Navratilova is used to being attacked. Nowadays she enjoys almost the status of international treasure, but for much of her life she felt more loathed than loved. When she defected to the West at 18, American fans didn’t immediately warm to her unladylike frame or aggressive style on court, and cast her as the Soviet Beast rivalling their all-American Beauty, Chris Evert. When she came out as gay in 1981, sponsors cancelled endorsements and crowds booed her on court. These days, she is celebrated for LGBT activism and is legally married to her long-term partner, a businesswoman and former Miss USSR — but right-wing homophobes are winning votes all the way from her adopted country to eastern Europe, and just days before we meet two young lesbians were assaulted on a London bus. Does she worry about the arc of progress wobbling?
“I think, all in all, we’re going in the right direction, but there are certain setbacks — including people thinking they can beat up somebody because of their sexuality. It’s insane to me how people think that somehow it’s their business. I mean, how does it affect you whether my partner has a penis or not? So we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.” Would a tennis player who came out today lose commercial endorsements? She laughs. “Not at all. No, I think if anything there may be bigger deals.”
The sport is still a long way from perfect, though. For a start, she points out, television coverage still favours the men’s game. Isn’t it fair to give them more airtime if they’re on court for longer? “I think men should play two out of three sets. Who wants to sit there for five hours? Once in a while there’s a really good match, but I think it’s too much of a good thing — you have the best cake in the world, but do you want to eat the whole thing? Maybe the way to go would be, everybody plays two out of three until the quarters, then everyone — women and men — play three out of five in the quarters, semi-finals, finals.”
After a lifetime campaigning for equality, how does Navratilova feel about being accused of finding herself on the wrong side of history when it comes to trans sportswomen?
“Most people are telling me I’m on the right side. But I was never worried about that. I was ahead of the curve on most things and we’ll see how the future will pan out. I don’t know which way it’s going to go. But I do know that if we do self-ID as the only determining factor, that’s the end of women’s sports as we know it. Maybe not now, maybe not 15 years from now. But 50 years from now, yes.”