Martina Navratilova Champions Women’s Sport

Martina Navratilova is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. The winner of 18 singles titles, 31 women’s doubles titles – a record yet unbroken – and 10 mixed doubles titles, Martina has won more Grand Slams than any other tennis player in history. Only Billie Jean King, another lesbian icon, matches her total of 20 combined Wimbledon titles. Ranked number 1 out of all the world’s tennis players for four consecutive years, from 1982 to 1986, Martina dominated the sport throughout her career.

As well as having an extraordinary record on the court, Martina has achieved amazing things with her LGBT advocacy. A New York Daily News feature outed her as bisexual back in 1981, citing her relationship with novelist Rita Mae Brown. Instead of denying it, Martina was open about her relationships with women even at the height of her career – and later came out as a lesbian.

To live in the public eye while loving other women is a brave thing, even now; to have done so in the early 1980s was a tremendous act of courage. Reflecting on that time, Martina said that gays and lesbians “were deemed crazy and criminals and pedophiles. I wasn’t the face of anything back then because there was nothing to be a face of.” Nowadays we consider LGBT representation our due, but living openly carried huge personal and professional risk in the time of the AIDs crisis and Section 28. It is only because of the courage of women like Martina that being lesbian has become more widely accepted over the last few decades.

A US citizen, Martina was a participant in a lawsuit against Amendment 2 – a piece of legislation from 1992 that prevented sexual orientation from being recognized as a protected class in the state of Colorado. Ever since, Martina has devoted time, energy, and resources to making this world a better place for LGBT people. And so it is particularly galling that Outsports, an LGBT sporting news outlet, published an article comparing Martina Navratilova to Joseph Goebbels earlier this year.

While Outsports has since retracted the reference to Goebbels, the fact remains: Outsports made the editorial decision to compare a renowned lesbian athlete to the man responsible for proliferating Nazi ideology. As well as being deeply unethical, this reporting showed a remarkably poor understanding of the history invoked. In Nazi Germany, lesbians were branded ‘asocials’ for living lives that were incompatible with serving as Aryan brood mares. As a consequence of their sexuality, lesbians were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

If you are wondering how we have reached a point when someone who has devoted her public profile to LGBT advocacy can be likened to a Nazi, you are not alone. Even those well versed in the debate about sex and gender – which has become agonizingly tense for everyone involved – were perplexed by the comparison. But Martina spoke about an issue which has become a lightning rod for controversy: the physical differences between bodies that are biologically male and biologically female.

If you are wondering how we have reached a point when someone who has devoted her public profile to LGBT advocacy can be likened to a Nazi, you are not alone. Even those well versed in the debate about sex and gender – which has become agonizingly tense for everyone involved – were perplexed by the comparison. But Martina spoke about an issue which has become a lightning rod for controversy: the physical differences between bodies that are biologically male and biologically female.

Writing for the Sunday Times, Martina made the case for sex-specific categories in sport: “It is surely unfair on women who have to compete against people who, biologically, are still men. 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.”

“Simply reducing hormone levels – the prescription most sports have adopted – does not solve the problem,” she wrote. “A man builds up muscle and bone density, as well as a greater number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, from childhood.”

The backlash was immediate and intense. Out Magazine ran with the headline “Martina Navratilova Has Decided to Pivot to TERF.” Dr. Rachel McKinnon, a transgender athlete, branded her comments “transphobic.” Athlete Ally, an LGBT advocacy group, dropped Martina as an ambassador. While Martina has since apologized for her use of the word “cheating” in reference to transgender athletes, she has held her ground and continued to advocate sex-specific categories in sport

Despite the controversy, several renowned sportswomen supported Martina’s argument. Dame Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe, and Sharon Davies are writing to the International Olympic Committee to request research into the “residual benefits” held by transwomen in sport.

The legendary Billie Jean King Tweeted her backing, saying that: “@Martina has long been an LGBTQ champion. I know she cares deeply for the transgender community. However, instead of conjecture, let’s listen to the science behind transgender women competing fairly in women’s sports. Science is the true arbiter.”

When it comes to the advocacy work of our foremothers, people seem to have a very short memory.

When it comes to the advocacy work of our foremothers, people seem to have a very short memory. Decades before transgender identity received mainstream acknowledgment, Martina trained with a trans coach: Renée Richards. Their partnership led Martina to two Wimbledon championships, and contributed greatly to the visibility of LGBT athletes. Martina’s perspective on sex, gender, and sport echoes that of her mentor. Of her tennis career, Renée said that “Having lived for the past 30 years, 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.”

Though proud of her record of advocating transgender rights, Richards is ultimately an opponent of the Olympic Committee’s 2004 ruling that transgender athletes can compete under their chosen category after surgery and hormone therapy. She reflects that “…maybe not even I should have been allowed to play on the women’s tour. Maybe I should have knuckled under and said, ‘That’s one thing I can’t have as my newfound right in being a woman.’ I think transsexuals have every right to play, but maybe not at the professional level, because it’s not a level playing field.”