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Martina Navratilova, Transphobia in Sports and the Importance of Scientific Research

By Tammy Rainey

Superstar tennis legend Martina Navratilova  re-ignited the spotlight on an ongoing controversy last month when she published an ill-informed op-ed in the Sunday Times of London declaring that trans women who compete in professional athletics against other women are, by definition, cheating. Almost two months earlier she had expressed a similar, more harshly worded, opinion when she tweeted the following

 

“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.”

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Photo by Andrew Campbell

The sentiment generated an appropriate firestorm of rebuke, perhaps magnified by Navratilova’s previous reputation as an ally to trans people. This week she again tried to revise and extend her remarks, semi-apologizing for using the term “cheaters” but continues to flounder and provoke blowback. At the time of the original comment she withdrew the opinion and vowed to become better informed on the subject but the new article clearly demonstrated that she’d failed in that ambition. The outrage was possibly magnified by the fact that the UK is currently embroiled in a tsunami of anti-trans attacks orchestrated by a minority of Radical Feminists and abetted by sensationalistic British tabloid media. It’s not just the expression of reservations about trans women competing against cis women that is problematic so much as it is that she chose to reduce a complex and nuanced topic down to a simple binary standard that ignores objective medical realities. 

 

Navratilova is not a scientist and apparently didn’t see fit to allow her position to be informed by the best current science on the subject. For one small example, she speaks of the theoretical physical advantage that accrues to the average male (as opposed to the average female) from puberty onward in terms of things like muscle mass, bone density, and lung capacity - claiming these advantages are not mitigated by the use of HRT later in life. However in that same paragraph she says this:

 

“Indeed, if a male were to change gender in such a way as to eliminate any accumulated advantage, he would have to begin hormone treatment before puberty. For me, that is unthinkable.”

 

This is objectively and manifestly untrue and anyone who set out to have an informed view would know better. People who transition in youth do not, and never have, start hormone replacement “before puberty.” Rather, as puberty begins the initiate a regime of hormone blocking medication until they are (typically) about 16 and THEN if they remain committed to their professed gender identity they begin cross-sex hormones. This has the effect of preventing all those testosterone-fueled advantages (from the critics point of view, curses would be a better word from the trans woman’s perspective) that are supposedly at issue here. This is an increasingly typical outcome for trans youth (albeit cost puts it out of reach for the majority, still) and in time as it becomes a more widely accepted course of treatment this “issue” will largely disappear on it’s own. But we still have to get from here to there. That aside, the point is that one is forced to question Navratilova’s other claims given that she muffed such an easy one on this point.

 

Before one gets to the specifics of her claims, it’s important to put this debate in the context of the broader culture. Beyond adding fuel to the TERF war against trans women in the UK (something not confined to that side of the Atlantic but seemingly finding more traction there) Navratilova’s rhetoric goes hand in hand with the worst transphobic rhetoric employed by the right wing Evangelical segment of the American political landscape - a group of people only too happy to explain to Martina exactly what’s wrong with her own lesbian identity when they are not busy using her words as a shield for their hatred of trans people. As a rule of thumb, if you are LGBT or an ally and you find your opinion winning praise from people like Tony Perkins and Matt Barber, you really need to rethink your opinion. They are not neutral observers, and they have no investment in facts or even logic.

 

For example, right-wing website WND published an uncredited article almost two years ago titled “Female Athletes Crushed by ‘Women Who Were Once Men’” - and then proceeded to list off 14 cases (all they could find?) of trans women competing against other women, not all of them American even. Among those they only mention two stories of such a competitor winning first place in direct competition. According to the anti-trans rhetoric Navratilova (and right wingers) embrace, one should conclude that virtually everywhere a trans woman competes, she will dominate - it’s right there in their misleading headline: “Crushes.” Except… they don’t. That’s where the narrative forwarded by transphobes falls apart, and why it’s stunning an otherwise intelligent person doesn’t immediately see the flaw in her reasoning. 

 

Here’s the bedrock quote upon which Martina built her op-ed:

 

“To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation 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. 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.””

 

Navratilova elsewhere seems to make a direct distinction between trans and transsexual (as she uses it, a post-operative person with a vagina, not a penis), which is an ill-informed distinction since the only relevance genitalia have to athletic competition is the presence of testosterone. A pre-operative woman under medically supervised HRT has approximately the same testosterone levels as a cis woman, and as a post-operative trans woman. It’s literally the goal of HRT. So if Martina isn’t REALLY concerned after all about the effects of years (theoretically) of testosterone before a trans woman undergoes GRS, then why, logically, should she be worried about years (theoretically) of such testosterone exposure on the part of a pre-operative woman on a hormone replacement regimen?

Let me illustrate. If a cis woman is about to compete in any sport against a trans woman, one of four possibilities exist:

1. The transwoman transitioned medically in youth and never experienced male puberty. Such a person cannot possibly have any “male typical” biological advantage from natural testosterone and is therefore outside the margins of this debate.

2. The trans woman at some point in adulthood, after at least several years of post-puberty testosterone exposure undergoes HRT and then GRS and has less than female typical (without a supplement) testosterone in her system and female-typical levels of estrogen.

3. Same as 2, except she hasn’t yet undergone GRS and thus has an irrelevant penis still present. 

4. Hasn’t undergone any HRT and simply (for the purposes of this discussion, I’m aware not all trans people are able to have HRT for various reasons) professes a female identity. These women are barred, as far as I know, by every professional competitive sports organization and thus are also irrelevant to Martina’s professed concerns. 

Now consider, why does she state that she has no objection to those in #2, but does to those in #3? In all the ways which are biologically relevant to athletic competition they are the same. If one’s real objection is to, for example, lung capacity, there’s no difference here. This illustrates that she has allowed her biases to cloud her reasoning, and that she doesn’t consider a pre-op trans woman a “real” woman in the same way she does a post-op trans woman. 

To be clear, their are real and complex scientific questions here. Particularly surrounding the level of testosterone remaining in one’s bloodstream, which is a valid discussion. In the case of pre-operative women who are on an HRT regimen, there is a potential for variance in the levels of testosterone found in the bloodstream (albeit, in any case much much lower than male-typical levels) and this is a valid subject for discussion and disagreement. Testosterone suppression discussions aside, the preponderance of the science suggest that the other claimed advantages are largely non-existent (for example, a year or two on HRT causes a dramatic reduction in male-typical muscle mass and bone density) though some marginal advantages (wingspan, stride length, etc) do not go away. Athletic competition organizations have not gone into this discussion ill-informed or blind and have consulted the best science and set up reasonable guard rails (such as a required minimum period of consistent HRT) in order to balance the concerns of everyone involved. 

But it’s also helpful to note that professional athletes are not sex-typical examples, they are peak performers. To say “the average woman x” and “the average man x+” is to ignore that we are not speaking of average people. The wing-span, for example, of an “average female” is not necessarily the measure you need to use to compare that of a trans woman. What is typical of the elite athlete she is competing against? Moreover, sometimes these factors balance out. A heavier skeleton can be a disadvantage in speed based competition that would tend to offset theoretical advantage created by stride length. In other words, complex and nuanced science, which was not what Navratilova offered. 

Martina’s mistake, the fundamental one which leads to the several others in her position, is to take as a given the lie that trans people have such vast socio-political influence that they can simply will such organizations to accommodate whatever we want despite objective science. To the contrary, typically you have to drown decision making bodies in objective evidence in order to even gain a hearing.

Finally, let’s refer back to the most obvious and basic flaws of her fundamental quote above. 

“To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female…”

Assuming she respects the legitimacy of trans people’s professed gender identities, which she has seemed to, this can only mean she has in mind a poser here - a male-identified male.

“...take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned… “

That would be all of them, and that alone would be a deal-breaker for any male-identified individual.

 “...win everything in sight…”

As noted, this essentially never happens. Whether poser or actual trans woman, one would be very hard pressed to find more than the occasional very rare exception. If a poser anticipated such an automatic dominance then the proof should be in the long long list of trans women crushing the cis competition - but that list doesn’t exist.  Indeed, it’s been 15 years since the IOC set standards which permit trans people to compete according to their identified gender and in that time not a single trans woman has even qualified to compete at the Olympics. Or consider that it’s been five full years since the state of California passed trans affirming statewide  policies for high school athletics and there’s no evidence at all from the accumulated results that trans girls are dominating girls sports in that state. A quick search turned up zero examples of such happening.

 “...and perhaps earn a small fortune…”

This is most bizarre of all. How many female athletes in the history of ever have “earned a small fortune”? When you balance the books between what they invested in competition and what the prizes they have won are, how many are even in the black? Perishingly few. Perhaps not even Navratilova herself can claim to have earned a small fortune. A man who went to this degree of deception anticipating a “small fortune” would indeed be in for a very rude awakening (to say nothing of the cost involved in accomplishing the supposed pretend transition - more on that below).

 “...and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires.”

If you were still uncertain how much scientific research she actually did, this should seal it for you. No one who goes on a couple of years of full bore HRT (at least one and often two before competition, and then the years spent competing - two years is the most conservative figure) is NOT going to be making any more babies. That ship well and truly sailed. 

 “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.””

If indeed such a strange and unrealistic fiction were to ever happen, it would indeed be cheating - but it doesn’t and in all practical reality CAN’T. For a summation, let’s go to Dr. Rachel McKinnnon (one of Navratilova’s most vocal critics) who’s also a competitive cyclist and one of the few examples of a trans woman having won a competition against cis women. Thus, she speaks from direct experience.For a cis male to defraud his way into competition against cis women...

In most countries, he'd have to: 

1. Find a psychologist/psychiatrist who will diagnose him with Gender Dysphoria (DSMV). ...good luck faking that. 

2. Find a physician even willing to treat a person with Gender Dysphoria. ...good luck with that: they're very hard to find, most physicians who will treat a trans person have YEARS long waiting lists. 

3. Take T-suppressing medications. It takes a few months to titrate up to the amounts that will suppress T below the 10nmol/L requirement.

4. Undergo LEGAL gender change. Change your driver's license, passport, bank information, insurance information, etc. This often requires you to come out at work as transgender. 

5. You have to be able to demonstrate that you are 'living' as the gender you say you are.

6. You have to be able to document ALL of this and provide it to the satisfaction of the sports organization you want to compete in. This often means another letter from your treating physician, putting their credentials on the line.

7. Then you have to SHOW UP and compete in the gender you say you are. If you're really faking all this, that will be hard and you will face overwhelming scrutiny.

8. You will quickly find that there's usually NO MONEY in women's sport, or at least vastly less than in men's. In track cycling, for example, I don't make ANY net money. At best I'll make a few hundred from a race, which doesn't even cover travel expenses.

9. Note that if you change your gender for the purposes of sport, you are BANNED from changing it again for FOUR YEARS. ...so you can't just 'switch back' and compete again as a man. You'd have to waste 4 years. 

This process (to get into competition) will take a MINIMUM of 2 years of full commitment to the fraud. And you can't show any signs that it's a fraud, or you'll be banned. Also, the psychologist is probably $150/hr+ and will want a minimum of 12 hours of time over 6 months to diagnose.

As Dr. McKinnnon asked, where’s the male athlete so committed to the fraud that he’ll invest THAT much effort to pull it off? It’s worth noting, however, that not every women’s competitive athlete agrees with the trans-exclusionary narrative. In January, USA Powerlifting caved to the narrative Navratilova is giving voice to and announced a full ban on participation by any trans athletes.  But at the Minnesota state championships last week members of one gym took the platform and silently protested by refusing to take their lifts, going 0-9 in the competition. They were not alone as an apparent total of 14 lifters shared in the protest. 

As for baseball, the sport is only just beginning to reckon with the overdue concept of women playing baseball at all (as opposed to being shunted into softball as a matter of course) and like other sports is still struggling to deal with LGBT athletes who are out and living their lives authentically. As you might expect, that means this issue is not exactly on the front burner at any level of professional or amatuer baseball. Indeed, in connection with this article I googled “transgender+baseball player” and turned up only one example of an article about a trans girl playing on the girls baseball team, and that was from 2014 just after California’s trans-inclusive law took effect. Still, in a sense one might suppose that baseball as a sport has an opportunity to take the lead in this area of acceptance. In a period of gender-related assumptions being retired across the sport, what better moment to be assertive and not reactionary when it comes to inclusiveness? But as in all these moments, the forces of resistance are considerable. The ill-informed and often bigoted narrative is nevertheless all too often the prevailing “wisdom” among decision makers.

Martina, after all,  got baited into fear based in a myth perpetrated by people with a hostile agenda. Consider that if a person of such a high profile, with such a lifelong involvement in advocacy for LGBT equality, who’s had a decades long close friendship with a trans woman (Renee Richards) who served as her coach, who should have every motivation to get this right and got a second chance to sort it out - if EVEN SHE bungled it due to bias and lies, imagine how hard it must be for your local high school athletic association to sort fact from fiction and come to a well informed decision. It’s for those people that we’re asking Navratilova to get it right - not just because it’s better to be right than wrong, but because a world of less connected people making important decisions will take their cues from people like her and a whole lot of “ordinary” trans folks who just want to lead “ordinary” lives like their cis peers struggle every day to overcome widespread ignorance. They can’t afford to have her platforming it. 

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Tammy Rainey is a long-time baseball blogger, most recently for BPToronto as well as a prolific blogger on transgender related news and issue who’s work can currently be found at Medium. Follow her on Twitter @tammy_beth

 

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