The Real Problem with Martina Navratilova’s ‘Transphobic’ Tweet

Her critics are missing the point, too.

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Martina Navratilova at the 2013 U.S. Open Champions Invitational (Photo: Wikipedie/Creative Commons)

Kevin Hart can relax. A new celebrity has been shoved in front of the firing squad over comments that some perceived as being anti-LGBTQ. And this time, the community is going after one of its own.

It all began (where else?) on Twitter with a simple question. Someone asked Martina Navratilova for her opinion about transgender women participating in female sports competitions, and the tennis legend, who identifies as a lesbian, responded with gusto.

Clearly that can’t be right, Navratilova wrote in the since-deleted tweet. 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.

For me it’s all about fairness, she continued. Which means taking every case individually… there is no cookie cutter way of doing things.

Dr. Rachel McKinnon, for one, wasn’t having it. The transgender activist, who won a women’s cycling competition at the UCI Masters Track World Championship earlier this year, lashed out at Navratilova and demanded an apology.

Genitals do not play sports, she tweeted in response. What part of a penis is related to tennis? How does that “level” any playing field?

For me, the issue is much bigger than a penis. What exactly makes a woman a woman? Is it the lack of a penis? The presence of a vagina? Is being a woman about anatomy? Is it about physiology? Biology? Is it a state of mind? If someone is a female trapped in a male body, does she not become an actual female until she undergoes complete gender reassignment?

Can we consider Caitlyn Jenner a woman in all aspects but sports because she still has a penis? If it were 1976, and she were competing in the decathlon event at the Olympics, the one for which Bruce Jenner won his gold medal, would anyone born female stand a chance against her? Maybe. Maybe not.

McKinnon has a point. Obviously, tennis is not about a penis. Navratilova had a point, too, though she did it no favors by diminishing being trans to “proclaim[ing] that you’re female.” Like tennis, gender isn’t just about one body part. The debate brings up some tricky questions about how we view gender and how we should apply it to all aspects of life, including sports.

If we’re going to accept that gender isn’t binary, and that “gender fluid” is more than just a fad, then where do those who fall closer to the center of the spectrum fit in on the sports field? On what team should they compete? We’ve spent years rethinking gender, and now perhaps it’s time to rethink categorization by gender, too.

The Grammys did away with its gender-specific categories in 2012, and perhaps it’s time for sports to take a cue. Maybe athletic organizations should start phasing out gender-specific competitions as well. Of course, if the NFL is going to make a big stink about Colin Kaepernick’s knee, I don’t want to think about how it would react to a player’s vagina.

We can’t preach gender equality without applying it to all aspects of life, not just the workplace and the Grammys. It’s no longer considered PC to call female actors “actresses,” so why do we still have “actress” categories for movie, TV, and stage awards? Even the Screen Actors Guild, for all the PC-ness of its “Female Actor” distinction, still clings to increasingly outdated “male” and “female” competitions.

Billie Jean King proved in 1973 that women can beat the guys on the tennis court. Although the 26-year age difference between her and Bobby Riggs may have played a role in the outcome, she set an impressive and important precedent. Yet, 25 years later, tennis remains divided.

The argument shouldn’t be about where trans tennis players fit in or whether Navratilova is transphobic. It should be about how we continue to level the playing field by taking gender equality from the board room to, well, the playing field.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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