At the end of her autobiography, all-time tennis great Martina Navratilova wrote, “I didn’t know how I was going to make the world better, but I knew I was going to try.”
Ever since she established the Martina Youth Foundation in 1983 to provide disadvantaged children with greater opportunities, Navratilova has championed a wide variety of causes. She cares deeply about women’s, animal, and environmental issues. In addition, she’s been a longtime member of the Sierra Club and PETA and has given money to Greenpeace. Navratilova and actress Doris Day produced ads denouncing steel-jaw animal traps. She’s also served on Planned Parenthood’s board of directors.
As one of the world’s most famous gay athletes, Navratilova made the most impact on this front when she gave a moving speech before 500,000 people at the 1993 Gay and Lesbian March in Washington, D.C. In recognition of her advocacy, Navratilova received the 2000 National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay and lesbian activist-lobbying group. In 2014, Athlete Ally, an organization that campaigns for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender people (LGBT), honored her with an Action Award.
With all these bona-fides, what’s not to like about this longtime benefactor and dedicated advocate for worthy causes?
Plenty, in the eyes of the transgender community. Last December Navratilova tweeted, “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.”
Then, in a Feb. 17 column in The Sunday Times (UK), the outspoken Navratilova further infuriated trans people when she wrote: “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.”
Rachel McKinnon, the first transgender woman to win a world track cycling title, fired back, tweeting, “It’s a wild fantasy worry that is an irrational fear of something that doesn’t happen. An irrational fear of trans people? Transphobia.”
Athlete Ally quickly dropped the 62-year-old Navratilova as an ambassador for its LGBTQ athletic advocacy group. It called her comments “transphobic, based on a false understanding of science and data, and perpetuate dangerous myths that lead to the ongoing targeting of trans people through discriminatory laws, hateful stereotypes and disproportionate violence.”
Navratilova apologized on her website to those who found her comments objectionable, though she didn’t yield much ground. “I know that my use of the word ‘cheat’ caused particular offense among the transgender community,” she wrote. “I’m sorry for that because I certainly was not suggesting that transgender athletes in general are cheats. I attached the label to a notional case in which someone cynically changes gender, perhaps temporarily, to gain a competitive advantage. We should not be blind to the possibility, and some of these rules are making that possible and legal.”
But what are the odds a man would actually change his gender solely to dominate women in sports?
The first prominent transsexual athlete answered this intriguing question in her 1983 autobiography, Second Serve: The Renee Richards Story. The former Richard Henry Raskind, an eminent ophthalmological surgeon, chronicled his conflicted former secret life—she confided he had lived with another person, a girl, in his body.
Raskind became an excellent sectional amateur tennis player, served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and underwent sex-change surgery. A controversial U.S. Federal court decision in 1977 allowed Renee Richards, who was advised by notorious lawyer-fixer Roy Cohn, to compete at U.S. tournaments.
Even though Richards was an aging 41, some players, like 5'2" Rosie Casals, vociferously protested her playing against women, and a few even defaulted rather than face her. “I looked so damn fearsome at six-feet-one-inch,” Richards recalled. On her so-called “muscle power,” Richards explained, “A man’s muscle mass is sustained by his male hormone, testosterone. Once this is taken away, the muscles change in character…. The muscle mass on my body was entirely appropriate for a woman my size, especially a woman athlete.”
Far from dominating, Richards reached a career-high of only No. 20 in singles in her short pro career—though in doubles she reached the 1977 US Open final with Betty Ann Stuart. (In an interesting twist of fate, Richards coached Navratilova when the muscular Czech-American won the 1982 Wimbledon.)
Richards also rejected what she called the “floodgate theory,” which many officials then subscribed to. “If I was allowed to play,” she wrote, “then the floodgates would be opened and through them would come tumbling an endless stream of made-over Neanderthals who would brutalize Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong. Of course, this was sheer nonsense.”
But would someone not quite good enough in men’s tennis decide to change gender for the money?
“Even if we forget about the arguments concerning loss of strength, this fear is also pretty much groundless,” asserted Richards. “How hungry for tennis success must you be to have your penis chopped off in pursuit of it? How many men would do it for a million dollars? If you could find one, would such a neurotic be likely to have the concentration to play top-flight tennis, even if he didn’t go completely crazy once he’d realized what he’d done.”
More than 40 years after the Richards saga, not a single transsexual player has joined the pro tour.
But what about an intersex player?
In 2009, Sarah Gronert, a 22-year-old German born with both male and female characteristics, was approved by both the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to compete on their tours. When she was 19, the comely blonde hermaphrodite underwent surgery to remove her male genitalia. After that, she was legally a woman.
After Gronert won a “minor league” ITF event in Israel in March 2009, Schlomo Tzoref, the coach of a player beaten by Gronert there, told the New York Daily News, “There is no girl who can hit serves like that, not even Venus Williams. This is not a woman, it’s a man.”
When Richards was asked about the Gronert case by Advocate.com in April 2009, she repudiated the views she had expressed in her autobiography. Richards also said the judge in her 1976 legal case rightly stated that future cases should be treated on an individual basis and that her case should not be viewed as setting a precedent.
“He did this mainly because of my age—41—knowing that I was not going to take all the prize money away from Chrissie, Tracy, Martina,” Richards wrote in an email. “Since that time, whenever I have been consulted, I always hark back to his decision, and then warn that someday a good player, 22 years old, would come along and dominate the game. Has that happened now? I have warned about this for years.”
Once again, the hysteria and fears far exceeded the reality. No world-beater, Gronert never qualified for the main draw at a Grand Slam event, peaked at No. 164, and earned just $96,258 prize money.
In another controversial case mixing science, sports, and gender politics, two-time Olympic 800-meter champion Caster Semenya hopes to overturn the eligibility rules for hyper-androgenic athletes proposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Though born a girl, the South African has masculine characteristics in her physical appearance and has a deeper voice, which caused some people to question her gender.
The IAAF, track and field’s governing body, wants to require women with naturally elevated testosterone to lower their levels with medication before being allowed to compete in world-class races from 400 meters to one mile. Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, who finished behind Semenya in the 800-meter event at the Rio Olympics, also elicited suspicions about their testosterone levels.
Navratilova, in her Sunday Times column, supported Semenya, writing, “Can it be right to order athletes to take medication? What if the long-term effects proved harmful?”
An appeal case that started Feb. 18 was heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The verdict is expected in late March. Norton Rose Fulbright, Semenya’s Johannesburg lawyer, said in a statement: “She asks that she be respected and treated as any other athlete: Her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against.”
United Nations human rights experts championed Semenya’s case. Last year they presented their case in a 4,584-word letter to IAAF president Sebastian Coe (https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Health/Letter_IAAF_Sept2018.pdf).
Athlete Ally and Women’s Sports Foundation also strongly supported Semenya. More than 60 well-known athletes, including tennis legend and WSF founder Billie Jean King, signed an open letter from these two organizations calling on the IAAF to rescind a discriminatory regulation that would force women to alter their bodies in order to compete in a sport they’ve dedicated their lives to.
The letter argued that discrimination against Semenya undermines the spirit of sport, and violates the 4th fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter, to which the IAAF adheres:
“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
The most persuasive passage in the letter denounced “the recently announced regulations that discriminate against female athletes with naturally elevated testosterone that would require them to undergo medically unnecessary interventions to lower their testosterone levels as a precondition of participation in sport.”
It rightly argued, “No woman should be required to change her body to compete in women’s sport.”
Whatever ethical and legal positions one takes on these controversial cases, I find it impossible to refute that.
Paul Fein has received more than 40 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England. His websites are www.tennisconfidential.com and www.tennisquotes.com. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.