Growing up, I was a lost queer kid whose only escape was sports. And starting girls’ soccer at 5 years old became the sole way for me to connect with my body when I was otherwise traumatized by living in it.
At the time, athletes like tennis star Martina Navratilova inspired me to keep going when I had no ability to imagine a future for myself. She was a hero to me — a fierce athlete, a queer person, and a fighter. But now she is breaking my heart.
Navratilova recently penned a piece in The Sunday Times arguing that women who are trans should not compete in women’s sports. The piece was a follow-up to a series of tweets from December in which she wrote, “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.”
Understandably, the trans community was hurt by her remarks then — and especially now as she digs into her anti-trans ideology. She continues to use the most hurtful and dismissive language to reinforce the idea that a woman who is trans is not a “real woman” and is a threat to others.
You can’t just “proclaim yourself a female,” she writes, as if trans people just wake up one day and announce a gender as a ploy to hurt cis women. And it seems as if she doesn’t even understand how painful it is to be told time and time again that you do not know yourself; that who you are is not real.
By calling trans women men, Navratilova is telling trans people, “You are putting on a gender that is not real and I know the real you.” And instead of seeing us, she takes our real pain experienced through erasure and places them on cisgender people like her.
The major fallacy in Navratilova’s thinking is trans existence in sports in some way hurts cis woman athletes — just as it was the cis girls in the North Carolina restrooms before just recently. She is trotting out the old axiom that equality and justice for marginalized people harm those with more power.
Armed with an alluring discourse of “biological truths” and “competitive advantage,” Navratilova has made it clear that she is leading a fight to push trans people out of public life under the guise of women’s rights. She is not appreciating the power of her platform nor is she examining the myths, stereotypes, and fear fueling her rhetoric.
The truth is that trans women are not threatening women’s sports — and trans women are not trans so that they can trick others, dominate sports, or scare people in restrooms. Because our transness is not about anyone else and it is certainly not fraudulent.
The idea that our bodies invade the privacy or integrity or identity of others is deeply painful and wrong. One person’s womanhood does not take away from another’s simply because it looks different. And no matter how many times we invoke biology or science that fact remains true.
Indeed, there is not a coherent and binary thing that is “biological sex”; our bodies do not break down neatly into a male/female binary. The line-drawing that Navratilova and others want to get into about who is “woman enough” is a dangerous one with a long legacy of exclusion — of Black women, of other women of color, of queer women, of trans women.
And this is why Navratilova’s words are so appealing to those invested in such exclusion.
In the weeks since Navratilova wrote her piece, her words have been invoked by lawmakers in South Dakota and Montana to defend anti-LGBTQ legislation and by groups arguing that LGBTQ inclusion in federal nondiscrimination laws hurts (cis) women.
She is animating new attacks on LGBTQ people by positing a victim of trans existence. And then when trans people call out in pain over the dismissal of who we are, we are cast as bullies tearing down an LGB hero. But naming the forces that keep you down is not bullying, it is resistance and a fight for survival. Even if it involves our heroes.
A sad truth hidden within this entire situation is that people like Navratilova are hurting trans people in the name of women’s equality, while immediately becoming the poster child for anti-equality forces. Because the more she digs in, the more work she does for those fighting to discriminate against all LGBTQ people.
As a kid, I looked to Navratilova to find a path for survival. But now young trans kids will look to her and hear a familiar refrain about how they aren’t real, they don’t belong, and shouldn’t get to participate in school, in sports, and in public life.
And while I will spend the rest of my life fighting to make sure those kids know that she is wrong and that they are beautiful, deserving, and lovable just as they are, Navratilova still maintains a powerful voice — and her words are giving too much fuel to a movement that would inevitably eradicate us both.
CHASE STRANGIO is a trans activist and lawyer in New York. Follow him on Twitter @ChaseStrangio.