On With Kara Swisher: Navratilova on Trans Women in Sports - New York Magazine

On With Kara Swisher: Navratilova on Trans Women in Sports - New York Magazine
By: Sports Posted On: November 30, 2023 View: 479

On With Kara Swisher: Navratilova on Trans Women in Sports - New York Magazine

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, considered perhaps the greatest women’s player ever, is nothing if not outspoken. On her prolific Twitter account, she frequently weighs in on politics and current events, almost always representing a liberal point of view. But on one issue — trans women in sports — she has drawn loud blowback from allies. On the most recent On With Kara Swisher, Navratilova, who also discussed her recent health concerns and much more, spoke with Swisher about why she’s been so firm in her stance that sports should be segregated by biological sex.

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kara Swisher: I want to pivot to transgender issues, where you also have been very outspoken. I have to say, after I complimented you on that Chris Evert thing, I’ve never gotten more letters, decrying that I complimented you and that I admired you.

I’d love you to explain your perspective on trans rights. You’ve called to bar transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports. I was surprised and, and I’ll be honest with you, confused. And I don’t quite understand your perspective, because you’ve been ahead of the curve on gender equity, so I’d love you to explain your perspective here because there are very upset people, disappointed by you because you’ve been so behind inclusion.

Martina Navratilova: So I came to this about four or five years ago. I made some comments about male athletes in women’s sports. I’m like, “That can’t be right.” Because of course I come from way back in the ’70s when Renée Richards was the first transsexual to sue for the right to compete in women’s tennis, and she won.

And in fact, I played doubles with her. I played singles against her. And then she ended up being my coach, and a friend. And we’re still friends, and she is on the same side with me on this, in that she now says, I don’t think I should have been allowed to compete, because the advantage is too big.
The only reason Renée didn’t win back then was because she was in her 40s and out of shape. Had she been in her 20s and in shape, she would have wiped the floor with us.

Kara Swisher: Let me just quote — you wrote about Renée Richards in an op-ed, which I’ll talk about later. “I supported Renée Richards when she wanted to play on the women’s tour in the ’70s because I thought she was a one off. I would not have supported her if she had dominated the tour.”

Martina Navratilova: Yeah, well, I think it would have been hard to support somebody who wasn’t even top 100 in the men, and then comes on the women’s tour and starts winning, which shows that it’s not fair for male bodies to compete against women. And I’m all for trans rights on a civil level, 100 percent, every which way.

This is not against trans athletes. This is against male bodies competing as women, if they identify as women. Many sports don’t even have any mitigation, any allowance for lowering the testosterone level, et cetera. But what has been proven, even when you do take those testosterone blockers or hormone therapy, even after 15 years, male bodies still retain physical advantage over women athletes.

So we are not against trans athletes. We are for women athletes to compete in as level a playing field as possible. Which means the males, who now identify as women, should compete in a male category. And women who identify as men but don’t take testosterone can compete as women. Because there is still no advantage physically over other women athletes. That’s all that’s about.

Swisher: You did beat Renée Richards. You won your last Grand Slam just shy of 50. But it kind of feels like you’re saying, “I’m fine with transgender women playing as long as they aren’t real competition, as long as they lose, or as long as there’s not too many.”

Navratilova: No, there are too many winning across the level, across sports, and they should not be competing at all. Whether they win or lose, doesn’t matter. They can certainly compete, but in the male category, not the female category. It’s simply not fair. They’re taller, and their bone density, their lung capacity, their skeletal structure, even their airways are larger than women. The advantages are numerous.

Swisher: I get that. I’m gonna push you on the scale thing. Is it really a crisis? I will get to Republicans in a second because they’re using it as a cudgel against trans people.

Navratilova: Of course they are.

Swisher: But is it a scale problem? Is it a true scale problem?

Navratilova: Absolutely. It’s just a matter of time. It is getting more and more, because right now, anybody that wants to identify as a woman can compete in women’s sports in many different fields, many different sports. Just this year, like 90 different athletes took away podium places at the top. These are winners, not just on the podium. These are people that won competitions in many different national levels, as well as local events, that took away spots from women athletes.

And women, what they’re doing now — they’re self-excluding. They’re either not competing or they’re just walking away from that particular competition or they quit the sport altogether. I don’t see how that’s fair.

Swisher: When you got to this point, as someone who’s obviously faced a lot of bigotry and sexism and speculation — I do remember when I was watching you, it killed me when one of my relatives said, “Look at that ‘dude’ playing. It’s not fair for Chrissy Evert to play her.”

And I had to be quiet. I remember being devastated when they talked about you like that. Do you feel empathy for the broader cause? You understand how this moves you into a very controversial space.

Navratilova: So let me go back to where I was, I became a part of this Women’s Sports Policy Working Group. If you go on our website, you see where we stand. We’re trying to figure out a way to include trans women, males that identify as women, in women’s sports. Can the advantage be mitigated so they can compete? Can we do some kind of a handicapping system? Or take hormones for as long as the testosterone is there? And we found that it’s literally impossible to do it. In some sports, physical strength doesn’t matter. But in most sports, there’s a big advantage.

And it’s just not possible to get there. So we came to the conclusion that either you have to have three categories, for nonbinary, male, or you have an open category for everybody, or just females. That’s the only way to go forward that’s fair.

Swisher: You see there’s no solution that’s fair. It’s a word you use a lot.

Navratilova: You cannot make it fair. Male bodies, once they go through puberty, are five inches taller on average. You just can’t take that away. And if you put your arm up, that’s about seven inches, reach advantage. It’s just not possible to level the playing field. And people say, well, nobody has a level playing field. They use Michael Phelps’s body, and it’s an exceptional body. But if you leave it as is and leave it open, eventually there will be no female bodies on the podium. It’s heading that way.

Swisher: Speaking of Michael Phelps, this is something that was brought up — I just interviewed Caster Semenya, and I want to ask about the South African Olympic runner, who we had on the podcast recently. In 2019, after a governed body required her to take hormone therapy and focused on certain distances, you wrote about Caster in a Sunday Times op-ed saying, “Leaving out sprints and longer distance seems to me a clear case of discrimination by targeting” Semenya. And can it be right to order athletes to take medication? What if the long-term effects proved harmful? Semenya’s case will come up tomorrow in the court of arbitration for sport. I hope she wins. But in a tweet just a few weeks ago, this was a years ago, you, you called her disingenuous. You commented, “She knows she has a male body. She knows her testosterone makes a difference.” Explain the shift here. And this is a more difficult case because she’s not trans. This is how she was born.

Navratilova: Well, she is a physical male without descended testicles and I did not know enough about her physical insides when I wrote that piece years ago. I thought this was a one-off. It’s unfair for us to say you have to take drugs, but also you are a biological male. So regardless of how she was brought up or what she believes, what she identifies as, what she feels like, the facts are, she’s got an XY chromosome. She’s, what is it, sexual dimorphism. She’s a biological male.

Swisher: Well, she’s not. She isn’t a biological male, but go ahead.

Navratilova: Well, she’s not a female.

Swisher: She identifies as female.

Navratilova: But people with DSD are different from trans people, obviously. And at the Rio Olympics, the 800 meters, all three winners on the podium were DSD athletes. As exceptional as that physiological situation is, the trans thing is much more numerous.

Swisher: So when you think about that, one of the points that Caster is making is that maybe Michael Phelps has unusual biology, like longer arms, less lactic acid, et cetera. You certainly would have not wanted to be tested for your testosterone levels or anything else — and I know people ask you about that on Twitter.

Navratilova: What, me? My testosterone was just fine.

Swisher: I get it, but that’s quite a slippery slope. In Caster’s case, it is biological, but it makes it very difficult, let’s just say.

Navratilova: She’s got testosterone available to her because she’s got a male body on the inside. Maybe not on the outside, but on the inside. It is a male body. And she’s got testosterone available that women do not have. There is no overlap in testosterone between female and male bodies.

Females finish at about — the highest one is about 2.5 nanomoles per liter, whereas men start at like 15-plus. So the advantage is massive. But if a female shows up with that much testosterone, they’re disqualified because clearly they’re taking drugs.

Swisher: So when you think about that, though, how do you create policies around it? Because as you said, there’s no answer. You were on this policy board. Policing it seems to be a little crazy — OB/GYN exams for women athletes …

Navratilova: No, no, no, no, OB/GYN exams aren’t necessary, just a cheek swab. We used to do that in the ’80s.

Swisher: Say, for the USTA junior team?

Navratilova: Yeah, you do that once. You do this cheek swab once in your lifetime, if there’s any question about your sex. You do that cheek swab and it stays. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t ever change. That’s the point. So right away you know whether you can compete or not.

Swisher: Does that create too much of a policing state, especially because this is not around men, this is around women?

Navratilova: There’s no policing. If there’s a doubt — again, the cheek swab is done once and you’re done and then as an athlete, when you’re competing at the higher level, you get drug-tested and the testosterone level would show up. If it’s off the charts, it would show up right away. And then there would be questions: This is five times more, ten times more. Why is that? And then, so you would be found out right away, which is how it happened with Caster, I believe.

Swisher: How do you then put this into practice? I’d love to understand how you create a system. You were talking about an open group versus a men’s area or a women’s area. How do you have people with differences like Caster compete in elite sports?

Navratilova: They would need to compete in the male category, or, if you have a third category — I think some races have the nonbinary category. And it’s mostly male bodies that collect those prizes, but not too many sign up for that. Again, not too many female bodies would be at the podium in the third category, which is why it seems the fairest way is females and everybody else. However, if you want to not identify as a female or you want to identify as a female, but you’re actually a male body, you need to compete in the proper biological category. Sports has always been divided by biological sex, and it’s the only way forward. There’s no doubt in my mind on that front.

Swisher: How would that be financed? I’d love to get it on the technical ideas, because this is obviously controversial. How does that get financed and looked at in sports?

Navratilova: If they want to do a third category, you get a sponsor for that third category. That’s how that would work. But, again, technically, you would be giving more money to non-female bodies, because it wouldn’t be a 50-50 proposition, because there would be more male bodies that are winning in the third category. But I don’t have the solution. I’m saying these are the possibilities. But basically, keeping male bodies out of female sports is the idea. Because then it’s definitely not a level playing field.

Swisher: So let me ask you, do you have worries about what this does to trans people? I know this sounds like a crazy hypothetical, but you put in enormous amounts of hard work, all the exercise, the hours hitting balls all the time. If they had tried to seclude you for being gay — do you see it as the same thing?

Navratilova: No, of course not. Being gay doesn’t give me an advantage on the tennis court. There’s no advantage. I’m a biological female. Let me tell you something, I lost many matches because I got my period. And I got it every single month, every 28 days. There I go. For one or two days, I was absolutely out of it. And at one point I was trying to take a birth-control pill so I would know when my period would come, so that it wouldn’t get in the way of playing Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. But then it made me sick to my stomach, so I stopped. That lasted about a month and I had to stop.
So I had no advantage. Being gay doesn’t give you an advantage in sports. Being gay doesn’t hit the tennis ball. But being male hits the tennis ball.

Swisher: But you understand where it leads to, the dangers for trans people.

Navratilova: But what dangers are there if they compete in the proper biological sex? They can still compete.

Swisher: This is a group of people, as you well know, that has higher levels of depression, suicide, targeting, exclusion. Republicans and Donald Trump have used trans sports as a wedge issue. I’m just curious if it was problematic for you to enter the picture here, or do you feel like it’s separate from what the Republicans are doing across the country, which is targeting trans people? I think we agree on that.

Navratilova: I agree 100 percent. Republicans are anti-trans. We are pro-women. There is a big difference. And Republicans are just using it as an excuse. And they say, “Oh look, we’re protecting women.” No, you’re not protecting women. You don’t give a damn about women. Look at Roe v. Wade. So don’t talk to me about women’s rights because you don’t care about that. You’re just against trans people because you don’t like them. And so there is a massive difference in that. And, and again, on a civil level, trans people have to have all rights. You cannot be fired because you’re trans, just like you shouldn’t be able to be fired because you’re gay. Either you do the job or you don’t. But when it comes to sports and women’s sex-based spaces, it needs to be segregated by sex.

Swisher: So when you went into this, did you realize how much controversy it would cause for you? Obviously, you saw what happened to J.K. Rowling, although it wasn’t sports for her. It was other things.

Navratilova: I did not know, but you know, there’s trans people that are being called transphobic. Or “Oh, they have self-hatred,” or “They’re too old to know better.” Which is kind of ironic. Somebody like Renée Richards, who’s as a woman for years now, and they’re saying that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Buck Angel, a woman who identified as a man, he’s got big muscles, tattoos, and he says trans males should not be allowed in women’s sports and he gets called transphobic. So anybody that’s against trans people in sports is apparently transphobic and a bigot. I’ve been called all kinds of horrible names. But clearly that’s not the issue. We are pro-trans, but we’re also pro-women and you can be both. You can be both.

Swisher: Let me ask you then, when you published this op-ed about transgender athletes, you did it in a publication called Genspect, which defines itself as gender-critical and advocates for laws to prohibit transgender kids from hormone treatment, which are conservative policies. You are not for treatment for transgender kids with the cooperation of parents and doctors? I’m not clear, because this publication …

Navratilova: As long as parents are in on it, that’s a family issue. I would not tell them one way or the other. I know I would try to talk my kids out of it until they’re adults before they can figure it out for sure. But it’s absolutely between the parents and the doctors and the kids. I would not step on that at all. And, and, by the way, it was published in Genspect because the New York Times and Washington Post said no.

Swisher: They said no to you.

Navratilova: They said it’s too similar to what I wrote before, or this is not the time to write that, so that’s why it ended up in Genspect. It was not written with the idea to give it to Genspect first. More liberal publications don’t want to touch it. They don’t want to go there.

Swisher: That not because it was too similar, but because it was too unpopular, in other words.

Navratilova: I don’t know. I don’t know. They just gave me different reasons, but the bottom line was they did not publish. So that’s why.

Swisher: The last question on this. When you are thinking about this — because one of the things you are very clearly is political on Twitter, especially anti–Donald Trump, anti-GOP, I would say. Is it strange to you to be in the same political space as this group, which is obviously using it for cynical purposes? Does that worry you?

Navratilova: You know, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But again, the reason why we agree are two completely different reasons. So I don’t know what to say other than I am a bleeding-heart liberal. I admire people that go against the grain. But my North Star is fairness, and male bodies in women’s sports are not fair, and that’s my North Star. And I cannot budge from that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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