How “Cancel Culture” Repeatedly Emerged in My Attempt to Make a Film About Tennis Legend Martina Navratilova
SEXUALITIES, 20 Jul 2020
14 Jul 2020 – Growing up as a gay child in South Florida in the late 1970s and into the dark 1980s era of Reagan and AIDS, my childhood hero was the tennis star Martina Navratilova. In 1975, at the age of 18, Navratilova fled Communist Czechoslovakia, leaving her entire family behind in a daring escape, to emigrate to the U.S. In the 1980s, she became one of the only openly gay celebrities in the world, an LGBT and feminist pioneer, and an outspoken political dissident.I had other childhood heroes: the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg; the Jewish ACLU lawyers who endured endless attacks to defend the First Amendment free speech rights of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois, a town with numerous Holocaust survivors; and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose iconography was seared into my brain by my fixation with “All the President’s Men,” the book and subsequent film that chronicled their journalistic investigation of Watergate.
But Navratilova occupied a singular pedestal for me. She became one of the world’s most extraordinary and famous sports stars: Sports Illustrated ranked her as 19 on its list of the 20th Century’s Greatest Athletes, the second-highest woman behind Babe Zaharias, one spot behind Bill Russell, and one ahead of Ty Cobb. She won the Wimbledon singles crown nine times (Serena Williams has won seven), with her last Grand Slam title earned one month shy of her 50th birthday, when she became the 2006 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles champion. That was her 59th Grand Slam title, the most ever in tennis history by any player.
Her rivalry with U.S. tennis star Chris Evert in the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s was one of the greatest sports rivalries of the last century, if not the single greatest. They played 80 times (with Navratilova winning 43), including 14 times in Grand Slam finals (where Navratilova won 10). Their matches — a dramatic clash in personalities, cultures, branding, and playing styles — were watched by millions of people around the world on NBC, CBS, the BBC, and other global corporate networks.
Though I obsessively watched Navratilova’s matches and lived and died with every point, her sports prowess was perhaps the least significant factor for her importance to my adolescence. Everything about Navratilova was defiant, individualistic, brave, trailblazing, and orthodoxy-busting: in retrospect, she was a classic existential hero, someone who refused to have her life constrained or identity suppressed by societal dictates.
Not only was she openly gay at a time when very few were, but she traveled the world with her then-wife Judy Nelson, sitting her prominently in her player’s box and forcing male sports network announcers to awkwardly struggle for a vocabulary to describe their relationship when the camera panned to her group of supporters (they usually settled on “Martina’s special friend” or “long-time companion”).
In 1981, Navratilova hired as her coach a transgender woman Dr. Renée Richards — a former Navy pilot, eye surgeon, and captain of the Yale tennis team — who had, in the 1970s, successfully sued the Woman’s Tennis Association for the right to complete in professional women’s tournaments. Decades before the world would celebrate or even know about Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Chaz Bono, there, alongside Navratilova’s wife at the planet’s most lucrative corporate televised sporting events was, thanks to Navratilova, one of the only visible trans women in the world. Richards coached Navratilova to two Wimbledon championships.
All of this cost Navratilova millions of dollars in commercial endorsements, as her rival, the heterosexual, all-American girl-next-door Chris Evert became America’s sweetheart and the lucrative face of corporate America. While already at the top of the game, Navratilova made herself even less corporate-friendly by transforming her body into a towering mass of muscles and agility using an intensive training regimen that caused male sportswriters and tennis fans to routinely claim that she was not a “real woman” and to insist that it was unfair that “Chrissie” should have to compete against someone so muscular and powerful. That embittered attitude hardened as Navratilova’s body transformation produced greater and greater dominance: from 1982 until 1984, she defeated the once-supreme Evert 12 consecutive times.
But Navratilova, for all the booing and jeers and journalistic insults she endured, never flinched from her pioneering role on behalf of female athletes, gay equality, and trans visibility. Along with Billie Jean King, she led the way in building a space for women to commercially succeed on equal terms with men in the world of professional sports. She transformed the conception of what female athletes are capable of achieving: Her training regimen and body transformation to this day inspire how female athletes train.
And added onto all of that social and cultural dissidence was her political outspokenness. Despite being told that her status as an immigrant to the U.S. should make her less willing to criticize the U.S. government — after all, look at what this country gave you, so this rationale went and still goes — Navratilova viewed it the opposite way: She believed that she had come to the U.S. precisely to escape repression and obtain liberation, so she refused to be told that she had to suppress her opinions.
Reflecting how she lived her whole life, she was one of the first prominent people to denounce the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks for exploiting the terror threats to erode civil liberties, causing intense controversy. As a result, she was told by CNN’s then-anchor Connie Chung on national television — in an interview I wrote about in 2012 — that she should either keep her mouth shut or go back to Czechoslovakia: “I can tell you that when I read this, I have to tell you that I thought it was un-American, unpatriotic. I wanted to say, go back to Czechoslovakia. You know, if you don’t like it here, this a country that gave you so much, gave you the freedom to do what you want,” Chung said.
As a preadolescent child and then a teenager who implicitly knew — without understanding why — that society had somehow formed a moral judgment that, by virtue of being gay, I was bad and broken, I instinctively identified with Navratilova. Memories are still vivid of my father, a Chris Evert fan like most of the men of his generation, routinely making derogatory comments about Navratilova and her player’s box, not out of malice, but just channeling the prevailing mores of that era. The scorn he expressed toward her drove me further to secretly adore a woman whose identity and choices were so anathema to what societal constraints demanded of her.
Once deep into adulthood, I did not think much about Navratilova. But after the Snowden reporting in 2013 elevated my platform as a journalist, she began talking to me on Twitter. (The first tweet she ever sent me was the only time I can ever remember being starstruck in my life, including when I developed a friendship with Ellsberg; after the first time it happened, I called my best friend from childhood with the kind of giddy glee typical of a young teenager who meets their favorite pop idol.) We then began following each other and occasionally speaking via direct message.
My reaction led me to revisit the question of why Navratilova was so influential, such a looming role model for me, through childhood and into my adolescence and even early adulthood. I realized that it went far beyond the mere fact that she was one of the few openly gay celebrities at the time. That my childhood hero was so unlikely — a lesbian athlete who grew up behind “the Iron Curtain” — led me to think about how we choose our role models, the ability of humans to influence one another across demographic and cultural boundaries, and the power of individuals to transcend societal constraints through some inscrutable force of will and inherent quest for personal freedom.
In 2017, I decided to make a feature-length documentary not only about Navratilova’s life, but also her role in my life, devoted to exploring all of these questions. We quickly found a partner in Reese Witherspoon, who had shortly before created a new production company called Hello Sunshine devoted to telling stories of “strong, complicated women,” and we then announced the project.
Two years later, despite the backing of a highly influential Hollywood figure and readily available financing, filming has not begun, and it may never begin. There are many reasons why: My life was unexpectedly consumed most of last year by extremely contentious reporting in Brazil on the massive secret archive provided by a source and the extensive fallout from it, including the Bolsonaro government’s ongoing attempts to imprison me for it; the Covid-19 pandemic then made travel impossible; and Navratilova’s political path diverged greatly from my own, as she became a hardcore follower of deranged Russiagate fanatics such as Seth Abramson and other unhinged #Resistance charlatans, as well as an embittered critic of Bernie Sanders and ultimately, once the film stalled, of me (which, to me, made the film more interesting but also more complicated to make).
But the major factor that delayed the film, perhaps permanently, was a series of episodes associated with what is often called “cancel culture.” That is a term I dislike due to its lack of definitional precision and inaccurate connotations that it is something novel — it is not — but it is also unavoidable when referencing ongoing debates about “free discourse.”
This is not — I repeat, not — an article about how I was victimized by “cancel culture” or how “cancel culture” stopped this film from being made. None of that is true: I have never been victimized or silenced by “cancellation” tactics nor is this phenomenon what stalled the film. I still hope to make some version of the documentary.
But others are victimized by it. And in the course of developing the film, several fascinating episodes emerged that are reflective, if not a pure manifestation, of what is being called “cancel culture,” involving two LGBT women who are both brilliant and pioneering filmmakers who used their cinematic talents to radically advance trans visibility and equality, as well as Navratilova herself. Given the latest outbreak of controversies surrounding this dynamic of “cancel culture,” it seems instructive to describe and assess these episodes.
The first step after signing our development deal with Witherspoon’s company was to find a director and, beyond that, someone who would collaborate in shaping all aspects of the film. I immediately knew who I wanted: Kimberly Peirce, who had directed the extraordinary and groundbreaking 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
That film was based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans boy who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993 just weeks after turning 21. As an unknown filmmaker at the age of 25 or so, Peirce began working on the story in the mid-1990s at a time when there was little-to-no trans visibility, especially in Hollywood and particularly for trans men, a concept few back then even knew existed.
Peirce fought for more than three years just to get the film made. It ended up a smashing success: produced for less than $2 million, it earned more than $20 million in box office receipts internationally. More remarkably, it earned an Academy Award nomination for the then-unknown Chloë Sevigny as Best Supporting Actress, while the relatively obscure Hilary Swank was chosen by the Academy over Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Annette Bening as Best Actress for her role as Teena. To play the role, Peirce required the 24-year-old Swank to live as a man for months prior to filming. The success of “Boys Don’t Cry” made Peirce one of the most sought-after young directors in Hollywood.
Peirce’s success with “Boys Don’t Cry” catapulted the issue of violence against trans people into mainstream discourse. Along with Swank, Peirce spoke about Brandon Teena, gender-based violence, and trans identity on “The Charlie Rose Show” in 1999:
By coincidence, I knew and was friends with Peirce in high school. We did not go to the same high school, but we were the top debaters for our respective high schools, with an intense rivalry of our own. We often met in the finals of statewide tournaments. Despite the rivalry, we developed a close friendship, and it was always clear to me that Peirce, whose brilliance and magnetism was quite obvious even back then, would make a huge mark on the world.
Though we did not continue our friendship after college, and thus had not spoken for more than two decades, there was an intimacy and warmth immediately evident the first time I called about the possibility of directing the film, as though our friendship had never been interrupted. On that initial call, we ended up talking about Navratilova, the film, and life for two hours. That Peirce knew me in my teenage years, which the film would examine, made it seem as though the universe had brought us together for this project.
As we explored how the film could be made, we also caught up on each other’s lives. Along with my husband, we eventually met and had dinner in San Francisco after I spoke at an animal rights conference. I learned that Peirce had come out as lesbian in her 20s, and as gender fluid after that. Peirce recounted personal explorations of gender, wearing tuxedos to Hollywood awards shows and becoming increasingly comfortable publicly expressing the masculine part of identity.
Another thing I learned is what happened to Peirce after being invited in 2016 to speak about “Boys Don’t Cry” at Reed College in Oregon. The speech was to take place after a showing of the film. But almost immediately after Peirce tried to begin to speak, student protesters rushed the stage and began screaming and hurling insults and epithets. Signs had been posted aimed at Peirce that read: “Fuck Your Transphobia,” “You Don’t Fucking Get It,” and “Fuck This Cis White Bitch.” For more than two hours, screaming students refused to let Peirce speak and vowed never to let the event happen at Reed. Peirce stood accused of transphobia.
How did the gender nonbinary director of one the most groundbreaking films for trans people ever produced by Hollywood become the violent enemy of these trans activists to the point of being deemed so irremediably evil that Reed students could not hear the event? They accused Peirce of being a profiteer off of trans lives and a privileged “cis woman” for having cast another cis woman, Swank, in the role of Teena, rather than a trans male actor.
Peirce tried explaining that, though she wanted to cast a trans male actor and interviewed many, at the time she could not find an openly trans male actor in Hollywood who could carry the film the way Swank was able to; that Peirce was not a cisgender woman but gender fluid; that the condition for Swank being cast was she had to live as a male for months before shooting; and that the Oscar that Swank won over Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses was proof that she did justice to Teena.
Peirce also echoed what Swank herself said when accepting the Oscar shortly after being embraced by Peirce: that nobody made money off the film and instead did it as an arduous labor of love, knowing the career risks (Swank’s total fee for the film was $3,000):
But the opportunity to explain any of that was crushed. As Columbia professor Jack Halberstam — who is nonbinary and was assigned female at birth — detailed on his blog covering queer issues on campus, Reed students did everything possible to prevent the event from taking place. “Student protestors had removed posters from all around campus that advertised the screening and lecture and they formed a protest group and arrived early to the cinema on the night of the screening to hang up posters,” he wrote, adding:
These posters voiced a range of responses to the film including: “You don’t fucking get it!” and “Fuck Your Transphobia!” as well as “Trans Lives Do Not Equal $$” and to cap it all, the sign hung on the podium read: “Fuck this cis white bitch”!! The protestors waited until after the film had screened at Peirce’s request and then entered the auditorium while shouting “Fuck your respectability politics” and yelling over her commentary until Peirce left the room. After establishing some ground rules for a discussion, Peirce came back into the room but the conversation again got out of hand and finally a student yelled at Peirce: “Fuck you scared bitch.” At which point the protestors filed out and Peirce left campus.
(At the time we were working together, and again in an email this week, Peirce described a somewhat less abrupt ending to the evening than the ones news accounts depicted: She said she managed to stay in an effort to reason with the students wanting to hear the speech, and as some protesters repeatedly interrupted and screamed, was able to answer some questions before leaving).
An editorial in the entertainment industry publication IndieWire about the Reed students’ shutdown of Peirce’s speech mostly took the students’ side even while noting that “‘Boys Don’t Cry’ became the first film to represent transgender masculinity in a believable way”; that “‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is a vital film, simultaneously joyous and brutal; it was game-changing in its representation of trans existence at the time“; and the Reed protests “may be a misguided attack on a respected queer filmmaker and vital piece of independent film history.” Nonetheless, it announced, “it would be irresponsible to dismiss the complaints outright” because “the movie portrays the plight of a transgender man, but it doesn’t feature a transgender performer.”
Are debates about whether directors should only cast LGBT actors to play LGBT roles reasonable? I suppose. Personally, I have always viewed acting as a craft where people embody others including those who are unlike them, rather than identical to them. And particularly for the era when “Boys Don’t Cry” was made, the demand that a trans male should have been cast in the starring role deviates from anything resembling reality.
Nonetheless, I can certainly see the validity of the argument now that trans actors in particular have a dearth of opportunities and thus should be given jobs in film when possible. But to scream at someone and berate them to the point where they are barred from speaking to those who want to hear them because of their inability to cast a trans man in a film two decades ago is thuggish and authoritarian, and to do so toward someone of Peirce’s profile — shaped by having taken immense career risks to make this film — is madness of the highest order.
By no means is the rageful reaction Peirce encountered at Reed College representative of sentiments generally toward the film. Just last year, it received one of the highest honors when the Library of Congress added it to its National Film Registry. And Peirce told me that, in showing the film around the country, this was the only time she had experienced anything like this. But the attack on Peirce on that campus — one geared not toward critiquing but silencing — was appalling. As Halberstam wrote, “We have to pick our enemies very carefully. Spending time and energy protesting the work of an extremely important queer filmmaker is not only wasteful, it is morally bankrupt and misses the true danger of our historical moment.“
As Peirce and I worked over the next few months, it became apparent that we had different creative visions for the film: in large part because Navratilova occupied a large role in Peirce’s own development as a queer teenager and young adult lesbian. So we ended up deciding we would search for a new director.
But learning about what happened — how Peirce’s groundbreaking work in “Boys Don’t Cry” has been treated in some precincts as something so unspeakably evil that it should not even be heard — has stayed with me to this very day. And with my fellow producers, I did spend a nontrivial amount of time discussing how this controversy surrounding Peirce might affect the film we were making, particularly given that it was to include several of the same topics.
Our next director was as perfectly suited for this film as Peirce was, and we found her with the same type of speed and ease that suggested it was meant to be. A friend who works in the film world, knowing I was searching for a new director, recommended that I watch “Prodigal Sons,” the 2008 documentary by Kimberly Reed about her first time returning home to Montana, where she grew up and where her family still lived, after becoming a trans woman.
The film was exceptional, defying all my expectations of what it would be. Hearing the summary — sophisticated trans woman living with her wife in Manhattan goes back to Montana to shock the locals with her transition — I expected condescending and smug denunciations of how the primitive conservative rubes in Montana reacted with immaturity and bigotry upon learning that the blond high school jock — literally the star quarterback on the football team — was now a woman. “Prodigal Sons” was the opposite of that caricature; it was as remarkably moving, humanistic, raw, and honest film that treated its subjects, and its subject, with great respect and therefore constantly subverted expectations.
I knew as soon as I was done watching the film that I wanted Reed to direct my film about Navratilova. I flew to New York with my husband and met Reed and her wife and, over dinner, discussed our lives and the film. Everything clicked. Reed is very smart, perceptive, and empathetic. She’s obviously spent immense time thinking about how one transcends societal dictates, and her film was a courageous testament to self-exploration, an overarching theme of the film we had set out to make.
Even her biography was perfectly compatible with me and the film: Like Peirce, Reed was born the same year as I was. Not only did she also admire Navratilova in her youth but — along with being high school quarterback — she was also captain of her tennis team. And also like Peirce, Reed was a pioneer in using film to inject trans visibility and discussions of trans identity into mainstream precincts. In 2010, Oprah Winfrey watched “Prodigal Sons” and was so moved by it that she had Reed on her show, heaped praise on the film, and conducted what for its time was a searingly deep, sensitive, and sophisticated discussion of transgender identity:
A second film Reed made, the 2018 documentary “Dark Money,” was at least as impressive as “Prodigal Sons.” Examining how nontraceable corporate money corrupts the democratic process — with a focus on its contamination of Montana politics — it, too, avoided all banalities and subverted all expectations. Rather than casting Democrats and liberals as the helpless victims of GOP dark money — the standard way this topic is discussed — Reed focused on how anti-corporate Republicans in her home state are being targeted, slandered, and removed from office by murky corporate interests as punishment for any deviation from the corporatist agenda.
The more Reed and I talked, the more we worked together to shape what the film would be, the more convinced I became that I had found the perfect partner. My excitement about the project reached its peak as we began finalizing her contract and planning her first trip to Brazil to start filming.
But then, in December 2018, everything changed. Navratilova had seen photos posted on Twitter of a trans woman who, without undergoing sex reassignment surgery, was competing as a professional athlete in women’s sports, specifically cycling. This trans woman was not only competing but beginning to win, sometimes in a dominant fashion, even though, in her mid-30s, she was already past the normal prime for cycling competition. Navratilova observed that she was vanquishing professional female athletes who were cis women and had lived their entire lives, and gone through puberty, as women.
It was unclear exactly what photo Navratilova saw, but I believe it was the one most frequently used online to rile people up into objecting to the participation of trans women in professional sports, particularly preoperative trans women. It was the photo below of cyclist Veronica Ivy, formerly known as Rachel McKinnon. Ivy, in addition to becoming a champion women’s cyclist after her transition, has also become a vocal proponent of allowing trans women to participate in sports. At the age of 37, reported the cycle journal Bicycling in 2019, “Rachel McKinnon dominated the competition at the Masters Track Cycling World Championships in Manchester, England, this past weekend, celebrating her second consecutive world title and world record in the 200-meter match sprint.”
On Twitter — the worst possible place to discuss pretty much anything, but particularly intricate debates relating to trans equality — Navratilova, after seeing the photo, wondered aloud whether trans women who have not had sex-reassignment surgery and who have lived most of their lives as men should be able to compete in female sports. Do people who are assigned male at birth and go through puberty and develop muscle mass and other secondary characteristics have an unfair advantage no matter how many hormones they take, Navratilova seemed to ponder aloud? (It was asking this same question about the fairness of trans woman in professional sports that, to this day, causes people to label podcaster Joe Rogan an anti-trans bigot).
What ultimately caused the most controversy was Navratilova’s somewhat clumsy focus on the presence of male genitalia in asking this question. A penis and testicles, in and of themselves, do not confer competitive advantages in a cycling race, just as having them surgically removed does not constitute an impediment. But for people of Navratilova’s generation, being a trans woman by definition entailed undergoing sex-reassignment surgeries to remove male genitalia and replace it with a constructed vagina and breasts — like her coach and friend Renée Richards did before insisting on the right to compete on the women’s tennis tour.
For activists of that generation, having a penis and being a woman were mutually exclusive, particularly when it came to the right to compete against other women for cash, prizes, and glory. So, for Navratilova, there was nothing about Ivy’s participation in professional sports that, at least at first glance, appeared fair or sensible to Navratilova, notwithstanding the fact that Ivy and other trans woman were required to take anywhere between six to 24 months of hormonal treatment before being permitted to compete.
All of this led Navratilova, in a now-deleted tweet heard ’round the world, or at least in many volatile Twitter precincts, to wonder aloud: “Clearly that can’t be right. You can’t just declare yourself to be 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…”
It takes little imagination to guess what the reaction was to this tweet. The denunciations of Navratilova as an anti-trans bigot were instantaneous, swift, and brutal, and they took zero account of her lifetime, pioneering devotion to LGBT equality, including the extensive and sustained sacrifices she made by having a trans woman as a coach decades ago when gay women, to say nothing of trans women, were all but invisible. All of that activism and courageous sacrifice for her beliefs was all wiped out with a single tweet.
The condemnations were led by Ivy herself, who proclaimed, “Welp, guess Navratilova is transphobic.” Ivy then issued her marching orders: “She could delete the tweets and replace them with an apology.” Much of Twitter was roiled with accusations that Navratilova — due to a single tweet — was a bigot and an enemy of the trans movement.
Navratilova herself tried, of course to no avail, to ask for some understanding and generosity for interpreting her earnestly asked question, requesting that her transgression be put into the context of her long life’s work. To Ivy, she wrote, “Because it seems to me my decades of speaking out against unfairness and inequality just don’t count with you at all… so I have had enough of this…”
A trans woman activist and former Navy SEAL weighed in to tell Ivy and her allies: “I’m close friends with @Martina & tell you 100% she is NOT transphobic…Might be misinformed on subject as MANY in public….Not everyone is ‘phobic’ & hateful if there is disagreement #teach.” This testimonial about Navratilova’s character from a trans activist and her pleas to “teach” rather than castigate was, of course, quickly swatted away as an I-have-a-trans-friend triviality.
Not only had Navratilova been a proponent of trans rights decades ago when few were, particularly those with such a public platform, but she’s continued to be a stalwart opponent of anti-trans bigotry. In 2017, she denounced efforts to, in her words, “Purge Transgender People From American Life” — which Navratilova called “pathetic” and vowed: “This will not stand, wrong side of history.” The same year, Navratilova vehemently and quite publicly condemned fellow tennis legend Margaret Court for bigoted remarks about trans people:
If Martina Navratilova is the bigoted enemy of the cause of trans inclusion and equality, who are its enlightened allies?
But Ivy was in no mood for understanding or context; she was there to castigate, not converse, persuade, or nurture understanding. She contemptuously dismissed Navratilova’s plea to consider her life work as a distraction to the matter at hand, an obvious irrelevancy: “It doesn’t change the fact that you did something very wrong today, no. Past good deeds don’t give someone a pass today.”
It doesn’t change the fact that you did something very wrong today, no. Past good deeds don’t give someone a pass today.
— Her Thighness (@SportIsARight) December 21, 2018
Navratilova then went into full-blown repentance mode. She repeatedly apologized for her initial tweet. She vowed to delete any tweets that trans people found offensive, insisting that she spoke without having thought the issue through sufficiently and without having been informed. She took a vow of silence, promising to listen and not speak on the subject again until she could properly inform herself.
But none of that was good enough. Even after deleting the offending tweets and apologizing, Navratilova continued to be branded an anti-trans bigot. She was told that she had “harmed” trans people and that deleting her tweets and apologizing was not enough. She was not being attacked and denounced, she was told, but merely “held accountable” by those she had harmed.
So you’re saying that you make a big mistake that harms people like me, people like me hold you accountable, and rather than improving and continuing to fight for us…you’re just going to give up? That easily?
— Her Thighness (@SportIsARight) December 21, 2018
Navratilova, as promised, did not speak again on these issues two months. When she finally did, it caused an explosion in this debate.
On February 17, 2019, in an op-ed in the London Times, she published a column recounting that she had promised to study the issue further and, in typical fashion, boldly and fearlessly announced: “Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened.”
Not only did she reaffirm her view that it was unfair for trans women to complete against cis women in professional sports, but now she went further, declaring it a form of “cheating,” particularly when sex-reassignment surgery was not required but instead merely a regimen of hormone treatments that could be reversed at any time. Navratilova wrote:
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.
What happened here seems clear. Navratilova began by asking an earnest question, one which is on the minds of many people as they watch these profound societal changes but are uninformed about the science and the specific claims invoked to justify these changes. Once she was excoriated without any mercy or understanding, it drove her further into a feeling of alienation from her accusers.
Watching these attacks on Navratilova, anti-trans activists in J.K. Rowling’s Britain — Ground Zero for anti-trans sentiments — quickly recognized the opportunity to recruit a valuable ally to their cause: a woman who has done as much as anyone in modern history to make it possible for women to compete on an equal commercial footing in professional sports. And thus did Navratilova’s manifesto appear in the U.K.’s largest establishment paper. This may not be a rational or noble thought process, but it is a human one: It is natural to be repelled by those who seem more interested in attacking and bashing you and who seem to want to bully you into submission, rather than attempting to persuade you and win you over to their cause with reason and dialogue.
It seems almost certain that Navratilova’s old coach and friend, Renée Richards, also played a decisive role in her didactic op-ed. After it was published, Richards told The Telegraph that she agreed with Navratilova: “The notion that one can take hormones and be considered a woman without sex reassignment surgery is nuts in my opinion.” According to The Telegraph, Richards “also revealed that she would never have competed as a woman if she had transitioned in her 20s rather than 40s because she ‘would have beaten the women to a pulp.’” Navratilova promptly tweeted the interview: “My friend Renee Richards:).”
Above all else, this was a shining monument to how social media coarsens sensitive debates to the point where dialogue and understanding become impossible. The ethos of conflict and destruction — “cancellation,” if you must — transforms people from their initial posture of seeking understanding and showing humility into warriors devoted to destroying their critics lest they be destroyed first. Everyone retreats to their militant corners and prepares for battle. Anger (and fear) over being mercilessly savaged results in digging more adamantly and uncompromisingly into the initial preliminarily held opinion, which then become immovable dogma.
As tribalistic beings, with a strong survival instinct, none of us are immune to these degrading effects of the discourse wars that play out in front of screaming virtual audiences and in short snippets of messaging that permit no nuance or compromise. At times, it seems we’ve been thrusted in a gladiator-like battle to the death over our reputations, while screaming fans wait for and then cheer any sign of blood. The last thing one is inclined to do in a gladiator ring is seek communion with one’s opponents or show any humility or vulnerability. And so goes our discourse over the most complex and novel social questions, increasingly confined to the uniquely ill-suited venue of social media.
Whatever the exact causes of Navratilova’s trajectory, any willingness on the part of mainstream LGBT groups to extend her understanding from her December tweets evaporated upon publication of this February op-ed, as she surely knew would happen. Navratilova — the LGBT icon and feminist pioneer in sports — was expelled from Athlete Ally, a group that advocates for LGBT athletes. In its statement, the group said Navratilova’s article was “transphobic, based on a false understanding of science and data, and perpetuate[s] dangerous myths that lead to the ongoing targeting of trans people through discriminatory laws, hateful stereotypes and disproportionate violence.”
Referencing her earlier tweets, the group added:
This is not the first time we have approached Martina on this topic. In late December, she made deeply troubling comments across her social media channels about the ability for trans athletes to compete in sport. We reached out directly offering to be a resource as she sought further education, and we never heard back.
Other LGBT groups were similarly scathing in their denunciations. “We’re pretty devastated to discover that Martina Navratilova is transphobic,” TransActualUK tweeted. CNN reported on the LGBT “backlash” against her. Headlines appeared around the world trumpeting that Navratilova was “expelled” from an LGBT advocacy group.
I can’t recall many political events that shocked me quite as much as watching Martina Navratilova, of all people, not merely being criticized for her comments — which would certainly be a reasonable thing to do: Several points from her op-ed also seemed unpersuasive to me — but scorned, ostracized, and declared to be an unreconstructed bigot, someone unworthy of interaction. Martina Navratilova: the outcast, the anti-trans hater, the bigot. It still amazes me to see those labels applied to her.
Equally disturbed by this incident was Kimberly Reed, on the verge of signing on to direct my film when all of this happened. After Navratilova’s first round of tweets in December, we had discussed this episode and Reed, while agreeing with me that they were misguided and uninformed, seemed to believe that they came from a place of confusion, not malice.
Even after publication of the op-ed, that generous view of Navratilova’s motives still seemed to be Reed’s core view of what had happened, but now her concerns were significantly elevated. In particular, Reed worried that any attempt to use the film to explore this rich and complex controversy Navratilova and her critics had just created — something it was clear we would have to do — would be rendered impossible by how toxic, closed-off, self-protective, militant, defensive, and entrenched each side had become.
Within days of Navratilova’s op-ed, Reed called me to say that as a result of these concerns, she was strongly considering dropping out as director of the film. At first this made no sense to me: Even if, I thought and said, you find Navratilova’s comments repellent, doesn’t that just make the film more interesting, provide an added layer to explore? After all, we’re not making a hagiography but an honest exploration of both Navratilova and her effect on my life, in all of its good parts and bad.
But it became clear to me that Reed’s concerns were different than what I originally assumed: She was questioning whether, in light of how ugly the controversy had become, we would be able to have the kind of dialogue and illuminating questioning of Navratilova about her new controversy that the integrity of the film demanded we prominently include. My persistent attempts to persuade Reed that she did not need to drop out of the project — driven my belief that she was still the absolute perfect collaborator — caused her to wait a couple of weeks before deciding, to explore whether Navratilova would be open to thoughtful dialogue about her recently expressed views and the controversy that erupted around her.
That delay in Reed’s decision enabled us to arrange a meeting between her and Navratilova at the Indian Wells tennis tournament in California held annually in March, where Navratilova was working as a TV commentator. Reed had dinner with Navratilova and her agent, along with the film’s producers, but nothing allayed Reed’s concerns.
If anything, Reed seemed to have come away from that dinner more convinced than ever that she could not direct the film. Navratilova, she felt, had become closed off to the prospect of exploring what could have been the fascinating questions prompted by this debate: how civil rights movements evolve; how young radical icons can come to be viewed as conservative or even reactionary as mores shift and as those movement heroes age; and what the relationship is between the cause of gay rights, feminism, and the new dominant strain of trans ideology. After flying home to New York, she called to deliver the bad news: She did not see a way to make the film in the way she felt it needed to be made.
For a few days, I still had trouble understanding her rationale: Why was it necessary to agree with all of Navratilova’s views, or even like her, in order to make this film? It seems to me, somewhat ironically, that all the traits that caused Navratilova to be so admirable and inspiring to me in my adolescence — her fearless refusal to capitulate to societal demands or to prioritize social pieties over her own self-actualization — are what drove her into her latest controversy, where I personally found her position to be questionable at best (I don’t purport to know enough about the science to opine definitively on what protocols are needed for trans women to participate fairly in women’s sports). And I still believe that Navratilova was motivated by everything except malice and bigotry — that she was driven primarily by her belief, even if misguided, that her speaking out this way was necessary to protect the integrity of something she spent years of her life helping to build and elevate: women’s professional sports.
But the more I talked to the always-thoughtful and introspective Reed, the more I came to understand her thinking. That this discussion had played out on social media — on Twitter of all places — had so contaminated and poisoned all sides of the controversy, and that Navratilova herself had appeared to be so injured by, so resentful over, the attacks to the point of being uninterested in further discourse about it, made a constructive discussion with Navratilova as part of the filming extremely unlikely.
The more I tried to persuade her to stay on as director, the clearer it became that my efforts were futile. She was convinced that there was no way to reconcile what would be her artistic mandate as the film’s director with the political currents sweeping over this new Navratilova controversy. My respect for Reed had never waned, and that respect caused me to stop trying to persuade her and accept her decision to withdraw from the film.
Ultimately, the controversy also shaped my own thinking about the film. In light of the burning anger among the trans community toward Navratilova, it seemed to me that we were left, broadly speaking, with two creative choices, both of which were unpalatable: (1) reshape the film to include a far greater focus on Navratilova’s contemporary controversial comments about trans athletes — something the original vision never included at all, let alone so prominently — and to confront her aggressively and critically about her views at the expense of focusing on the inspiring totality of her life, all to appease her critics, or (2) make a largely positive film about why Navratilova was so inspirational to me and millions others of that era who had very few similar role models at the time, and forever be castigated for having glorified someone now widely regarded in the trans community and beyond as an anti-trans bigot, a transphobe, someone actively trying to impede the cause of trans equality, someone who “harms” and “endangers” trans people. It seemed this controversy and the ugly form it took was destined to drown out what the film was intended to be.
I regard the loss of Reed as director as deeply unfortunate for the film and, more so, an alarming reflection about our culture and our discourse. And my own thinking about the film in light of this controversy surrounding Navratilova seemed to establish that there was no room for Kimberly Reed, as a pioneering trans woman, to produce a nuanced, complex cinematic portrayal of another nuanced, complex LGBT woman pioneer: one that included Navratilova’s heresy on this issue but did not fixate on it or allow it to suffocate everything else that defined her life and who she is. At least, it seemed clear, there was no way in the current climate to produce a nuanced film without spending the rest of our lives being treated the way Reed College students treated Kimberly Peirce when she tried to show and talk about her own groundbreaking film.
Tags: Celebrities, Homosexuality, Lesbian, Martina Navratilova, Sexualities, Sports, Tennis
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