A couple of weeks ago I found myself in the oak-panelled drawing room of a west London hotel, speaking to tennis star Martina Navratilova. A few BBC cameramen and sound specialists were there also.
Now, it’s not normal that I go round speaking to sporting heroes. The BBC were filming a documentary based on Martina, and prompted by her comments around including, or rather not including trans women in women’s sports at the start of 2019.
It was a very pleasant conversation which lasted around an hour. The magic of television will, no doubt, cut this down to a pithy 90 seconds, and I suspect I know which 90 second clip they will choose.
Lest anyone be concerned that I’ve been hiding an elite sporting past, I was there really as a community representative. I mean, I think the only sport I could currently enter would be something like sumo wrestling – except that’s not really open to women.
Martina was interested in my background, and then we turned to inclusivity. I made the point that a lot of sporting bodies were open to including trans women, as long as we never won. Martina seemed to agree.
That moved us onto physiological advantages, which in my view is where the complexity really is, and the science is probably very lacking. I suggested that competitive and elite sport is all about maximising your inbuilt advantages, but there has been a lot of probably unnecessary focus on one particular chemical – testosterone. Nobody seems to seriously suggest that it was unfair of Usain Bolt to compete in sprinting because he had very long legs, or that Michael Phelps had an unfair genetic advantage which restricted his production of lactic acid, meaning that he could train far longer than other swimmers.
But, as a community representative and someone who has looked with interest at how trans people are represented (or, more accurately, mis-represented) in the media, I was interested in her media experiences. So I asked her what the media’s understanding of lesbian issues was when she came out in 1981. She said something like “awful” or “abysmal”. And she immediately got the parallels.
The point being that the media landscape for trans people in the UK, and increasingly in some other countries, has been absolutely awful for a couple of years now, and the level of understanding displayed is minimal. It was into that situation, where absolutists were making very combative comments meaning that the response had to be equally black-and-white, that her comments about trans inclusion landed.
And this was where the money shot happened, as she fought back the tears. She didn’t want to be seen as an ally of all these awful viewpoints, she’d fought hard for LGBT rights for many, many years, she acknowledged that it was very hard for trans people and she was worried that she’d made things worse. I suspect this is the bit that will be broadcast.
We ended up on some common ground. My view is that hard-and-fast rules will take some time to be found, if they can be found at all, as I suspect there will always be cases that need to be examined on an individual basis. This will need clear principles to be defined, which then means we need to understand what fairness, in terms of competitive and elite sport, actually is.
On the train back home, it dawned on me – Martina is motivated by not driving girls away from sports. Because she is ultra-competitive, as you would have to be if you were the world’s #1 tennis player for 7 years, she cannot envisage anyone wanting to participate unless they felt they could win, and she felt that trans women must have some residual advantage. We did briefly touch on the subject of trans children, and those who don’t undergo much of a male puberty, and how that was going to complicate things even more moving forwards.
As ever, it will all be in the editing. I will be watching with interest to see where she ends up – despite me being the last filmed conversation she had for this documentary.