From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject How “Cancel Culture” Repeatedly Emerged in My Attempt to Make a Film About Tennis Legend Martina Navratilova
Date July 29, 2020 12:00 AM
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[ The experiences of three pioneering LGBT women as part of the
same film reveal much about the current moment. ]
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Glenn Greenwald
July 14, 2020
The Intercept
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* [[link removed]]

_ The experiences of three pioneering LGBT women as part of the same
film reveal much about the current moment. _

In this June 30, 1988, file photo, defending champion Martina
Navratilova reaches to shake hands with the umpire as a dejected Chris
Evert walks off court after their women’s singles semifinal match on
the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Navratilova won the ma, Photo: Robert


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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]],
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
[[link removed]],
if not the single greatest
[[link removed]].
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

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.

In this June 30, 1988, file photo, defending champion Martina
Navratilova reaches to shake hands with the umpire as a dejected Chris
Evert walks off court after their women’s singles semifinal match on
the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Navratilova won the match 6-1, 4-6,

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
[[link removed]] — 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
[[link removed]], 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

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
[[link removed]] devoted
to telling stories of “strong, complicated women,” and we
then announced the project
[[link removed]].

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 [[link removed]] on the
massive secret archive provided by a source and the extensive fallout
from it, including the Bolsonaro government’s ongoing attempts
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] such
as Seth Abramson and other unhinged #Resistance charlatans, as well
as an embittered critic
[[link removed]] of Bernie
Sanders and ultimately, once the film stalled, of me
[[link removed]] (which, to
me, made the film more interesting but also more complicated to

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
[[link removed]] —
but it is also unavoidable when referencing ongoing debates about
“free discourse.”
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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

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

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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]]):

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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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 of cyclist
Veronica Ivy, formerly known as Rachel McKinnon. Ivy, in addition
to becoming a champion women’s cyclist
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]],
“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
[[link removed]]).

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
[[link removed]], “Welp,
guess Navratilova is transphobic.” Ivy then issued
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]], “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
[[link removed]]: “I’m
close friends with @Martina [[link removed]] & 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
[[link removed]].” 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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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.”

Navratilova then went into full-blown repentance mode.
She repeatedly apologized for her initial tweet
[[link removed]]. 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
[[link removed]], 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
harmeNavratilova, 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
[[link removed]],
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

_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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]], 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

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
[[link removed]].
CNN reported on
[[link removed]] the
LGBT “backlash” against her. Headlines appeared around the world
[[link removed]] 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

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.

GLENN GREENWALD _is one of three co-founding editors of The
Intercept. He is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of
four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law. His most
recent book, “No Place to Hide,” is about the U.S. surveillance
state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around
the world. Prior to co-founding The Intercept, Glenn’s column was
featured in the Guardian and Salon. He was the debut winner, along
with Amy Goodman, of the Park Center I.F. Stone Award for Independent
Journalism in 2008, and also received the 2010 Online Journalism Award
for his investigative work on the abusive detention conditions of
Chelsea Manning. For his 2013 NSA reporting, he received the George
Polk Award for National Security Reporting; the Gannett Foundation
Award for investigative journalism and the Gannett Foundation Watchdog
Journalism Award; the Esso Premio for Excellence in Investigative
Reporting in Brazil (he was the first non-Brazilian to win), and the
Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Along with Laura
Poitras, Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the top 100 Global
Thinkers for 2013. The NSA reporting he led for the Guardian was
awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service._

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