A surprising name was invoked by opponents of LGBTQ rights on the floor of the South Dakota House of Representatives on Monday: Martina Navratilova.
The lesbian tennis star was name-dropped by House Rep. Lee Qualm (R-Platte) during debate over House Bill 1225, a proposal forcing trans student athletes to compete on school sports teams in accordance with the “sexual identity” listed on their birth certificate. If passed, it would have meant transgender boys in South Dakota would have no choice but to play on girls’ sports teams.
Luckily, the bill was voted down in a 34-34 split—South Dakota’s fourth (and final) anti-trans bill defeated in 2019.
But Qualm read aloud Navratilova’s recent op-ed for London's Sunday Times as a last-ditch gambit to encourage colleagues to support HB 1225. In the controversial essay, she claims allowing trans women in women’s sports is “cheating and unfair.”
“To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization 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,” Qualm said, quoting Navratilova's op-ed.
The conservative continued to pull from Navratilova’s hot take liberally.
“I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her,” Qualm quoted. “It would not be fair.”
Calling Navratilova a “legend” and a “longtime champion of gay rights,” Qualm concluded that having her on his side of the debate meant HB 1225 is not discriminatory. Instead, the lawmaker said the bill recognizes the differences between “the male sex and the female sex.”
“You can’t get away from that,” Qualm claimed. “...By permitting a boy to take a spot on a roster, it excludes a girl who would otherwise qualify. And quite frankly, it’s confusing and harmful for those who are already in a tough time in development to be told that it’s somehow possible to change your sex from what it’s been from the moment of conception.”
Navratilova hit back at the unauthorized use of her op-ed, claiming on Twitter that her words had been taken “out of context.”
“How the hell does one jump from a top level athletic competition to basic human rights?” she asked in response to a tweet from Media Matters for America editor-at-large Parker Molloy. “I don’t know. And anyone reading the article couldn’t possible [sic] come to that conclusion.”
Libby Skarin, policy director for the South Dakota ACLU, was present in the South Dakota Legislature for Qualm’s speech. She claims it was “frustrating to see that happen.”
“It shows me even more why it is so harmful when people with a big platform say horrible things about trans folks,” she tells NewNowNext. “That stuff trickles down. [Navratilova] said that a week ago, and now it's being said on the floor of the South Dakota House of Representatives.”
The athlete’s comments are rapidly trickling down across the country, too.
Anita Milanovich, a lobbyist with the Montana Family Foundation, cited Navratilova’s comments during a Friday hearing on House Bill 465 in the Treasure State’s legislature. If made law, the bill would amend the Montana Human Rights Act to add the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.
Milanovich claimed the op-ed is proof that bills like HB 465 hurt women.
“Academic and athletic achievements that women have made will be eviscerated, as men who profess a female identity can take women’s spots on female teams and take scholarships and opportunities designated for women,” she said during a public testimony.
That legislation has yet to be voted on in Montana.
Meanwhile, even Family Research Council President Tony Perkins hopped on the bandwagon. Credited as the father of Trump’s policy banning trans people from serving openly in the military, Perkins called Navratilova (pictured below) an example of “transcendent truth.”
“There was a time in our country when we recognized and accepted transcendent truth—what could be described as the moral law of God or the laws of nature and nature’s God,” he claimed in a Tuesday column for The Daily Signal, a far-right website. “But now society makes up its own truth du jour, based on the prevailing winds of culture that, as we see, often change direction.”
“It may not be popular, but truth will never change, and for that reason, it provides a firm foundation for individuals and societies to stand,” Perkins concluded.
Dawn Ennis, managing editor of OutSports, was among the first to report Navratilova's comments being cited in Montana. She dismisses the idea that trans equality—whether on the playing field or in the workplace—is somehow “unfair” to women.
“No matter what laws they pass, there will always be someone who cries that sports is unfair,” Ennis tells NewNowNext. “Sports is about winners and losers. Except for little leaguers who take home participation trophies, those who compete will always find someone who is stronger, faster, lifts more, swims or throws further or harder than they do. Sports is and always should be about two things: winning and inclusion.”
Chris Mosier, founder of the resource site TransAthlete, adds this issue is a “matter of life or death for young trans kids.”
“We are seeing the consequences of Martina's statements as lawmakers invoke her comments to further target trans youth,” he tells NewNowNext in a statement. “Her public statements, which are misguided and transphobic, align her more with those attacking the trans community than as an ally within the LBGQ community.”
Mosier, a triathlete who competed with Team USA from 2015 through 2018, claims he has offered to speak with Navratilova, but has not heard back.
The 18-time Grand Slam winner has promised to write a follow-up to her earlier column in response to Republicans embracing her remarks. Navratilova told Chase Strangio, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, on Twitter that she would “write more this week and pretty [sic] more will be coming out later.”
“I want to find solutions, not create problems all the while striving for equality and fairness,” she added.
Navratilova was quickly dropped as a board member of the LGBTQ group Athlete Ally following the op-ed’s publication. The athletics advocacy organization declined to comment on this story.