The BBC will explore both sides of the transgender athlete debate in an upcoming documentary, an old school journalism convention that contrasts sharply with the way most media outlets are approaching the subject. Transgender activists are already furious.
The film will use all-time tennis great Martina Navratilova, one of several prominent female athletes who say it’s unfair for biological men to compete with women in sports, as a springboard to explore the debate. She will talk to athletes, sporting officials and scientists on various sides of the issue, including transgender athlete Joanna Harper, whose work is often cited by transgender activists and who helped the Olympic Committee craft new guidelines for transgender athletes, and Sharron Davies, an Olympic swimmer who says allowing transgender athletes to compete with women will end up destroying women’s sports.
“Martina sets out to open up the debate and find answers to some of her own questions,” a statement from BBC announcing the film states. The film is titled, “Trans Athletes: A Fair Playing Field?” (RELATED: Liberals Are At War With Science In The Transgender Athlete Debate)
Navratilova has become something of a pariah in the LGBT community for the views she’s expressed on the subject, although she was previously hugely respected for coming out as gay at the height of her career. She said it’s unfair for biological men to compete against women in sports, first on Twitter and then in a piece for the U.K. Times titled, “The rules for trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent.” She later walked back her use of the term “cheats,” but has not changed her position.
“You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women,” she had tweeted late last year. “There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.” She wrote in the Times that the pushback to her tweets surprised her (she was labeled a bigot and a transphobe) and she resolved to research the subject more before speaking further on it, but that research only strengthened her initial view.
“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,” she wrote in the Times. “It’s insane and it’s cheating.” (RELATED: One Paragraph Perfectly Illustrates Why It’s Okay To Ban Transgender Athletes From Women’s Sports)
She doubled down on her view that it’s unfair, even as she apologized for suggesting transgender athletes are cheats. “All I am trying to do is make sure girls and women who were born female are competing on as level a playing field as possible within their sport,” she said in the blog post apology. She also asked for a debate that is based on science, rather than emotions and feelings.
The BBC film looks to be a step in that direction. Navratilova said she hopes it will inform viewers, and BBC producers said their aim was to “fully explore” the issue and “leave no stone unturned in a quest for research and answers.”
Reporting from major outlets and liberal blogs on the debate has been one-sided, typically pushing the views of transgender athletes who want to compete with women uncritically, while downplaying or excluding altogether the views of women and others who disagree. Research and data do not play a prominent role, unless it appears to back the side of transgender athletes. (RELATED: Media Reports On Transgender Athletes All Seem To Be Missing One Thing)
The Columbia Journalism Review, a media watchdog that bills itself as a leader in journalism ethics, recently endorsed this kind of one-sided reporting by publishing a liberal transgender activist, who urged reporters not to include critical voices. Neither the activist nor editors at CJR were willing to talk about the new one-sided journalism standard they are pushing.
The BBC is perhaps the only major media outlet willing to take more traditional unbiased approach. “The programme will fully explore a topic which continues to hit the headlines,” BBC commissioning editor Emma Loach said in the statement. “We’re thrilled that Martina will bring her much respected insight and sporting experience to the discussion — gaining fascinating input from all sides of the argument.”
An LGBT sports blog run by Vox Media excoriated the BBC and Navratilova in a recent post that unabashedly declared the “debate” over the matter closed: “Framing the documentary as a look at ‘all sides of the debate’ implies that believing ‘male athletes transition to female just to win a trophy’ is a valid point of consideration, instead of being a pitch for a terrible Adam Sandler movie. To be blunt: This is simply not an issue with two valid arguments.”
The author praised Navratilova as a champion of the gay community, but expressed frustration with her refusal to take the side of transgender activists on this issue, and threatened a permanent scar on her record if she does not change her mind. (RELATED: The Real Story Behind A Powerlifting Federation’s Decision To Ban Trans Athletes From Competition)
“Navratilova had an opportunity to educate herself on the topic and evolve her views after the firestorm that followed her initial tweets on the subject,” he writes. “But whatever research she did was clearly one-sided or not enough as she dug her heels in even more forcefully with her editorial.
Harper, the transgender athlete who is pioneering research on the debate in hopes of convincing skeptics that there is no unfair advantage for biological men who lower their testosterone levels, talked to Navratilova as part of the BBC film and concluded she has made a good faith effort to understand both sides of the debate. “I doubt that she is actually transphobic,” Harper told the blog.