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Ivy League and Penn back transgender swimmer Lia Thomas 

Their statements of support come after weeks of criticism and transphobic remarks directed at Thomas, who set records in three events at a meet last month.
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The Ivy League and the University of Pennsylvania issued statements in support of Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer whose recent record-breaking wins put her at the center of the debate over trans inclusion in competitive sports.

Image: Lia Thomas
Lia Thomas.Penn Athletics

The statements were released on Twitter just two days before Thomas’ return to the pool Saturday, when Penn will host Dartmouth College and Yale University.

“Over the past several years, Lia and the University of Pennsylvania have worked with the NCAA to follow all of the appropriate protocols in order to comply with the NCAA policy on transgender athlete participation and compete on the Penn women’s swimming and diving team,” the Ivy League, the athletic conference for eight universities in the Northeast, said in a statement. “The Ivy League reaffirms its unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all student-athletes while condemning transphobia and discrimination in any form.”

Penn released a similar statement affirming its “commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all” student-athletes. The statement added that Thomas has “met or exceeded” all the NCAA protocols for transgender female athletes over the last two years. 

“She will continue to represent the Penn women’s swimming team in competition this season,” the statement reads.

Guidance for transgender female athletes issued in 2011 by the NCAA, which governs intercollegiate athletics, states: “A trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.” 

Thomas declined an interview, but she said on the podcast SwimSwam that she had been on hormone therapy for over 2 ½ years by the time she began competing on the women’s team in November. 

Her participation became central in the debate over trans inclusion in sports after she set records in at least three events at the Zippy Invitational in Ohio last month. Her times in the 200-yard freestyle and 500-yard freestyle were the best in the nation this season, according to Penn Athletics. In the 1,650-yard freestyle in particular, she was 38 seconds ahead of teammate Anna Kalandadze, who finished second. Right-wing media outlets have shared video of Thomas winning the race on social media.

Some critics argue that Thomas’ performance is evidence that the NCAA’s guidance is not strict enough, and that Thomas and other trans women have inherent physical advantages they receive from testosterone during endogenous puberty, or puberty associated with assigned sex at birth. 

John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World magazine, wrote in an op-ed last month arguing that the NCAA’s current guidelines requiring the use of testosterone suppressants for a specific amount of time “are not rigid enough and do not produce an authentic competitive atmosphere.” 

“It is obvious that one year is not a sufficient timeframe to offer up a level playing field,” he wrote. “Athletes transitioning from male to female possess the inherent advantage of years of testosterone production and muscle-building.”

Joanna Harper, a visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at England’s Loughborough University who published the first performance analysis of trans athletes in 2015, told NBC News last month that the NCAA’s guideline for trans women athletes is “perfectly reasonable,” and that it “will result in meaningful competition between trans women and cis women,” or women who are not trans. 

The conversation about Thomas is part of a larger national political debate. Last year, more than two dozen states considered bills that would ban trans student-athletes at the K-12 and college levels from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity, as opposed to their assigned sex at birth. ​​Governors in 10 states — nine just last year — signed those bills into law.

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