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Ivy League swimming champion becomes target of transphobic rhetoric

Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, has become the most recent target in the heated debate about trans women athletes.
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A swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania is the latest target in the culture-war debate over whether transgender girls and women should be allowed to participate on female sports teams. 

Lia Thomas, who came out as trans in 2019, set three school records and two national records at a meet this month. 

Since then, Thomas has faced criticism and verbal attacks from anti-trans groups, conservative media and, reportedly, even two teammates.

Image: Lia Thomas
Lia Thomas.Penn Athletics

Some of the headlines about Thomas’ wins said she “smashed” the records and continued her “dominant” season alongside pre-transition photos of her and using her previous name and male pronouns — practices known as deadnaming and misgendering. 

Transgender advocates have condemned that coverage and some of the conversation about Thomas as transphobic. They said it mischaracterizes her victories to make it appear that transgender women are cheating just by being trans and implies that one trans woman winning means trans women generally are dominating women’s sports. They note that Thomas is competing within guidance issued by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Thomas’ critics have varying views. Some have used explicitly anti-transgender language and argue that trans women should be completely banned from women’s sports, while others argue that the NCAA’s policy regarding trans athletes’ participation isn’t strict enough.

Thomas declined an interview with NBC News and has done only one recent interview, with the podcast SwimSwam. In that interview, she said she and her coaches expected that there would be “some measure of pushback” in response to her competing, but not “quite to the extent that it has blown up.” 

“I just don’t engage with it,” she said, regarding the criticism. “It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t, and that’s all I’ll say on that.”

Swimming as her 'authentic self'

Thomas swam on the men’s team for her first three years at Penn, and for part of that time, she said she was transitioning. She started her medical transition in May 2019 and began gender-affirming hormones, also known as hormone replacement therapy, which for her included testosterone blockers and estrogen. She said she decided to swim out the 2018-19 season on the men’s team without coming out, which “caused a lot of distress for me,” she told SwimSwam. 

“I was struggling,” she said. “My mental health was not very good. There was a lot of unease about basically just feeling trapped in my body, like it didn’t align.”

She came out to her coaches and teammates in the fall of 2019, and swam the rest of her junior year, the 2019-20 season, on the men’s team as well — a time she described as “an uncomfortable experience.” 

By the summer of 2020, she had been on testosterone suppressants for a full year, meeting a guideline set by the NCAA in 2011. Its handbook for transgender athletes 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.” She said she submitted medical information that included blood tests of her hormone levels. The NCAA approved her request and cleared her to compete on the women’s team that fall. 

But then Covid-19 led to nationwide lockdowns, and the Ivy League canceled its swimming season. Thomas said she decided to take the year off to save her eligibility, “given how important it is to me to be able to compete and swim as my authentic self.” 

She began competing on the women’s team in November, at the start of the 2021-22 season, and said she has been on hormone therapy for just over two and a half years. 

Thomas has performed well at nearly every meet so far this season, but the media firestorm began after her performance at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron in Ohio, where she won three events and set three program, meet and pool records, along with two national records. 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.

Since then, she’s received international media attention, and two of her teammates, speaking anonymously, reportedly told the sports website OutKick that they disagree with her participation, viewing it as unfair. NBC News has been unable to verify these reports. University of Pennsylvania Athletics and several members of the women’s swim team have not responded to requests for comment. 

'Meaningful competition'

Some critics have argued that Thomas’ performance is evidence that she has inherent physical advantages from going through male puberty and having higher testosterone levels. As a result, they argue that the NCAA should bar trans women from female sports teams or change its policy, saying that requiring one year of testosterone suppressants for trans women isn’t enough.

“While the NCAA’s rules demand the use of testosterone suppressants for a specific duration, the current requirements are not rigid enough and do not produce an authentic competitive atmosphere,” John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World magazine, wrote in an op-ed. “It is obvious that one year is not a sufficient timeframe to offer up a level playing field. Athletes transitioning from male to female possess the inherent advantage of years of testosterone production and muscle-building.”

Some researchers and advocates disagree, including at least one researcher who supports what is widely considered a more middle-of-the-road approach.

Joanna Harper, visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at England’s Loughborough University, published the first performance analysis of transgender athletes in 2015. Harper, a trans runner who has master’s degrees in physics and medical physics, evaluated the race times of eight trans women distance runners after they transitioned and found that they were no more competitive in the female division than they had been in the male division. 

She noted that it was a small study and that it doesn’t apply to any sport other than distance running, but that it was and still is the only published data on transgender athletes. She is currently conducting three studies of how hormone therapy affects transgender athletes, though she said she is still gathering data, which could take years. 

In addition to her research, one oft-cited study published last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that transgender women in the Air Force performed better on fitness tests after one year of hormone therapy when compared to cisgender women. After two years, their performance was “fairly equivalent” to cisgender women, the study’s author, Dr. Timothy Roberts, told NBC News this year. 

Harper said she’s been following the news about Thomas closely and believes it’s true that trans women will maintain some advantages even after hormone therapy. But she said Thomas — who is swimming slower now than she did pre-transition — is just one person, and she doesn’t represent all trans athletes.

“I have seen trans athletes who undergo transition — and either because they don’t adapt well to the change in their testosterone levels, or they had trouble with the medication, or perhaps their life focus changes somewhat — who are not nearly as successful after transition as they were before,” Harper said. “And we’re never going to hear in the media of those trans women who are less successful after transition than they were before because they’re not successful.”

She said she believes that the NCAA’s guideline of requiring one year of hormone therapy is “perfectly reasonable,” and that it “will result in meaningful competition between trans women and cis women,” or women who are not trans. 

She added that the NCAA’s rule has been in place for 10 years, and that trans women “aren’t taking over NCAA sports and are still underrepresented.” She noted that there are more than 200,000 women who compete in the NCAA every year, and that trans people make up about 1 percent of the population. If they were proportionally represented in the NCAA, there should be about 2,000 trans women competing, but she estimates there are less than 100 each year.

“We’ve never seen a transgender NCAA champion, and Lia is not likely to do it either,” Harper said. “But even if she did win an NCAA championship, we should see a few trans women each and every year winning NCAA Division 1 championships. So at some point it has to happen, and this idea that it’s some horrible miscarriage of justice that Lia is successful just doesn’t add up.”

Is the NCAA policy working?

The NCAA’s policy regarding trans women athletes is considered among the strictest of sports governing bodies, especially after the International Olympic Committee nixed testosterone testing and limits for trans women athletes in a new set of guidance released in November

Anne Lieberman, director of policy for Athlete Ally, a group that advocates for LGBTQ-inclusive sports policies, said that part of the conversation about Thomas has been focused on whether the NCAA policy is “working.” 

“What do we mean by ‘working’? So for many people, working means that it will prevent trans athletes from either succeeding or even participating in college athletics — and I think that that’s an important distinction,” said Lieberman, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. “Trans athletes — Lia, in particular — deserve love, support, care, access to be able to swim. And Lia, like any other athlete, should be able to win and lose.”

Lieberman said they don’t think the conversation about Thomas is just about sports, because, they noted, there hasn’t been an issue with the NCAA policy in the last 10 years. Rather, they said the conversation about Thomas and trans athletes generally is part of the “fuel for the political fire that is absolutely ravaging trans rights in this country.”

Ten states — nine this year — have passed laws that ban trans girls and women from playing on female sports teams. More than 20 additional states considered similar bills. Over two dozen states also weighed legislation that would ban trans minors from accessing gender-affirming medical care such as hormones and puberty blockers. Governors in two states — Arkansas and Tennessee — signed such legislation into law, though a judge blocked Arkansas’ law from taking effect in July.

“While people might think more broadly that this is just about sports, this is really about the broader conversation about the humanity of trans folks and whether or not we deserve to participate in all aspects of life in society, and that includes college sports,” they said. 

Gillian Branstetter, press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center, added that there are real needs that female athletes have, including equity in funding, safety from harassment, mental health support and making sure they have equitable facilities. 

“I don’t know that if you were to poll female athletes the participation of people like Lia Thomas would come up very much,” she said. “There are much bigger issues at hand for female athletes, and people who think that they’re saving women’s sports by putting forward their transphobia have never expressed a single piece of interest in saving women’s sports before.”

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