Perspective: The Lia Thomas case is changing the conversation about transgender athletes in competition
Inclusivity cannot become a cover for discrimination against women
Over the past several weeks, there’s been a shift taking place in the world of women’s sports. The catalyst is the University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer who is breaking collegiate women’s swim records, beating the nearest competitors with unprecedented times.
The reckoning almost came last year, when Laurel Hubbard, a transgender powerlifter from New Zealand competed in the Summer Olympics, but Hubbard failed the lift, and so the proverbial can was kicked down the road. In retrospect, it was good that there was a pause between Hubbard and Thomas. It’s given sports associations and authorities time to think again about the fairness of including trans athletes in women’s competitions. That time has been well used, as many stakeholders and experts have now weighed in, broadening the debate in a way that was not previously possible. And the Thomas case is a turning point.
Thomas had competed for three years on UPenn’s men’s swim team, as recently as November 2019, when the swimmer’s performance was modest. After announcing a gender transition, Thomas joined the women’s swim team and has been smashing records ever since. Thomas ranked No. 462 as a male swimmer, but now ranks No. 1 as a female swimmer.
At first, Thomas’ teammates were silent, which suggested that they did not see an issue of fairness. But then it was revealed, in a formal letter to UPenn from 16 unidentified teammates, that “We have been told that if we spoke out against her inclusion into women’s competitions, that we would be removed from the team or that we would never get a job offer. When media have tried to reach out to us, these journalists have been told that the coaches and athletes were prohibited from talking to them.”
The teammates actually were not all right with what was happening, but were bullied into silence by UPenn.
These teammates, who should have been protected by Title IX, were reduced to the status of what one writer called “third class citizens.” The letter to UPenn from Thomas’ teammates speaks volumes: “We have dedicated our lives to swimming. Most of us started the same time Lia did, as pre-teens. We have trained up to 20 hours a week, swimming miles, running and lifting weights. To be sidelined or beaten by someone competing with the strength, height, and lung capacity advantages that can only come with male puberty has been exceedingly difficult.”
Many high-profile stakeholders echoed this sentiment, including the head coach of the swim team at Rice University, Seth Huston, who concluded, “I just feel like we’re bowing to, in this particular instance, to one person. And really to the detriment of thousands of other athletes potentially. And I don’t think that’s right.”
There are other issues with Thomas’ inclusion on the women’s team that should not go unremarked. Teammates have felt uncomfortable viewing Thomas undressed in the locker room, especially as Thomas has maintained an attraction to women. While this is only tangential to the issue of fairness in competition, it is nevertheless a very real issue for the 25% of women who have been sexually abused in their youth by males. It’s also an issue for women who come from religious, or secular, backgrounds where such a situation is considered immoral or simply unwanted.
While ferment has been brewing behind the scenes for quite a while, it is finally causing a shift in official sports policy. Again, to be technical, some associations had engaged the issue prior to this time. USA Powerlifting determined it was not fair to women to have trans women compete in women’s powerlifting competitions in 2019, and the World Rugby sports association banned trans women from elite competition in women’s rugby in 2020 due to the potential for catastrophic injury to female players. But what happened this week will have even greater reverberations throughout the world of sports.
Last year, the International Olympic Committee issued a directive for international sports federations to create their own sports-specific eligibility criteria. This week, without a doubt catalyzed by the Thomas affair, USA Swimming did just that. After examining new studies, USA Swimming halved the level of allowable circulating testosterone from earlier IOC mandated levels, extended the time duration of such testosterone suppression to 36 months, and instituted a panel of experts, balanced by a council of athletes in the sport, who would be empowered to determine whether “(f)rom a medical perspective, the prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.”
There are some experts who believe the new policy does not go far enough. The new, lower allowable level of circulating testosterone is at least twice that of the high end for typical females. Female swimmers could actually dope themselves, not unlike Soviet Bloc female athletes during the Cold War, to reach the new level and not be in violation of the policy. And the “physical development review” could be a point of potential mischief.
Even so, under the new rules, Thomas would not be able to compete on the UPenn’s women’s swim team, though the NCAA has given itself to the last moment to decide if Thomas will be grandfathered or not before the championships in March.
Thomas’ teammates and their families have appealed to UPenn not to sue to be able to allow Thomas to compete in further NCAA competitions.
What this entire episode suggests is that sex and gender identity are not the same thing, and that when the issue is one of bodies — bodies in physical competition, bodies and physical privacy, bodies in vulnerable physical spaces such as prison — sex may be more important to consider than gender identity.
Inclusivity cannot become a 21st-century cover for discrimination against women. USA Swimming made a difficult Solomonic decision, and should be commended for it. Change is in the air, and state and local boards of education should take note.
Valerie M. Hudson is a University Distinguished Professor at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.