Last month, University of Pennsylvania transgender senior Lia Thomas competed at the 2022 women’s NCAA swimming and diving championships. Ms. Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle (crawl) event, besting second-place finisher Emma Weyant of the University of Virginia. Thomas’ victory capped off a record-breaking year for the Penn swimmer in which she captured numerous Ivy League records and trounced the competition. (In December, she won a 1650-yard freestyle race by 38 seconds, an astronomical margin of victory in swimming).
‘22 was Lia Thomas’ first-year swimming for the lady Quakers, and she dominated. Previously, Thomas swam for the men’s team where she had a solid, though unremarkable career. (After her junior season, Ms. Thomas sat out for one season while transitioning to a woman and underwent hormone replacement therapy.)
Thomas’ success on the women’s team elicited passionate responses from both sides of the ideological divide. Generally, supporters of Thomas viewed her as a courageous trailblazer for transgender athletes, celebrated her accomplishments, and rightfully pointed out that she broke no NCAA rules. Detractors cried foul, arguing Thomas’ record-breaking season should be null and void because she had an unfair physical advantage over the competition.
There are some significant differences and more nuanced subtleties within the pro and anti-camps that are imperative to highlight.
Among those who do not believe Ms. Thomas should have been able to partake in swimming for the Lady Quakers are two distinct subgroups: individuals who believe Lia Thomas should not be able to swim because they are bigoted against trans-people; and those who fully accept transgender people and support trans rights, but believe that in this specific instance, Ms. Thomas should not have been allowed to participate. We vehemently reject the former and accept and subscribe to the latter viewpoint.
At TQC, we are not discounting the fact that people can and do identify with a sex other than the one on their birth certificate. However, we do not think this qualification entitles Lia Thomas or any other male who transitions into a female (transgender female) the right to compete in an event sanctioned for biological women.
Within the group of people who believe Ms. Thomas had a right to compete on the women’s squad, there are also two distinct subgroups: those who believe that Lia Thomas followed the rules currently established by the NCAA, underwent HRT to lower her testosterone levels, identifies as a woman, and was therefore correct to swim for the Lady Quakers (we can understand and appreciate this view, we simply disagree with it); and those who believe that anybody who says Lia Thomas should not have been allowed to swim is bigoted towards trans people. We emphatically disagree with this notion.
If somebody presents strong, data-driven arguments to underpin their opinion that Lia Thomas should not have been allowed to swim for the Lady Quakers, that does not make them transphobic. Indeed, supporting trans-people (which we do) and supporting a particular trans person competing in a sanctioned event for women (which we do not) are mutually exclusive.
Said Virginia Tech senior Reka Gyorgy who narrowly missed the cut to qualify for a championship race. “I’d like to point out that I respect and fully stand with Lia Thomas; I am convinced that she is no different than me or any other D1 swimmer who has woken up at 5 a.m. her entire life for morning practice…On the other hand, I would like to critique the NCAA rules that allow her to compete against us, who are biologically women.”
As we mentioned earlier in this post, Lia Thomas underwent replacement therapy (HRT) between her junior and senior seasons. HRT works in part by suppressing testosterone levels. Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone; it is also an anabolic steroid and the main driver why men usually outperform women in sports.
Proponents of Ms. Thomas being allowed to compete against biological women assert that HRT mitigated the biological advantage bestowed upon her. It did, but only minimally.
According to The Economist, “A pair of review studies, published in 2020 and 2021, concluded that testosterone suppression does not go far in removing the advantage bestowed by male puberty. The hope was that suppressing testosterone levels would reduce those advantages, letting female athletes compete with trans women on a reasonably level playing field. The science suggests that the compromise does not work.“
Net net, did HRT slow Lia Thomas down? Yes. Did HRT slow Lia Thomas down to a level of ~parity with a competitive NCAA female-born swimmer? No. Taken together, following treatment, Lia Thomas was slower than a competitive NCAA male swimmer but clearly faster than a comparable women’s swimmer.
Let us take a moment to focus on instances of unfair advantage in baseball, a sport that is closely followed by many Americans. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Major League Baseball (MLB) players, including Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa engaged in a furious home run frenzy that culminated in Roger Maris’ single season (61) and Hank Aaron’s all-time (755) home run records getting eviscerated. The accomplishments of McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, and others were certainly impressive, but there will always be an asterisk next to the names. The reason is that they cheated by taking performance-enhancing drugs (steroids).
To be clear, unlike the baseball sluggers mentioned above, Lia Thomas did not cheat; she abided by NCAA rules. But like the players who used anabolic steroids, Thomas had a distinct and unfair physical advantage while competing. This is an undeniable fact, regardless of what side of the political spectrum one falls.
It is also undeniable that straight people have benefited from a general advantage over transgender people because of discrimination. However, the NCAA allowing Thomas to compete is not the correct way to remedy these transgressions.
Is making an exception for a transgender athlete with a history of being marginalized appropriate, if by doing so, the action discriminates against most other athletes, which in this case are biological women. In our view, it does not.
We must not lose sight of the fact that every day, women across America and the world, are discriminated against – culturally, politically, and in the workforce – because of their gender. Women in America have battled to be recognized and treated as equals among their male peers. Disenfranchising 99% of NCAA Division 1 women swimmers who also rise early to practice, who also dream and make big sacrifices for a chance to be an NCAA women’s champ, by allowing a transgender woman to swim against them - and defeat them - is unfair and a violation of women’s rights. It also violates gay and bisexual women’s swimmer’s rights and even other trans women that have not undergone HRT and still compete against men. The NCAA must show backbone and change their rules.
In February, sixteen members of the Lady Quakers swim team penned a letter to Ivy League and NCAA officials expressing their view that Ms. Thomas should not be allowed to compete. An excerpt is here:
“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically…However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity. Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female. If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women’s Swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.”
This letter was reasonable and compassionate. It was also unsigned. The women who wrote it were (rightfully) terrified that they would be vilified by a mob of leftist extremists. Other athletes who spoke on the condition of anonymity shared similar views. Some feared reprisals for not being “progressive enough,” whatever that means. Others were scared it would harm their job prospects or hurt networking opportunities.
Even the reporting of the letter itself was problematic. A headline on the Insidehigherd.com website read “Penn Swimmers Take Aim at Trans Teammate in Anonymous Letter.” This headline is grossly misleading, and a microcosm of how similar issues are reported. The caption implies that Thomas’ teammates were hostile towards a trans-person (“takes aim at trans teammate”). They clearly were not. They were simply expressing their opinion and doing so in a thoughtful, compassionate way, underpinned by facts.
It is one thing to make discriminatory statements. People who do often face consequences. But the fact that college athletes and others feel they cannot express a humble opinion without fear of being canceled is shameful and indicative of a serious problem on college campuses and throughout American culture.