The topic of transgender athletes generates love and support, but also hate, fear, ignorance, misconceptions, and uncertainty.
I’d like to preface this article by stating that I am a cis woman and cannot articulate this topic as well as others could. My goal is to break this topic down in a supportive, evidence-based manner.
Who is Lia Thomas?
Lia Thomas is a 22-year-old transgender woman swimming on the University of Pennsylvania’s Women’s Swim Team. She is a senior economics major.
Thomas says she began questioning her identity near the end of high school.“I felt off,” she told Sports Illustrated, “disconnected with my body.”
After meeting with a trans mentor, Thomas told her brother and parents the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of college. The news was met with support.
However, she continued competing on the men’s team until 2021.
Lia was always an excellent swimmer
An infographic has circulated the Internet, asserting that Lia went from the “worst” swimmer in the men’s league to the “best” swimmer in the women’s league. This is not true.
During her freshman year on the men’s team, Thomas set several personal records. In February 2018, she had top-eight finishes in the 500-yard freestyle, the 1,000-yard freestyle and the 1,650-yard freestyle in the Ivy League championships.
During the 2018-2019 season, while still competing for the men’s team, Thomas had second-place finishes that earned her multiple spots on the All-Ivy team. Despite these victories, Thomas felt “very depressed” from body and gender dysmorphia.
Eventually, Thomas came out to her coaches. Although she feared this could mark the end of her swimming career, she began hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in May 2019.
It is important to note that Lia was on HRT during much of her time competing for the men’s team, which would have affected her times and made her seem “slower” in comparison to the men she competed against. Despite the HRT, though, Lia has always been a competitive swimmer.
“I did HRT knowing and accepting I might not swim again,” she says. “I was just trying to live my life.”
-Lia Thomas, via Sports Illustrated 2022
What is Hormone replacement therapy?
For those unfamiliar, below are some effects as described by Dr. Maddie Deutsch (Associate Professor of Clinical Family & Community Medicine at UCSF and Medical Director for UCSF Transgender Care):
- Skin becomes drier and thinner
- More prone to bruising and cuts in the beginning
- Different/new perceptions of pain and temperature
- Breast development
- Body redistributes weight
- Body hair decreases in thickness
- Minor changes in shoe size and height
- Wider range of emotions in the beginning
- Sperm count most likely stops
- Risk of blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancer
Also, and arguably most relevant to sports, individuals experience loss in muscle mass and strength.
NCAA rules allow athletes to change gender categories, but per the guidelines, Thomas needed a year of HRT before she could compete against other women in championship events. When Thomas started competing against other women in 2021, Thomas had been on HRT for over two years (she has now been on HRT for over three years).
The decision to begin HRT is a massive undertaking. HRT is a medical change – not a social change, such as dressing differently. HRT doesn’t just affect a person’s physical body; it also affects emotions, behaviors, and increases the risk for illnesses.
No one would undergo years of this life-altering treatment for a “phase” or attention.
No one would undergo years of this treatment to excel in a different division of a sport.
On March 17, 2022, Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win first place in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) First Division Swimming Championship, her final competition as a college athlete. She competed in the women’s 500 yard (457 meter) freestyle race.
This is a huge accomplishment for transgender athletes! However, had Thomas raced the same time in 2019, she would have placed third. Out of the meet’s 18 events, Thomas won one race and placed in the top 8 in two others. Lia Thomas didn’t “dominate” the NCAA championships, as critics tend to say.
Lia’s times are on par with cis women
Lia’s wins have been met with anger and critique. Some argue that the inclusion of trans women is unfair to cis female athletes. Others undermine Lia’s status as a woman and blatantly disregard her chosen name. Even more say that puberty gave her an advantage over other female competitors.
In response, The Independent compiled a dataset of swim times for the top 8 NCAA women’s finishers over the last six years of competition.
According to The Independent, these statistics line up with those of trans athletes across the world. Although trans women have been allowed to compete in women’s Olympics since 2004, none have won a medal.
The argument is NOT that trans women should only be allowed to compete if they don’t win; the argument here is that trans women clearly do not “dominate” cis women.
Biological diversity among top athletes has always existed
Michael Phelps has several biological features that provide advantages in swimming. His torso is abnormally long, his wingspan is four inches longer than his height, his lung capacity is twice the average, and his body produces half the levels of lactic acid than the average athlete.
“When tested, Phelps was praised as genetically superior. But when women athletes, especially women of color and/or trans women, exhibit biological diversity, it’s called unfair. This, in reality, is based in transphobia, sexism, racism, and bigotry, not advocating for fairness.”
It is important to consider the transphobia deeply rooted in our society when forming opinions about trans women in sports. We’ve all been exposed to biases throughout our life, whether we are aware of them or not. I also encourage everyone to fact-check all of the information they find on the Internet, because a lot of information about Lia’s swim times has run rampant.
I’ve presented biological and scientific evidence, swimming statistics, and more in support of Lia Thomas. However, when it comes down to it, the root of this issue is very human. It’s about a woman who has undergone tremendous physical change, emotional change, and pain. It’s about a woman who deserves respect.
It’s about a woman’s right to do what she loves: swim.