If Lia Thomas' teammates can't raise concerns about transgender athletes, we all lose

Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas waits for results after swimming the women's 200 freestyle final at the NCAA swimming and diving championships Friday, March 18, 2022, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas waits for results after swimming the women's 200 freestyle final at the NCAA swimming and diving championships Friday, March 18, 2022, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
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One person entering the NCAA Women’s Swimming championships this month in Atlanta has raised serious questions about women’s sports and the very nature of womanhood.

Lia Thomas is a transgender woman swimmer who, after three years on the University of Pennsylvania men’s swimming team, transitioned to a woman and swam the last year on the woman’s team.

She went on to shatter school records and dominated the Ivy League women’s championships by winning three titles in three days.

Now she is a national champion in the 500-yard women’s freestyle.

While much of the big media celebrates the accomplishment of the first transgender woman to win an NCAA national title, others, including pioneers in U.S. women’s sports, have expressed concern that a transgender woman has been allowed to bring the enormous size and strength advantages conferred by male puberty to an important women’s championship.

Those concerns should not be casually dismissed.

Lia Thomas did nothing wrong. There's another issue

Let’s be clear. Lia Thomas did nothing wrong. She followed all the rules as prescribed to compete in the NCAA championships. She went through two years of hormone replacement therapy to qualify.

I think we’re focusing on the wrong UPenn swimmer.

The more fundamental concern at this point should be a group of 16 UPenn women swimmers who believe that what has happened is bad for women’s sports. However, they are too frightened to say so openly.

They are teammates of Lia Thomas and have something to lose because she is taking a slot in qualifying races and championship rounds while enjoying the physical advantages that came with male puberty. In February they brought their concerns to their school officials and the NCAA in the form of a letter that none felt they could sign openly. They remained anonymous.

New policies that open the door to transgender women have the real potential to change the nature of women’s sports, and these young swimmers believe they are forbidden to speak out openly against it.

Why is that?

Other swimmers can only speak anonymously

They fear retaliation, said 1984 Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar to the Washington Post.

In the letter Hogshead-Makar sent on their behalf, the UPenn 16 said they were told “we would be removed from the team or that we would never get a job offer” if they openly expressed their concerns about Lia Thomas. “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. We support Lia’s mental health, and we ask Penn and the Ivy League to support ours as well.”

One of their parents, also speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals against her daughter, told The Post, “There’s a swimmer who is a senior. She approached the coach about this. She was, in so many words, told to ‘get over it.’ ”

In their letter, the women acknowledge Lia Thomas “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.”

Free speech is eroding, especially at universities

There has been a rollback of speech in America that is particularly acute on American college campuses. On Friday The New York Times devoted a long editorial to the matter: “America has a free speech problem”.

Several college students from across the country described in the March 15 Wall Street Journal how stifling the university environment has become.

“Too many college classes foster ideological groupthink rather than the free exchange of ideas. It’s unfortunate that many students are afraid to share their opinions because they’re scared their peers may lash out at them,” wrote Thomas Wolfson, a history and economics major at the University of Maryland.

“What’s more of a problem is the overt politics of university administrators and some professors. The adults in charge should be pushing their students to confront different ideas. Instead, many administrators attempt to comfort and shield students from exposure to differing points of view.

“This hinders a student’s critical thinking. Ironically, it also makes students less inclusive and empathetic. They grow certain that what they believe must be right, since this is what they’re being told by the adults in charge. Anyone who thinks differently must be crazy.”

If we stop talking, we can't find compromise

The question of gender transition is a complex one. Those who would open all doors to women’s sports to transgender women believe it is harmful to deny trans women the full expression of their womanhood.

Those concerns should be taken seriously. But they need to be part of a discussion in which alternative views and opinions are welcome.

These are important changes in how we reorder society. Policy is being made to serve transgender athletes with no consideration for the unintended consequences they create for athletes who are not. In trying to make transgender women fully accepted, we are asking women athletes who are not transgender to bear the price.

There may in fact be a third way to make this all work, but if dissenting women don’t believe they can safely express their opinions we won’t have that conversation.

Speech is the fundamental building block of civilized society. Words are what we use to solve our differences. If words are taken away, we turn to other means and civilization breaks down.

These are larger social issues that require discussion, and we can’t forbid opinions that would risk offending transgender people as we work our way through it. To do so is to crush speech and end debate.

That is un-democratic and violates American basic values. And until the UPenn 16 can speak their minds with their names attached we have a more serious problem in this country than any advantage a transgender woman might bring to the swimming pool.

Phil Boas is editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic. He can be reached at phil.boas@arizonarepublic.com.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Lia Thomas' teammates must be able to freely raise concerns