Trans Athletes Like GOP Obsession Lia Thomas Face an Uncertain Future

·13 min read
Hunter Martin/Getty
Hunter Martin/Getty

Anti-transgender animus has only increased in the week since the NCAA scrapped its 11-year-old transgender participation policy in favor of a sport-by-sport model favored by the International Olympic Committee.

Instead of supporting inclusion with its one-size-fits-all policy, the NCAA announced on Jan. 19 that it had “updated” that policy to put the onus for determining eligibility on each sport’s national or international governing body.

In the case of Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer whose participation in her sport has become a tabloid obsession, that means it’s up to USA Swimming, which is awaiting new directives from the International Swimming Federation (FINA), whether she will be able to compete. USA Swimming has had a trans-inclusive policy since 2018.

Record-Breaking Trans Swimmer Lia Thomas Shrugs Off Critics, Talks About Swimming as Her ‘Authentic Self’

“USA Swimming firmly believes in inclusivity and the opportunity for all athletes to experience the sport of swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression,” spokesperson Isabelle McLemore told the Daily Beast in an email. “We also strongly believe in competitive equity, and, like many, are doing our best to learn and educate ourselves on the appropriate balance in this space.”

‘Violent rhetoric’

USA Swimming is one of a very small number sports organizations, associations and conferences across the world of college sports willing to go on the record and pledge some kind of inclusion for trans athletes.

In addition to their statement, only the Ivy League, the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) have come out in support of trans athletes since the NCAA abandoned its inclusive policy. USA Curling actually adopted an expanded inclusion policy back in October 2021, co-authored by trans athlete JayCee Cooper.

The Daily Beast contacted more than a dozen of these groups, across the country and governing a wide variety of college sports, and asked: Will they be instituting new policies regarding participation by transgender student-athletes? Did the NCAA’s passing of the buck spark new discussions among its officials?

The other organizations include: FINA, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA), the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Conference USA (C-USA), the Big10 and the Big12 conferences, and the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

McKenzie Garrison, a spokesperson for the NJCAA, told The Daily Beast: “The NJCAA prohibits unlawful discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, religion, creed, sexual orientation, age or any other characteristic protected by applicable law in the NJCAA's governance, programs, regulations and employment practices. The NJCAA supports all student-athletes and has an ongoing commitment to fostering equity in two-year college athletics.”

Only one other group responded; spokespersons for one of these conferences asked to remain anonymous and declined to issue any statement, instead referring us back to NCAA officials for further comment.

“We are absolutely concerned that there aren’t more voices of support for Lia,” Athlete Ally spokesperson Joanna Hoffman told The Daily Beast. “She is a talented, hardworking athlete who met all of the policy requirements to be able to swim, and is now being targeted by violent rhetoric. Transgender athletes, like all athletes, are allowed to both win and lose, and to label an athlete as a ‘cheat’ simply because they are transgender is not only abusive and discriminatory, but also demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the many factors that make someone a good athlete.”

Hoffman went on to note that the growing outcry among cisgender athletes and parents isn’t really about Lia Thomas, but about trans people being treated fairly by society in all aspects of life, from public accommodations to housing, healthcare and sports.

“This isn’t an isolated issue, and we need everyone who believes in equality and in treating human beings with respect and compassion to speak out in support of trans inclusion,” said Hoffman. “We all deserve to be fully who are in all areas of life.”

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) strongly condemned the NCAA. Senior Vice President Jay Brown said in a statement, “The NCAA calls its new constitution a “declaration of independence”—but it’s really a ‘declaration of intolerance.’ No longer are student-athletes guaranteed protection against discrimination and harassment because of who they are.

“This new constitution jeopardizes the health and safety of its most vulnerable participants especially in states that are trying to pass anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Student-athletes are left needlessly confused and deeply concerned about their ability to compete on an equal playing field with their peers from one state to another. And that’s a bad call.

“We also condemn the NCAA for reversing its inclusive policies on trans athletes specifically. The NCAA surrendered its power to protect trans athletes to the governing bodies of individual sports, leading to a sport-by-sport patchwork of policies that will leave some of our trans athletes behind.”

Thomas’ school, the University of Pennsylvania, has pledged to work with the NCAA going forward. This past weekend, the out transgender swimmer whose record-setting performance last month sparked all this controversy, competed in an Ivy League meet on Saturday at Harvard. The Austin, Texas native won two of the three women’s events in which she competed with her Penn Quaker teammates: the 100 and 200 free, beating her Harvard Crimson competitors by little more than one second.

According to out trans journalist Karleigh Webb, who covered the meet for Outsports, no one raised objections to Thomas competing, no protesters appeared inside or outside the venue, but there was an increased security presence as well as more local and national media than usual. Webb told The Daily Beast, despite tabloid reports of Thomas supposedly stoking division among the women on the Penn swim team, she saw her teammates cheering for Thomas, and even her competitors showed her respect.

“Harvard’s Samantha Shelton reached across the lane lines after the 100 free and the two swimmers exchanged a fist bump,” a moment she captured on video, said Webb. “That was important. To see the Harvard athletes show that sort of sportsmanship and show that camaraderie among competitors, regardless of how they felt at that moment, I respect that.”

Reporters were not allowed to interview athletes or coaches, but sources tell The Daily Beast the university has made Thomas available for her first interview with a journalist writing for Sports Illustrated. It’ll be her first comments since appearing on the SwimSwam video podcast last month. (Thomas did not return requests for comment for this article.)

Unless USA Swimming or FINA sets a policy that stops Thomas from competing, her next event is this Friday night, when Penn meets West Chester, in their final dual meet before the Ivy League Championships back in Cambridge, Mass. next month. Thomas has already qualified for the NCAA Championships in Atlanta in March, which if she competes will make her the first transgender student-athlete to compete in a Division I NCAA championship.

Trans bans, the sequel

And perhaps she will be the last. Republican lawmakers in at least seven states picked up where the GOP left off in 2021, preparing at least nine new measures to limit the rights of trans and nonbinary youngsters after the cruelest year on record for anti-trans legislation: Nine states enacted such laws last year, and South Dakota issued executive orders.

Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and South Dakota have introduced at least nine new bills this month to ban trans students from participate in school sports, receive gender-affirming health care or use the bathroom matching their gender identity.

Welcome to Another Year of Anti-Trans, Anti-LGBTQ Lawmaking

South Dakota state senators passed the first anti-trans sports bill of 2022 on the same day as the NCAA announcement. Indiana lawmakers are preparing to vote this week on House Bill 1041, which aims to prohibit children assigned male at birth from participating in any elementary or high school athletic competition designated as a “girls” or “female” sport — regardless of the child’s gender identity or physical characteristics.

The lawmakers, cognizant that the NCAA is based in Indianapolis, stripped the bill of a prohibition on Indiana trans women competing at the collegiate level.

However, a report by KPVI said the state’s attorney general, Republican Todd Rokita, wants the ban on college trans athletes restored, as does the Alliance Defending Freedom, the far right Christian extremist law firm that has authored almost all of the anti-trans bills and has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Lia Thomas: the media pile-on

Against that backdrop, anti-inclusion and right-wing media outlets are extremely fired-up in reporting on this new push for bans by state legislatures and sports organizations, especially in the wake of the NCAA’s policy switcheroo. Swimming World magazine has published a series of op-eds, one accusing the NCAA of “turning its back on women’s sports.” The Federalist said the organization “promotes men infiltrating women’s sports.” And two teammates of Thomas reportedly have come forward—anonymously—to air their grievances.

“Lia was not even close to being competitive as a man in the 50 and the 100 (freestyle events),” one anonymous swimmer reportedly told the Washington Examiner. “But just because Lia is biologically a man, [Lia] is just naturally better than many females in the 50 and the 100 or anything that [Lia] wasn’t good at as a man.”

That last part is a questionable claim: Comparing Thomas’ times when she swam for the men’s team to now is not an exact science, since she didn’t compete in the 50 or 100 free before 2021. Thomas has stated she started her medical transition, including testosterone suppression, more than two years ago. According to Outsports, her posted times on the women’s team are all slower than her posted times on the men’s team, across the board. In the 200 they’re 2.6 percent slower, 5.9 percent slower in the 500, and 7.3 percent slower in the 1,650.

OutKick reported that another Penn teammate believes Thomas conspired with a trans man swimmer at Harvard to fix their race on Jan. 8.

In the 100 freestyle, Yale’s Iszac Henig finished with a time of 49.57; Thomas touched the wall in 52.84.

There’s been no independent corroboration or investigation into the athlete’s accusation of collusion. “I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be shocked if I found out that was 100% true,” Thomas’ teammate told Outkick. Thomas swam the 100 free in 50.55 seconds on Saturday and in a November tri-meet against Princeton and Cornell, Thomas finished first with 49.42. While she has set records for Penn and the Ivy League and has the fastest times among all women in the NCAA in the 200 free, she has not set any national records and is only in the top ten in the 1,650 free, according to Outsports.

GLAAD condemned the media coverage around Thomas in a statement sent to The Daily Beast. “Everyone involved in sports should be speaking up for Lia and encouraging all transgender youth to play,” spokesperson Barbara Simon wrote. “So much media coverage of Lia has been inaccurate, vicious, and dangerous. Lia followed all guidelines. Trans people have the right not only to exist, but to learn, play, win or lose, just like everyone else.

“All kids need to hear the message that anyone can play. Outlets and individuals hyper-focusing on trans participation are far too often silent on real issues threatening women and girls' sports such as abuse and lack of equity. Their choices reveal a real lack of credibility about any discussion of what's fair in women’s and girls’ sports.”

NCAA response inadequate and troubling

The media bashing and how the NCAA has handled the response to Thomas’s success have prompted two cisgender pro swimmers—Olympians Madeline Groves and Jacob Pebley—and four prominent trans advocates to speak out: the first out trans athlete in Division I of the NCAA, former Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar, Duathlete and trans rights advocate Chris Mosier, trans athlete and Loughborough University researcher Joanna Harper, and Dr. Dorian Rhea Debussy, the associate director for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kenyon College in Ohio.

Debussy resigned from the NCAA in protest in an open letter Monday, announcing they could not continue as a facilitator of the Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program. One of its stated goals is “to ensure all individuals may participate in an athletics climate of respect and inclusion, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” they wrote in their letter, published online by Athlete Ally. “As a nonbinary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Not only did they criticize the organization for its abandonment of its trans participation policy but also for stripping non-discrimination language from its new constitution. “In the midst of a continued national wave of anti-trans legislation that is often aimed at gender diverse youth and young adults, I find the NCAA’s public response to this important issue as inadequate and troubling at best.”

Mosier told the Daily Beast they did the right thing.

“I support Dr. Dorian Rhea Debussy’s decision to resign in protest over the NCAA’s new transgender policy—in fact, I did the same, resigning from my work the NCAA Common Ground Initiative in March 2021, when the NCAA failed to take action to prevent harms against transgender college student athletes as bills across the country banned them from sport,” Mosier wrote in a message to the Daily Beast.

“I am extremely proud of the work I did with the Common Ground Initiative and supportive of the committee's ongoing efforts to improve inclusion on campuses across the country, but I could not in good faith allow the NCAA to benefit from association with me as a transgender athlete and someone fighting for inclusion when the organization was not upholding its end of the deal. The NCAA should not benefit from Dr. Debussy's work or identity either.”

Bailar has been using Instagram to advocate for Thomas and all trans athletes.

As for Harper, she applauded the NCAA for deciding that “testosterone is an important differentiator” in determining eligibility for competition, but she called on the organization to find a way to enforce a standard.

“More than 90% of all trans women on hormone therapy have testosterone levels within the reference female range including the trans athletes we study at Loughborough University,” Harper said in an email to the Daily Beast. “This means that the vast majority of trans female athletes—probably including Lia Thomas—will have testosterone values well under any reasonable testosterone limit imposed by sports-governing bodies.”

In their statement, USA Swimming said it is waiting on FINA to set those testosterone standards for Thomas and other transgender athletes.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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