On Wednesdays and Fridays from 3 to 7 pm, I tutor at an after-school program in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Really the job is closer to being a camp counselor, and our hour-long daily activity block poses an interesting challenge for my coworkers and me. The kids I work with range in age from 6 to 12, and they all have to play together for an hour every day. And every single day we have a screaming 10-year-old who doesn’t understand why the 8-year-olds get special treatment during baseball or a helping hand during painting. These kids have a fundamental desire for fairness that we all share in our human nature. A “level playing field” is the appeal of the American dream, and it is probably the most basic tenet of sports. Especially in the United States, we expect equal opportunity for ourselves and our children in every aspect of life. Anyone who puts that fairness in jeopardy becomes a threat to our identity.
This brings us to Lia Thomas. People fear the impact they believe Lia could have on fairness in sports because they subconsciously perceive it as a direct threat to their success or their children’s chances of success. One of the many articles written on the topic puts it this way: “How long until Lionel Messi identifies as Lia Messi and dominates professional women’s soccer? How long until LeBron James goes by Bronette and logs a triple-double in every WNBA game?” The most damaging problem with this argument is the way it assumes trans illegitimacy. When faced with the transgender experience many cisgender people choose doubt over empathy and solidarity. This leads to the pervasive and dangerous thought process that non-transgender men might transition for the sole purpose of succeeding in women’s sports. All it would take is changing your name and identity and undergoing years of hormone therapy, media scrutiny, and hate from your teammates and peers.
But history stacks up against this argument. In fact, this has all happened before. Renee Richards is a transgender former professional tennis player who reached a career-high ranking of 20th in the world in 1979 at the age of 45. I bet you can guess what people said when Richards was allowed to compete as a woman on the pro tour. That’s right. They said it was the beginning of the end for women’s sports. But the fact is that Renee Richards did not inspire thousands of cisgender men to start competing as women. After all, today Lionel Messi is not “Lia Messi," and “Bronette” James is not logging a triple-double in every WNBA game. The reason for this is closely tied to that fundamental fairness instinct. Top-tier athletes play for the love of competition. They live for the tension and the fight as much as the victory itself. In fact, the glory often isn’t worth it without the adversity. The world’s greatest athletes want to push themselves to compete against the best; they want to prove themselves against others who want it just as badly. So no, men will not be transitioning into women’s sports just to have an easier time winning. History and psychology both indicate this.
As previously said, the level playing field is a central tenet of sports, if not its most important principle. We can think back to Tom Brady’s “deflate-gate” or Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal as evidence that the sporting community does not take cheaters lightly. But athletic ability is not evenly distributed across the entire population. Lionel Messi worked his entire life to become the best soccer player he could be, but he was born with the body to do it, and had he not won some kind of genetic lottery he might not have had that chance. Someone like Serena Williams is the same way. Should we stop her from playing tennis because she’s too good? Is it unfair that she is so dominant against her contemporaries? No one would be caught making that argument. Not every human being is constructed equally, and in sports we accept that.
It’s worth noting the two and a half years of hormone therapy that Lia Thomas underwent before swimming for the women’s team. It’s worth noting the drop in her swim times as she transitioned. It’s worth noting that she is consistently not blowing out her competition, including 5th and 8th place finishes at the NCAA championships this year. It’s worth noting that her 500m freestyle time at the championships was almost 10 seconds slower than the women’s NCAA record, and her 500m freestyle personal best competing as a man was 10 seconds slower than that NCAA record at the time. All of these things are worth noting, but they are not the point.
If you have followed my argument up to this point, we agree that cisgender men will not falsely come out as trans in order to take over women’s sports. That is no longer a reason to fear Lia Thomas. We also agree that she is not blowing her competition out of the water. She is an athletically gifted swimmer and always has been. The crucial step is whether we believe that Lia Thomas and other transgender female athletes are telling the truth. She says herself that she only wants to compete in the sport she loves as the person she is: “I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team. I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love.” If you believe her, then Lia Thomas is not a transgender woman. She is a woman. She is a woman who is fighting hard to compete against the best athletes in the sport that she loves. If you believe Lia Thomas, then she is not a transgender female athlete. She is a female athlete.