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Arthur Christory / Gavel Media

Lia Thomas and the Larger Picture of Transgender Athletes

The debate surrounding transgender women’s right to compete in female sports has been reignited thanks to a particularly telling photograph taken at the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving championship. The picture shows national champion, Lia Thomas, standing isolated from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place competitors who all huddle together on the furthest 3rd place podium. 

Thomas was first the subject of press in 2019 after she began hormone replacement therapy and subsequently came out publicly as transgender. She did not compete in the 2020-2021 season, in order to save her final year of eligibility for competition. Upon her return to the pool, however, Thomas was met with unwarranted criticism and vitriol. 

Her success in the 2021-2022 season–her first on the women's team–made her a target for the American Right, who have misconstrued her hard work and dedication. Instead of taking it as what it is, they weaponize her sacrifices as a testament to an “unfairness” and “inequity” that accompanies transgender athletes competing alongside those with whom they identify. The idea that a transgender women is at an unfair advantage in a female sport is both untrue and demeaning. 

The argument that cites the hormone imbalance between men and women as an exclusionary measure for transgender people in sports is rooted in ignorance. NCAA rules for competition require transgender athletes to be on hormone replacement therapy for at least a year before they are eligible to compete in championships. Thomas has been using HRT since early 2019, which means she is about a year over the required timeline already. 

The inherent inequality of sports is also worth noting. Athleticism is determined by a combination of biological and genetic factors that differ for every person. Some people are naturally born less athletic than others. The addition of underlying health issues as well as physical characteristics (height, weight, muscle density, etc.) also contribute to a person’s ability to compete. Michael Phelps, for example, produces about half the amount of lactic acid as a normal person. This gives him a biological advantage over his competition because he fatigues much less quickly than the average person. Despite this advantage, neither his success nor his integrity are ever attacked due to factors out of his control. If a person is complying with national standards for competition then it is nobody else’s place to insert their opinion on their eligibility to compete. Sports are, will, and have always been, to an extent, unfair, and the focus on Lia Thomas’s eligibility is merely a means to discredit her gender and ostracize her. 

Furthermore, statistically, Thomas is right in line with other cisgendered competitors. Despite the egregious outcry against her supposed “domination” of her sport, she was neither the most accomplished athlete of the national competition nor did she have the best times of her category. Kate Douglass of UVA had an impressive 18 record breaking times in the same meet, yet her outstanding success was completely overlooked in favor of discrimination and degradation directed at Thomas. Not only that, but the win that initiated this dissent, Thomas's 500 yard time of 4m 33.24, is still nine seconds behind Katie Ledecky’s record set in 2017. Despite these statistics, Thomas’s times are still considered unfair and attributed to her transition solely because they can be. The people that call these times into question clearly don’t have an issue with the times themselves, but rather the fact that they were set by a transgender woman. 

The attack upon Lia Thomas’s success is not a call for fairness in equity in sports, it's an attempt to exclude and alienate transgender individuals based solely upon their identity. These questions of athletic integrity only work to discredit trans identities. A transgender woman is just as much a woman as any cisgender woman is, and Lia Thomas is a woman just like every other woman she competes against. Aside from the rules and regulations that Thomas is obviously complying to, her gender identity is not up for public debate–much less for random twitter users who think their words carry more weight than those of accredited professionals working for a national competition agency. The photo taken at the championship stands as a physical manifestation of the discrimination and alienation transgender people face, especially when their rightfully earned success supercedes that of their cisgendered competitors. Lia Thomas is an incredibly accomplished and impressive athlete who deserves to have her success not only be recognized but met with equally enthusiastic joy and congratulations. She does not deserve to have her identity and integrity questioned and attacked simply because she swims faster.

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