A trans college athlete in the US found her way onto the pages of the Washington Post this week.
Lia Thomas is a 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania student. After over 30 months of hormone replacement therapy (for most of which she competed on UPenn’s male swimming team), Ms Thomas has moved to swim as part of the women’s team.
The athlete is breaking records and is rapidly becoming the face of the toxic debate over trans athletes in professional sport. A recent letter by UPenn swim team parents to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) called her participation a “direct threat to female athletes in every sport”.
Sports stars from tennis player Martina Navratilova to US Olympian Erika Brown have loudly stated Ms Thomas has no place competing as a woman. The online debate has included surgically intimate discussions of Thomas’ biology and transition. The Post, for its part, sent a journo to watch her at a swim meet, writing her victory “looked effortless”. A loaded choice of words to which we’ll return.
But stripped of disguise, all arguments against Ms Thomas competing as a professional women’s athlete stem from the idea Ms Thomas is not, in fact, a woman.
The debate around trans athletes has been cooling its heels for decades. It’s only recently gathered steam as more global communities accept the overwhelming medical, historical and cultural evidence trans people are an eternal fact of the human condition. The rotten way trans people caught in its spotlight have been treated has been perceived as somehow understandable because medals (and money) are at stake.
Perhaps the most idiotic assumption in the sporting world is the idea men will identify as trans to get a leg up as athletes. Years of invasive medical procedures and global vilification are as nothing it seems to the prospect of five or so years of athletic prowess.
To hear the imperative terms trotted out every time a trans athlete so much as sniffs at a competitive event, it would be easy to assume a Mongol horde of Lia Thomas’ are on the way. As of March 2021, less than one per cent of the 180,000 student athletes who register annually with the NCAA are trans.
Olympic swimmer Erika Brown has gone with more biological arguments, posting on Instagram, Thomas will have the advantage of a larger heart and lung capacity. It’s an astounding argument to make in a world where genetically modified humans are visible on the horizon, while 57 per cent of athletes admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Where trans athletes are concerned, arguments against their inclusion border on the discussion of eugenics.
“Does Lia Thomas have pure enough genetics to compete?”
Sensible, compassionate people prefer this Aryan line of discussion to simply embracing this lady and celebrating her hard-earned success.
The Post’s description of Thomas’ performance as “effortless” hits the final, regressive trans trope: trans athletes get an easier ride to victory. As if Thomas rolled out of bed at 10am on the day of competition, skulled a cold one, belly-flopped into the pool and still somehow grabbed the gold.
The fact Lia Thomas transitioned while going through the gruelling training needed to be the world-class athlete she has clearly become is borderline miraculous.
Where athletes and feminists have lost their bottle, sits in their cold ignorance of the fact that ghettoising trans women ghettoises women. But then women fighting women over who gets to be a woman must sit somewhere in the ranks of peak patriarchal gaslighting.
It’s true, there is a small, elite cadre of tough, hard-working and ambitious trans men and women out there who could very well come to dominate pockets and periods of the sporting world.
The failure of that world to embrace this bold, hard-working few, transcends ignorance, elitism, hypocrisy and hysteria.
It’s flat out cruel.