Transgender swimmer’s controversy: fair competition and inclusion

Amid bills targeting transgender youth and athletes, a fresh wave of controversy emerged after transgender athlete Lia Thomas’s historic, but controversial, NCAA championship win. 

When University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer Lia Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle event at the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming Championship, she made history as the first known transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport.

What could have been seen as a milestone for transgender athletes and the LGBTQ+ community, however,  was quickly surrounded by controversy. Following Thomas’s win, this photo quickly went viral online, which many social media users claimed to show the second, third and fourth place swimmers protesting against Thomas’ inclusion in the competition. 

The issue at hand, at least in my eyes, is one in which a game of balance must be played between two parts: the preservation of fair competition while also fostering inclusion. The use of this viral photo by mainly right-winged media to promote anti-transgender legislation is incredibly harmful.

Thomas’s controversy emerged when transgender issues have become a prominent front in politics. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign a bill into law that would, among other things, prohibit classroom instruction, especially in younger grades, “about sexual orientation or gender identity.” Legislators in Idaho are moving forward with a bill that would make it a felony for parents to help with gender-affirming health care – like hormone therapy – or to take their children to another state for medical procedures related to gender transitioning. 

According to this article from Reuters, the photo taken of the three athletes on the podium actually lacks context. The photo does show University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas standing on a podium by herself, while second-place winner Emma Weyant, third-place swimmer Erica Sullivan and fourth-place winner Brooke Forde celebrate on a separate podium. However, Weyant, Sullivan and Forde competed together in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and, according to the article, were taking a group photo together in commemoration of their participation in the Toyko Olympics after the official podium photo with all winners including Thompson took place. 

Further, Sullivan wrote an op-ed for Newsweek in which she announced her support for Sullivan: women’s sports, she claims, are stronger when all women are “protected from discrimination.” Acknowledging that many of those who oppose transgender athletes like Thomas being able to participate in sports claim to be ‘protecting women’s sports.’ However, the real threats to women’s sports are sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership. Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list. 

Clearly, when it comes to transgender women competing in sports, there are a lot of different opinions. Virginia Tech swimmer Reka Gyorgy, for example, wrote an open letter about transgender athletes competing at the collegiate level after she placed 17th in the event Thomas won. 

She wrote that while she supports Thomas as a transgender woman, she didn’t agree with the NCAA’s policy allowing her to compete. Writing, “Every event that transgender athletes participated in was one spot taken away from biological females throughout the meet.” 

What could be cast aside as the whining of a “sore loser” should be at least taken into consideration as Gyorgy’s views aren’t uncommon. Those who disagree with Thomas competing argue that she – and other transgender female athletes – have an unfair physical advantage. However, as many other social media users have pointed out…Thomas didn’t finish first in every event she competed in. 

According to this article from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thomas didn’t “break any records” and “her race times were not extraordinary.” She came in 5th in the 200-yard freestyle and her 500-yard freestyle time was more than 9 seconds slower than Katie Ledecky’s record. In other words: 9 seconds in swimming is major.

It’s also important to note that the NCAA does have restrictions in place for transgender athletes. 

According to this press release, Transgender student-athletes need to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections. They’re also required to document levels at the beginning of their season and then again 6 months later.

Further, according to the NCAA publication, “Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes” (ITSA), the organization lists 10 “guiding principles” on which their decisions are made in regards to transgender participation.

Among this list, it states that “transgender athletes should have equal opportunity to participate in sports” and “the integrity of women’s sports should be preserved.” They also clearly state that “policies governing sports should be based on sound medical knowledge and scientific validity.” Clearly, the decision to enact rules and regulations to allow transgender athletes to compete was not taken lightly by the NCAA. 

The controversy surrounding Lia Thomas’s historic win should allow us to recognize that the rantings of social media users like Tony Wayne Tingen’s “YOU ARE BORN MALE & FEMALE…IF YOU ARE AT THE TOP OF YOUR SPORT THATS GREAT ITS LONLY AT THE TOP BUT REMEMBER YOU ARE THE BEST..AS GOD MADE YOU” with its grammatical errors, extremism and ignorance – are indicative of a growing need for acceptance and empathy during times when the rights of individuals like Lia Thomas are actively being challenged. 

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