We all know now about Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer born a biological male but who transitioned after puberty. After swimming for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for a time, she decided to take hormone blockers, and now swims on the women’s team.
While her performance on the men’s team was so-so, Thomas has become famous by cleaning up after joining the women’s team, breaking record after record and beating her opponents by substantial times. She may well break the records of famous women swimmers like Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.
It is clear why Thomas was so-so on the men’s team but a champion on the women’s. Biological males differ from biological females in many ways that make them faster swimmers and better athletes in nearly every sport. As I quoted here from another source:
The secondary sex characteristics acquired during puberty in preparation for reproduction lead to measurably different body morphs between males and females (“sexual dimorphism”) across many physical parameters. Broadly, when compared with females, males are taller and have longer bones with narrower hips and wider shoulders; have lower body fat and higher muscle mass differentially distributed across sites, with more resistant connective tissue; have larger hearts and lungs, and higher levels of haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen within the blood.
These translate into performance advantages in nearly every sport, including swimming.
It’s also clear from recent research (see here, for instance), that many of these advantages are acquired at puberty, and even hormone-blocking after puberty (testosterone suppression) won’t eliminate either physical or performance advantages of males, even after three years of treatment. (The International Olympic Committee used to require only one year of hormone suppression.) While Thomas has had several years of hormone suppression, she still shows the physical advantages acquired as a male who experienced puberty, and there’s little doubt that these advantages are making her a champion.
To deny the above is to deny reality. Thomas’s new record of victory largely reflects the physical and phsiological advantages over women she gained at puberty. While she identifies as a woman (and should be treated as such in nearly every area save sport), she is winning with the advantages gained as a male. This should be uncontroversial to anybody who knows the facts.
Yet it is controversial, but for one reason only: transsexuals are regarded as oppressed people and oppression means valorization. “If Thomas identifies as a woman,” the argument goes, “then she should be treated as a woman in every way, including sport.” Those who argue against transwomen competing in women’s sports use ideological rather than scientific arguments, and the result is that people get upset over the palpable unfairness to cis-women athletes. Recognizing transwomen as equivalent to biological women in every respect will, in the end, destroy women’s sports.
This of course is a sore spot for Thomas herself, who identifies as a woman and wants to swim, and on the woman’s team. Her repeated victories have upset a lot of people, some for good reason. Yet Thomas is also a sympathetic figure in many ways, as outlined in her new profile in Sports Illustrated. (Click on screenshot to read.)
Overall this is generally a good article, and properly sympathetic to the opprobrium that Thomas has received as a person. It’s odious to direct hatred at someone who feels she is a woman in every way and wants to swim as one. The proper thing to do is hash out the biological facts (now fairly well known) and then cooly and rationally discuss what to do about them vis-à-vis men’s versus women’s sport. That is not what is happening because of mantra “trans women are women” pretty much shuts down all discussion.
But reading this article, one cannot help but feel for Thomas after seeing things like this:
Thomas has been threatened and called so many names online that she turned off some direct messaging on her Instagram. She avoids mentions of her name online, especially comment sections. She told her parents not to engage in the fight. She asked her friends to stand down. She won’t criticize teammates she knows are rooting against her. “I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” she says. “I am here to swim.”
Every day this season felt like a challenge to her humanity. Part of her wanted people to know her journey to this moment, to know what it felt like to be in a body but not be of that body. She wanted people to know what it was like to finally live an authentic life and what it meant for her to finish a race, to look up at a timing board and see the name lia thomas next to the names of other women. What it meant to her to stand on a podium with other women and be counted as an equal.
There’s no doubting her sincerity and frustration at the arguments swirling around her. She says she’s a woman and wants to swim as one, which sounds simple. But of course it’s not. It is those physical advantages of being born a male and gone through puberty that have largely made her a champion—advantages that will accrue not just to her, but to nearly all transwomen who want to play on women’s teams. And it’s hard to discuss this issue in the abstract without mentioning her name. But she is an exemplar of a new phenomenon, not a freak.
Many people feel like this person:
“We support Lia as a trans woman and hope she leads a happy and productive life, because that’s what she deserves,” one parent of a Penn swimmer says. “What we can’t do is stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport. If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country.”
I share these sentiments, not not quite as apocalyptically. But Thomasrejected these sentiments, in her one statement to which I object (emphasis is mine):
“It’s mean,” one Penn parent who identifies as a progressive but opposes Thomas’s eligibility says of the online and media bigotry directed at her. “Lia is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. But it’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming.”
That argument is disingenuous to Thomas. There is no such thing as half-support: Either you back her fully as a woman or you don’t. “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she says. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”
No, the argument is not disingenuous, and yes, there is such a thing as “partial support”. You can fully support Thomas’s desire to transition, to be regarded as a woman, to be treated with respect and accorded moral and legal equality, and yet not support the “right” for her to swim on women’s team.” The question is not one of “respect,” but of fairness to others. Thomas, of course, won’t address her physical advantages, as that would be playing into the hands of her opponents.
Those who oppose her swimming for Penn include a substantial number of her teammates, who of course will not go public on the issue:
The Quakers’ women’s roster has 37 swimmers. Those close to the team estimate that Thomas has six to eight adamant supporters, maybe half the team opposes her competing against other women and the rest have steered clear of the debate. An unsigned letter, which the university said represented “several” Penn swimmers and was released through the school in early February, said Thomas was “value[d] as a person, teammate and friend” and took aim at the stories circulating about her. “The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values and opinions of the entire Penn team.”
Two days later, 16 Penn teammates sent an unsigned letter to Ivy League officials, requesting that Thomas be held out of the conference championship meet. The letter was organized by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist who heads Champion Women, a women’s sports advocacy group that focuses on Title IX issues. “If [Thomas] were to be eligible to compete,” the letter read, “she could now break Penn, Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.” The Ivy League later issued an unequivocal statement that Thomas would be allowed to swim.
What is to be done in this case? The NCAA, which regulates college sports, has proposed a solution that, in view of the difficulties of implementing it, seems unworkable:
Four days before the video call, the NCAA essentially punted on the issue of transgender athlete eligibility. Previously, the organization had a uniform access policy based on a minimum one-year hormone therapy requirement. But in January the NCAA pushed eligibility guidelines to each sport’s national governing body. That meant USA Swimming would decide on Thomas’s ability to swim in the NCAA championships.
USA Swimming released new guidelines Feb. 1, laying out a series of requirements and establishing a three-person medical panel to determine whether transgender women have “a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” The new guidelines set a ceiling testosterone level of five nanomoles per liter—half the threshold used by previous Olympic rules—that transgender athletes would need to register, continuously, for 36 months before applying to swim as a woman.
It seems as if there are two parts here: the hormone requirement and “whether the athlete has a competitive advantage over cisgender female competitors”. The hormone requirement will not answer the question of competitive advantage, and it’s hard to see how, at this point, any research will. Even the Olympics has, for the moment, rescinded its rule on transgender athletes and has no rule in place at all. How on earth can you assess a transsexual athlete like Thomas and decide whether she has a “competitive advantage over cisgender females”?
Well, the question can be answered partly by one’s performance swimming as a man against men and swimming as a transgender woman against women. And the answer is, “Yes, she has a competitive advantage.” So whatever her hormone levels, the two-part rule applied in toto suggests she should not be swimming on a women’s team. But many trans athletes lack such a cisgender performance record to serve as a “control”, and there the “performance advantage” criterion is useless.
In view of our inability to judge whether a transgender woman without this control has a competitive athletic advantage over cisgender women, I and others have proposed solutions: having two leagues, “cis-women” and “other”; or three leagues “biological men,” “biological women”, and “other”. Alternatively just use the same two categories of “men” and “women,” but stipulate that all transgender people must compete on men’s teams. There are problems of stigmatization here, of course, and no solution is perfect, but the least perfect solution is to ignore what we know about science and impose dubious tests on “hormone titer” (known, in fact, not to work) or “competitive advantage” (impossible to judge in a transgender athlete.) Short of having the kind of “control” that Thomas’s performance as a man competing against men versus as a transwoman competing against women, I see no way forward.
The Sports Illustrated article, as I said, is good. I was expecting a “woke”piece denigrating those who object to Thomas’s swimming on the women’s team, but that is not the piece that Sanchez wrote. His is much better than I expected. Yet there remain two statements by the author that make me think that his piece is indeed taking the view that athletes like Thomas should compete on women’s teams.
The first is this (my bolding).
This had been a season unlike any in her 22 years, and unlike any in the history of her sport. The shy senior economics major from Austin became one of the most dominant college athletes in the country and, as a result, the center of a national debate—a living, breathing, real-time Rorschach test for how society views those who challenge conventions.
No, that is not what the debate, at least for people like me, is about, for it implies that denying Thomas’s right to swim goes along with being “transphobic.” It is a “Rorschach test” on only one issue: what criteria should we use to determine who plays on men’s versus women’s teams? Science or gender identity? It is not a Rorschach test about whether or not one accepts the identity and value of transsexual people—who do challenge conventions and should be accepted just as gay people have been accepted.
This statement, though, angers me more:
On Dec. 5, two days after the Ohio meet, some Penn swim parents sent a letter to the NCAA asking that Thomas be ruled ineligible for women’s competitions. The arguments would soon become familiar to Thomas. Her puberty gave her an advantage over other female competitors. Science allegedly showed trans women had larger hands and feet, bigger hearts and greater bone density and lung capacity.
“Allegedly“? There is no “allegedly” here. The science is of course far from complete, but it does show without a doubt that trans women who transition after puberty retain some of the physical and physiological features that give men an athletic edge. Does author Robert Sanchez know those data? If so, why does he cast doubt on them? That is disingenuous. If he doesn’t know them, shame on him for ignorance. “Allegedly” is a word Sanchez uses to denigrate the science used to support the case that Thomas has an unfair athletic advantage.
It is a sign of the times that debating the participation of trans athletes in sports has become a largely taboo topic, for if you bring up the fairness issue or the science itself you are deemed a “transphobe”: a term designed to shut down honest debate about the serious issue of men’s versus women’s sports (serious enough, at least, to help engender the Title IX Act).
Thomas is simply wrong in asserting that “there is no such thing as half-support: Either you back [me] fully as a woman or you don’t.” She accepts no half measures. And if that’s her view, then I reject it, because “fully” means “as a woman athlete as well”. There are many people who offer nearly full support to Thomas (not half but 95% support, I’d say), and those folks include both me and the Penn parents quoted above. Can’t people see that being empathic towards transwomen and supporting their gender identity need not include also regarding them as biological women on every single issue?