Respect Diversity + Inclusion

Lia Thomas: ‘Trans women are not a threat to women’s sports’

The former collegiate swimmer fired back at critics in a series of rare interviews.
University of Pennsylvania transgender athlete Lia Thomas competes in a preliminary heat of the 500 meter freestyle at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

Story at a glance

  • Lia Thomas, a transgender woman and former University of Pennsylvania swimmer, told ABC News in an interview on Tuesday that she doesn’t need “permission” to live and compete as her authentic self.

  • She said critics accusing her of transitioning to gain a competitive advantage in the pool are sorely mistaken.

  • In another interview with ESPN on Tuesday, Thomas said her journey has all been worth it.

Lia Thomas, the former University of Pennsylvania swimmer at the center of a heated national debate over whether transgender women should compete against cisgender athletes, has addressed her critics in a pair of rare interviews.

Thomas, who swam on the university’s women’s team for the first time this year, has been the subject of protests regarding “fairness” in women’s sports and has been used on more than one occasion as a talking point by conservative lawmakers seeking to advance legislation to bar transgender women and girls from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

“I knew there would be scrutiny against me if I competed as a woman. I was prepared for that,” Thomas told ABC News correspondent Juju Chang in an interview that aired Tuesday morning. “But I also don’t need anybody’s permission to be myself and to do the sport that I love.”

Thomas explained that despite being able to attend her Ivy League dream school and compete on its men’s swim team, by her sophomore year, the gender dysphoria she had felt since her early childhood had taken over her life, leaving her depressed and suicidal.

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She told ABC News she had been prepared to give up her swimming career in order to transition. But that didn’t happen.

Thomas in 2019 began hormone-replacement therapy and, under NCAA guidelines, was able to change gender categories the following year. The 2020 Ivy League season was later canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview in early March with Sports Illustrated, Thomas said she had the full backing of her family when she made the decision to transition. Other collegiate and professional athletes have voiced their support for Thomas as well, while others have accused the swimmer of transitioning to climb higher in national rankings.

“Trans people don’t transition for athletics, we transition to be happy and authentic and our true selves,” Thomas said Tuesday. “Transitioning to get an advantage is not something that ever factors into our decisions.”

“You can’t go halfway and be like, ‘I support trans women and trans people, but only to a certain point,’” Thomas added, referring to an anonymous letter reportedly written by 16 of her teammates in early February.

“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the athletes wrote in the letter, addressed to Penn and Ivy League officials. “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”

“If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women’s Swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete,” Thomas’ teammates wrote in the letter, first reported by The Washington Post.

The following month, Thomas became the first openly transgender woman to win a national champsionship in Division I athletics, placing first in the 500-yard freestyle finals. But Thomas’ final time — a personal best of 4:33.82 — still didn’t come close to breaking the meet, NCAA or American record of 4:24.06 that was set by Olympian Katie Ledecky in 2017, when she swam for Stanford University.

“Trans women are not a threat to women’s sports,” Thomas said Tuesday. The swimmer later added that biological diversity exists everywhere, and some cisgender women have more testosterone or greater muscle mass than others.

“I’m not a medical expert, but there is a lot of variation among cis female athletes or cis women who are very tall and very muscular and have more testosterone than another cis women,” Thomas said. “Should that then disqualify them?”

It’s a point that’s been raised by other transgender athletes. In April, the NCAA’s first openly transgender Division I athlete, Schuyler Bailar, questioned why biological differences between women are often scrutinized, while biological diversity in men is celebrated.

Thomas has frequently been criticized for her stature, with her critics claiming that she “towers” over her competitors. But five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, a cisgender woman, stands taller than Thomas at 6 foot, 2 inches.

“At what point is a girl too strong? Or her hands too big? Or her look too masculine?,” Bailar said last month in a video released by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group. “Policing girls’ bodies is what will destroy the women’s category, not the inclusion of transgender girls.”

For Thomas, who graduated from Penn this year with a bachelor’s degree in economics, her collegiate swimming career may be over, but she doesn’t intend to stop competing in the sport she loves anytime soon.

“It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time,” Thomas said. “I would love to see that through.”

In the meantime, Thomas is getting ready to attend law school. She told ABC News she’d like to become a civil rights lawyer down the road, advocating for the advancement of transgender rights.

In a separate interview with ESPN on Tuesday, Thomas said her journey, albeit difficult, has been worth it.

“I’ve been able to do the sport that I love as my authentic self,” she said.