Respect Equality

College swimming champion Lia Thomas targeted by transphobic rhetoric

Story at a glance

  • Lia Thomas, the transgender female athlete who broke school and national records this month, has been criticized for having an “unfair advantage” over cisgender women.
  • Thomas is competing within NCAA guidelines, which say transgender female athletes may compete after completing one year of testosterone-suppression treatment.
  • Advocates say it’s important to remember that Thomas is just one woman and she doesn’t represent the entire transgender athletic community.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas, a transgender female athlete on the Ivy League university’s swim team, this month set three school records and two national records, drawing the attention of international media — and the ire of anti-trans groups and, reportedly, two anonymous teammates.

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Thomas’s times have slowed from what they were when she was swimming on the school’s men’s team, but her critics say her recent success is proof she still has an unfair advantage.

Thomas has given just one recent interview, with the competitive swimming news site SwimSwam.

Regarding the criticism, she said she and her coaches had anticipated “some measure of pushback,” but that the response has been much more intense than they had imagined.


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“I just don’t engage with it,” she said. “It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t, and that’s all I’ll say on that.”

Thomas told SwimSwam she realized she was a transgender woman during the summer of 2018, but decided to swim out that season on the men’s team, which negatively affected her mental health.

“I was struggling, my mental health was not very good. It was a lot of unease, basically just feeling trapped in my body. It didn’t align.” she said.

Despite beginning hormone replacement therapy in the summer of 2019 and coming out to the swim team that fall, Thomas continued to compete on the men’s team for the 2019-20 season. She said she trained with the team, but didn’t regularly race at meets because she didn’t feel comfortable.

A year later, Thomas was approved to swim on the university’s women’s team for the 2020-21 season, which was canceled by the Ivy League because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thomas is now more than two and a half years into her hormone replacement therapy.

According to NCAA guidelines, a transgender female athlete can compete for collegiate women’s sports teams after completing one year of “testosterone suppression treatment.”

The assumption that being born with a male body automatically gives transgender women a leg up when competing against cisgender women is not well founded, according to the NCAA, and “any strength and endurance advantages a transgender woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen or testosterone-suppression therapy.”

The International Olympic Committee in November issued new guidelines for transgender and intersex athletes, rolling back its controversial 2015 framework requiring transgender women to take medication to lower their testosterone to below 10 nanomoles per liter for 12 months.

The IOC’s medical and science director, Richard Budgett, said in July that the 2015 guidelines were no longer backed by science.

But critics are still arguing to the contrary, demanding organizations like the NCAA either bar transgender female athletes from competing on women’s sports teams altogether or require they take testosterone suppressants for more than one year.

“While the NCAA’s rules demand the use of testosterone suppressants for a specific duration, the current requirements are not rigid enough and do not produce an authentic competitive atmosphere,” John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World magazine, wrote in a recent op-ed lobbying the NCAA to bar Thomas from competing in the NCAA Women’s Championships scheduled for March.

“Athletes transitioning from male to female possess the inherent advantage of years of testosterone production and muscle-building,” he wrote.

Joanna Harper, visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in England, told NBC News that it’s important to remember that Thomas is just one woman, and she doesn’t represent all transgender athletes. Many transgender female athletes “are not nearly as successful after transition as they were before” their transition, she said.

“We’ve never seen a transgender NCAA champion, and Lia is not likely to do it either,” she said. “But even if she did win an NCAA championship, we should see a few trans women each and every year winning NCAA Division 1 championships. So at some point it has to happen, and this idea that it’s some horrible miscarriage of justice that Lia is successful just doesn’t add up.”


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