The ongoing debate about transgender athletes and women’s sports took a new turn last week when trans swimmer Lia Thomas, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, captured a national title in the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. Many progressives say Thomas’ win was also a victory for equality and inclusiveness, and only intolerance causes some people to see it differently. But plenty of others — not necessarily social conservatives — see this case as a stark illustration of the problems that arise when women’s competitions are opened to athletes with the physical advantage of having gone through male puberty.
After starting out on Penn’s men’s team in 2017, Thomas began hormone replacement therapy in 2019 and joined the women’s squad after returning from the COVID-19 break. Among men, Thomas had ranked 554th nationally in the 200 freestyle, 65th in the 500 free, and 32nd in the 1650 free. Her rank as a woman: fifth, first, and eighth, respectively.
Under NCAA rules, athletes who transition from male to female need to complete just one year of hormone therapy before they are allowed to compete as women.
Critics argue that this is wildly unfair to biological females. Hormone therapy and testosterone suppression, they say, barely mitigate (especially in such a short time) the advantages of male physiology in everything from body size to lung capacity to stronger bones.
Transgender rights activists respond that fairness in elite sports is a relative concept: Top athletes are often blessed with genetic accidents of fate that confer a natural advantage — such as swimming superstar Michael Phelps’ unusually large chest. If people instinctively feel that a male-born athlete’s advantage in a women’s competition is different, they say, it’s just prejudice speaking.
But such arguments strike many people, even the most socially liberal, as a form of “gaslighting” — a tactic to make people feel crazy by blatantly denying reality.
The controversy around Thomas has been intense. It has included some nasty rhetoric, including absurd suggestions that she transitioned to improve her standing as an athlete. In February, 16 unnamed members of the Penn women’s swimming team signed on to an open letter decrying her “unfair advantage.” This was followed by an open letter in support of her from over 300 current and former college swimmers. After the championships, Virginia Tech senior and 2016 Olympian Reka Gyorgy, who finished behind Thomas and did not make it to the NCAA finals, released a statement that praised Thomas as a dedicated athlete but slammed “NCAA rules that allow her to compete against us, who are biologically women.”
Some of Thomas’ detractors are undoubtedly anti-transgender, not pro-women’s sports. But those who believe current policies shortchange women and girls include such stalwarts of women’s athletics as retired tennis player Martina Navratilova and former swimmer and women’s sports activist Donna de Varona. They argue that we can find ways to accommodate trans athletes without disadvantaging natal females.
Meanwhile, some pro-Thomas arguments show alarming reality denial — including claims (among others, by Purdue University gender and sexuality studies professor Cheryl Cooky) that separate men’s and women’s sports are sexist and based on gender stereotypes.
A Gallup Poll last year found that, despite broad support for LGBT rights, Americans believe almost two-to-one that transgender athletes should play on teams that align with their birth sex. At the very least, we should have a serious debate on this dilemma, instead of rhetoric about inclusion on one side and culture-war bait on the other.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.