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Diving Deep into the Topic of Transgender Athletes Competing in Women’s Sports

With the NCAA swimming championships taking place at Georgia Tech this week, there’s one point of controversy on a lot of peoples’ minds. Lia Thomas, who swims for the University of Pennsylvania, is a biological male who has transitioned with hormone therapy. Thomas has been allowed to compete in women’s events this season, and the outcome of this decision has been groundbreaking. Thomas has set several school records and won all events participated in at the Ivy League Women’s Swimming Championships: the 100, 200, and the 500-yard freestyle by more than six seconds. While the NCAA and many activists are embracing diversity and inclusion, many people are speaking out against what they claim is a grand violation of women’s rights and equality of the sexes in athletics. I met separately with Sarah, a former Division I swimmer, and Maya, a transgender college student, to discuss this topic to great lengths.

Sarah expressed great sympathy for transgender people throughout our conversation, particularly those who wish to participate in athletics. However, her bottom line is that Lia Thomas has a physiological advantage over the competition:

“I’m happy that she has transitioned to a woman, but I honestly think that it is unfair [for her] to swim against biological women because we grew up with a different body. It is harder for us to create muscle.”
“ I know she’s taking hormones to suppress testosterone, but it’s still not enough. She competed three years [in college] as a man, before transitioning to a woman. She was going to practices as a man and lifting weights as a man… her body has been fully developed already.”
“She’s going to get slower because she’s going through this process, but she is still a lot stronger than women who didn’t have these testosterones growing up, but because she has transitioned [post puberty], that’s where the controversy comes from.”

Maya took the opposite position, arguing that the limits set on hormone levels will ensure fair competition.

“Generally, regulatory board has set pretty conservative limits, and I think that’s fine; I think that’s fair.”
“I think that because of those conservative limits, a lot of trans people will have to sacrifice part of their careers when they want to transition… it makes it a lot longer if you have to wait a year or three years before you are allowed to compete again in sports. That’s a shame, but I also think that because of the conservative limits, it’s going to mean that transgender athletes can compete pretty fairly in the [events] of their identified gender. I don’t think we are going to see a pattern of transgender people breaking records and pushing cisgender athletes out of the competition.”

To better understand their motivations, I asked them both why they thought this issue was important. Maya stated that there is a lot more at stake than mere athletics and framed the topic of transgender athletes as one battle in the ongoing struggle for equal treatment of transgender people. Its association with civil rights makes this issue extremely important.

“We talk about this at a very high-profile level – like national championships, international championships, the Olympics. But the people who suffer the consequences of this debate and the way that it's twisted and used to nullify trans people are not world class athletes; it's people who are a lot more vulnerable.”
“It manifests in politics with state governments placing really dangerous restrictions… Ordinary transgender [people] are going to be persecuted because of this.”

On the flip side, Sarah argues that by allowing Lia to swim as a woman, the NCAA is destroying opportunities for females and washing away recognition of their historical achievements.

“They’re comparing her to these other really fast [female] athletes who were not biologically males before, and that’s not fair.… They’re getting rid of these records that were set by biological women.”

The quintessential argument for barring transgender athletes from competing in women’s events is that biologically male transgenders have a physiological advantage. Sarah makes the case that if a person develops and goes through puberty as biological male and then transitions, even though the person’s hormone composition might resemble other females, that person still has the skeleton and muscular foundation of a man.

“If you see pictures of her, she’s very toned and really strong. I can’t imagine being in the weight room with her and having to partner up with her because she’s in a league of her own.

An analysis of the gap between the sexes can be found by clicking here. I asked Sarah to reflect on some of her own experiences as a swimmer and describe how physiological differences between males and females manifest in the sport.

“As for women, we would have to do 100s on the 1:20 [time interval]; men would have to do 100s on 1:10. The intervals would work around the times women are capable of doing; the men are capable of doing faster times… When we would lift weights, guys were always on one side of the gym, women on the other side of the gym. You had to partner up with another woman who had the same strength as you. As a freshman, I partnered up with another freshman who was my same weight and could lift the same weight as me… With [Lia], if guys and girls were separated for a set, she would most likely be with the guys.”

Maya made a thought-provoking note on this topic but acknowledged her lack of expertise and empirical evidence to draw a formal conclusion.

“This is something that goes both ways… it reduces your muscle mass quite a bit. So now you’re having to swim and carry a larger, less aerodynamic, heavier bone structure without the muscle mass to accompany it.”

Maya also asserted that opponents of the NCAA policy need to demonstrate quantitatively the effect that pre-transition development, and that more research should be done in this area.

“Let’s look at all of the data… If you can cite a study that says transgender athletes are statistically overrepresented at the top and they physically perform better than their peers, then I’ll buy that… I haven’t seen any evidence that transgender athletes are actually outperforming cisgender athletes at a large scale.”

It is true that the hormonal transition severely hampers athletic performance. Lia Thomas’s 4:37.32 time in the 500-yard freestyle at the Ivy League Women’s Championship meet is much slower than the 4:18.72 Thomas clocked in at the Ivy League Men’s Championship meet in 2019. Nevertheless, Thomas's ranking among women is significantly higher than it was when formerly competing against men.

Lia Thomas wins against seven women by 39 seconds in a 1650 freestyle race. Video credit: Alliance Defending Freedom. Recording date/location unknown.

Maya makes the argument that no transgender athlete identifying as a female is close to beating the very best biological female athletes, like Katie Ledecky. This, Maya argues, is strong evidence against the claim that biological females can’t compete against biological males post-transition.

“There are cisgender women that swim much faster than her, so it’s clear that it’s still a fair playing field. Also, in sports in general, there’s this mythology or fear that transgender people are just going to blow out the competition, but there is not really a pattern of that happening. Trans-women are under-represented in sports at the top level.”

On one hand, there is truth to the claim that there are sparingly few transgender people in collegiate athletics In NCAA Division 1 athletics, there have been only seven openly transgender swimmers. However, of these athletes, Lia Thomas and G Ryan are the only two biological males who have ever competed in scored women’s events. Both have been dominant, setting both conference and team records. Although the sample size is limited, the disproportionate success of transgender athletes in women’s sports thus far presents a severe contradiction with the statement above.

Maya also mentioned the dangers associated with forcing biologically female transgender athletes to compete against other females.

“There was a trans-man who was forced to compete in women’s wrestling and wiped the floor in the State Championship.”
Mack Beggs, a transgender male wrestler from Euless Trinity, competes in the girls 6A state title tournament: Video credit The Dallas Morning News

Thus far, biologically female transgender athletes have not experienced the same success in men’s competitions that biologically male transgender athletes have had in women’s competitions. This poses a concern about whether humans that are born female will have equal opportunity to attain recognition and scholarships for athletic achievements if they must compete against transgender biological males. I asked Maya to respond to this concern.

“This hasn’t happened, and it doesn't look like it’s going to be happening, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any shortage of opportunities for cis-gendered women athletes to succeed. The discrimination and institutional barriers that transgender athletes face is significantly greater than any advantage they might gain from competing with their preferred gender.”
“Forcing transgender women into men’s spaces and forcing transgender men into women’s spaces, that puts people in material danger. That kills people every day; of being kicked out by your family, by being ostracized at school, by being persecuted, by having your existence be criminalized, and it separates families. That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m not afraid of a couple athletes losing their opportunities and scholarships because a transgender woman has outcompeted a cisgender woman.”

I asked Sarah how the NCAA could continue to show its support for transgender people while granting biological females both trans- and cis-gender the opportunity to find success.

Schuyler Bailar, Swimmer at Harvard. Photo Credit Sydney Claire Photography / via NBC News

“There should be a transgender league. There’s Schuyler Bailar for example. He was a biological woman who went to Harvard. [Schuyler] was committed as a woman and immediately transitioned to become a man, and [Schuyler] can’t compete to the level that [he] could have competed at as a woman. Obviously, it’s harder to do this because there are not that many transgenders in the swimming world, but if there were to be more, starting a league [for them] would be best. Let’s say that Lia did break Katie Ledecky’s record - she really didn’t; she created a new record that’s her own for the transgender woman group.”

However, when presented with this solution, Maya raised a point of objection.

“I don’t like the idea of restricting transgender people to their own space is that you’re essentially isolating people who are already marginalized… I’m not opposed to the idea of creating different stratifications of sports, but I think that doing it solely based on the basis of assigned gender at birth or preferred gender is not the one that seems to be the at promoting fairness, and it seems to create a lot of problems with exposing transgender people to discrimination.”

At this time, it appears that we have not yet found a solution that will satisfy everyone. I asked both Sarah and Maya what they thought the reaction might be if the NCAA and US Swimming implemented Sarah’s solution and reversed their policies about allowing biological men to compete in women’s events. Interestingly, they agreed that by taking this action, the NCAA could cause division. Sarah had the following comments:

“I think honestly it would create sort of a division because you are labeling these women as not ‘women’, [but] ‘transgender women’... But I feel like also, at the same time, if people were to watch the transgender women heat, people would be supportive of that heat: ‘This is my teammate, I’m here to support her, hopefully she scores us points.’”

Regardless of whether this issue is approached from the perspective of women’s rights or transgenders’ rights, there is a common theme that equality and fairness cannot be achieved while making concessions that allow for injustices against one group or the other in the area of athletics.

It is important that society reaches the proper resolution. It was not my goal with this piece to decide what constitutes fairness or argue for any resolution. I hope instead that exploring the views of Sarah and Maya has helped you answer these questions for yourself. //

Josh Polevoy


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