She Broke a Bunch of Swim Records, Now Faces Transphobia

Controversy swirls over U of Penn's Lia Thomas, who moved to women's team after transitioning
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 17, 2021 1:00 PM CST

The debate on trans athletes participating in college sports has just been kicked up a notch after a University of Pennsylvania swimmer broke three school records and two national ones over the past month. LGBTQ advocates say the ensuing controversy has veered into transphobic waters. NBC News reports on the recent wins of Lia Thomas, now 22, who spent the first three years of her swimming career at U of Penn on the men's team, during which time she started hormone replacement therapy and began transitioning. She came out to her team in the fall of 2019 and stuck with the team through the duration of that season, even though she describes it as being an "uncomfortable" time.

After nationwide COVID lockdowns, Thomas began swimming for the women's team in November, with two and a half years of hormone therapy under her belt—far longer than the NCAA guidelines on trans female athletes, which stipulate they must have undergone testosterone suppression for at least a year before competing on a woman's team. But despite the NCAA approving Thomas' request, some say those guidelines aren't enough to ensure that trans women athletes don't hold an unfair advantage over their cisgender teammates and competitors.

"Athletes transitioning from male to female possess the inherent advantage of years of testosterone production and muscle-building," John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World, wrote in an editorial published earlier this month. "The current requirements are not rigid enough and do not produce an authentic competitive atmosphere." The magazine also cites a report in the Daily Mail that says parents of some of Thomas' teammates penned a letter last week demanding the NCAA tighten its rules, as "the integrity of women's sports is at stake." Some transgender researchers and advocates are pushing back, noting that the admittedly sparse research so far on transgender athletes doesn't support the assertions being made by critics.

story continues below

Thomas' supporters also say that detractors in conservative circles are engaging in transphobic rhetoric, including misgendering Thomas, as well as implying that Thomas is somehow cheating and that trans athletes across the board are overwhelmingly crushing the competition, which is not the case. "Lia, like any other athlete, should be able to win and lose," Anne Lieberman of Athlete Ally tells NBC. As for Thomas, she's not speaking much to the mainstream media, but she sat down earlier this month for a chat on the SwimSwam podcast, where she said she's been simply trying to ignore the criticism that's emerged. "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." (More transgender stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.