How One Swimmer Became the Focus of a Debate About Trans Athletes

Harper, for her part, signed a statement issued by the International Federation of Sports Medicine, which asserted that, while testosterone suppression is imperfect, it remains the best biomarker for insuring fair competition in élite sports. She believes that no medical interventions should be required below the state championship or N.C.A.A. level, and she supports Thomas’s participation in collegiate swimming, she told me, given that Thomas has undergone two years of testosterone suppression. “I’m not saying testosterone is the only thing that matters,” Harper said. “But if you’re differentiating between male athletes and female athletes, you should use some factor that’s sexually dimorphic and is important for athletic performance. Testosterone is the best one that fits both of those.”

In January, the N.C.A.A. announced a new “sport-by-sport approach to transgender participation” in athletics, dropping the blanket requirement that trans women undergo a year of testosterone suppression, and leaving specific policies up to the national governing bodies of individual sports. The N.C.A.A. described this approach as in alignment with the changes made, the previous fall, by the I.O.C. But the N.C.A.A. did not produce a new formal framework of principles to guide each national body. Athlete Ally released a statement expressing alarm at the new policy, which the trans activist and athlete Chris Mosier described as “quickly assembled under pressure from people who don’t want to see a great athlete who is transgender succeed.” It was “clear,” Athlete Ally added, that trans athletes would be “subjected to invasive, painful and unnecessary medical procedures” and “burdened with the obligation of proving they have no inherent advantage instead of being viewed as human beings who have no desire to compete unfairly, only to participate in the sport they dedicate their lives to.”

A few days later, as Sports Illustrated subsequently reported, a former swimming champion and a Title IX lawyer named Nancy Hogshead-Makar organized a virtual meeting attended by more than two hundred and fifty people, including former Olympians, current collegiate swimmers and coaches, parents of Penn swimmers, and members of U.S.A. Swimming’s board of directors. The aim was to discuss legislation that would prohibit trans women from competing head-to-head with cisgender women in a number of collegiate sports, including swimming—perhaps even before Thomas had a chance to compete in the N.C.A.A. championships, in March. For a long time, Hogshead-Makar’s most notable causes had been equitable funding for women’s programs and the sexual abuse of women in sports. But three years ago, she had what she called an “aha” moment, when Congress was debating the Equality Act, which would ban both gender and sex discrimination—effectively, as she saw it, erasing the difference between the two concepts. She wanted a carve-out for competitive sports, insisting that Title IX was threatened from a legal perspective without it. Last year, she helped create the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, the stated aim of which is to find a “middle way” with regard to the participation of trans women in women’s sports. The group’s Web site touts the support of both Joanna Harper and Renée Richards, but none of the group’s members are trans, and its most famous member, Martina Navratilova, has angered many trans athletes and advocates with comments she has made in the past. (Harper told me that she has disagreements with the group’s positions, including on Thomas’s participation. She added, “I have not, however, formally withdrawn my name as a ‘supporter’ of the group. I think that more can be accomplished with dialogue than with debate.”)

It doesn’t matter that Lia Thomas is just one swimmer, Hogshead-Makar told me. To a lawyer, precedent is everything. “I’m not an expert on the science, but I am an expert in civil-rights law,” she said. The law when it comes to sports, she went on, “is we allow sex segregation because of biology. We don’t allow sex segregation for any other reason.” I suggested that the biology of sex differences between athletes was murky, and that the legacy effects of testosterone-driven puberty were not totally established or understood. She countered by sending me white papers by sports scientists, a PowerPoint presentation by a developmental biologist, and a statement on the significant role of testosterone in athletic performance signed by forty-one doctors and scientists.

Hogshead-Makar has argued against laws that would ban transgender kids from all participation in sports, but her other positions, and the ways she talks about them—she insists on referring to “biological” genders, for instance—put her deeply at odds with those in favor of broader trans inclusion. (A state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign has referred to the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group as a hate group.) Hogshead-Makar has suggested that, in some sports, trans women should occupy their own classification, apart from women, and proposed to me that Thomas be allowed to swim in a separately demarcated lane, next to the eight set aside for cisgender women, and have her own podium. She has argued that Thomas, far from being unjustly treated, is being opportunistic in her desire to win. Of course, one could also argue that there is an opportunism involved in seizing on Thomas’s case to advance a broader cause. “We’re somewhat lucky,” Hogshead-Makar told me at one point, “that Lia came along in an objective sport, where we have times, in a sport where race is not an issue. There are always charges of racism in track and field.”

Hogshead-Makar says that she is in favor of inclusion where the so-called legacy advantage of testosterone-driven puberty can be overcome—in marathons, perhaps, given that testosterone suppression can substantially reduce aerobic capacity and hemoglobin levels, or in sports like pistol shooting. “Lia’s times are the evidence that she has not mitigated,” Hogshead-Makar said, citing Thomas’s N.C.A.A. rankings when she competed against men versus her rankings against women. “If you go from a thousandth place to a thousandth place, that’s fair,” she said. “But she’s going from not being able to qualify for the N.C.A.A.s to being ranked first.” It should be noted that, when Thomas was competing against men, as a freshman, she once dropped thirteen seconds from her best thousand-yard freestyle time, setting Penn’s pool record, and that, more generally, athletes, particularly young athletes, can get better. But Hogshead-Makar’s argument reflects a broader truth about the situation: Lia Thomas would have attracted little attention if she always lost.

A few days after the N.C.A.A. announced its new approach, U.S.A. Swimming introduced new, more restrictive rules, calling for three years of testosterone suppression—mere months more than the length of time that Thomas has undergone. If the N.C.A.A. had immediately adopted the rules, Thomas would have been unable to compete in the championships. U.S.A. Swimming also instituted a three-person panel that will decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether adolescent physical development has given a trans woman an unfair edge over cisgender female athletes. It is not yet clear who will serve on that panel, and what criteria they might use. It does seem clear that the rule is designed to exclude trans people from the podium, if not from the pool. They will be allowed to swim, but, in most cases, not to win. As Christina Roberts, a trans doctor of adolescent medicine, who has studied the physiological effects of testosterone suppression, told me, often the only evidence considered legitimate that trans women have lost a competitive advantage is that “they’re no longer competitive.”

Laws against the participation of trans women in women’s sports at the collegiate level have already been passed in eleven states, and more are being considered. Some of them ban trans girls from elementary and youth soccer programs. Earlier this month, Iowa’s governor signed a law prohibiting trans girls and women from competing according to their gender identity; the law applies from kindergarten through college. Reading the arguments made on behalf of such laws, one might get the mistaken impression not only that Republican legislators place a great value on women’s sports but also that trans women are a conquering horde, swarming the leaderboards. In reality, trans women are grossly underrepresented at high levels of all sports, particularly in the winners’ circles. Based on simple demographics, one would expect there to be a few thousand trans athletes in the N.C.A.A. Instead, openly transgender collegiate athletes are disproportionately rare. If trans athletes have physical advantages, it appears these have been overwhelmed, so far, by social, legal, financial, and other disadvantages.

Transgender youth are more likely to be homeless and live in poverty. They are more likely to experience violence, bullying, rejection, depression, and suicidal ideation. In Texas, Thomas’s home state, the governor recently instructed licensed professionals who work with children to report parents of transgender children to state authorities, who would investigate gender-affirming care such as hormone-replacement therapy as child abuse. Sports are known to build self-esteem and leadership skills, and can be especially important for trans kids, the very people who are, in many places, being deprived of these opportunities. Some people worry that restrictions put in place by the I.O.C. and the N.C.A.A. will trickle down. “The Olympics, the élite levels, are making these rules, and clubs and P.E. football and sports like that are starting to follow suit,” Bernie Compton, a doctoral candidate in leadership studies and director of soccer operations at Bowling Green State University, who works as a research assistant for Athlete Ally, told me. “At youth levels, sport is about finding yourself, and enjoyment, and building healthy lifestyles and habits. By denying trans kids that opportunity, especially because they’re in a vulnerable state when they come out, they’re trying to erase trans kids from existence.”

There are élite organizations that are working in a concerted way to be inclusive—even, potentially, at the cost of competitive fairness. Last September, the National Women’s Hockey League dropped the word “women’s” from its name and rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation. Trans women are allowed to participate without any hormone therapy, as long as they have lived in that gender identity for two years, and trans men are allowed to participate, even after taking testosterone, provided they apply for and receive a therapeutic use exemption. Élite athletes have signed amicus briefings opposing restrictions on transgender youth and sports, and made public stands in support of trans kids. The W.N.B.A. includes least one nonbinary and trans player, Layshia Clarendon, who, a year ago, underwent top surgery, and received broad support from inside the league. On the other hand, World Rugby last year formulated a policy explicitly barring trans women from its global competitions, on the grounds that, because trans women are, on average, larger than cisgender women, it would be dangerous for them to participate. Joanna Harper was at the meeting when it happened; she disagreed with the decision, and found the process dispiriting. “Frankly, I think they had their minds made up, before they called the meeting,” she told Out magazine. “It would have been nice to have seen a trans woman rugby player there, but I doubt it would have made any difference.”

Both Penn and the Ivy League signalled their support of Thomas. The Penn athletic department sent reporters a statement from other members of the swim team, which seemed to imply that only a small minority of her teammates opposed her participation. Hogshead-Makar then released a letter on behalf of sixteen of Thomas’s teammates—almost half the team—who urged Penn, anonymously, not to fight for Thomas’s ability to participate if the U.S.A. Swimming rules were adopted. “It’s disgusting and it’s cruel what’s being done to Lia,” a teammate of Thomas’s, Hadley DeBruyn, told Sports Illustrated, adding, “Sometimes, this doesn’t even feel like a team.”

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