Watch: Will Lia Thomas Become Athlete Zero in Ongoing Trans Controversy?

Saturday December 11, 2021

What may turn out to be a watershed case in the ongoing controversy of trans athletes participating in college sports is that of Ivy League swimmer Lia Thomas. The University of Pennsylvania transgender swimmer has been shattering women's team records since her transition, but instead of praise from the public and her teammates, Thomas is getting pushback.

According to a report in Outsports, last weekend Thomas is the conference record-holder in the Ivy League in two women's swimming events after an historically dominant performance at the Zippy Invitational last weekend.

"In these two events — the 200-yard free and 500-yard free — the trans swimmer has the fastest times in the country and is one of only two athletes in each to meet the 'A' standards of qualification, giving her a direct invitation to the national championships next March."

Outsports continues: "Thomas is now the national top seed thus far in two NCAA events and fifth in a third — the 1650-yard free — making her story the most compelling of any LGBTQ college athlete heading into the winter sports season possibly ever."

But as Outsports writer Cyd Zeigler points out, the reporting of her success has largely been one-sided — with LGBTQ and mainstream liberal press ignoring Thomas's success or even reporting on the controversy around it. Instead Right-wing and religious conservative outlets are painting Thomas as everything that's wrong about trans athletes competing in sports events.

"They have seized on Thomas' growing collection of victories — and rewriting of some record books — as evidence that trans women don't belong in women's sports, that their participation is 'unfair,' " Zeigler writes.

"They're deadnaming her. They're publishing pre-transition photos. They're pointing to the fact the she competed pre-transition on the Penn men's team as evidence she doesn't belong on the women's team."

For instance, the conservative-leaning British publication the Daily Mail has been publishing largely critical daily stories about Thomas, In the first they write of her record-breaking achievement, then temper it with: "Critics say trans female athletes can still have considerable advantages over their cisgender female rivals, because of height and weight advantages they may retain even after hormone treatment."

In the days following, the Mail published a story about UPenn coach Mike Schnur as being only interested in winning and willing to ignore the needs of other teammates' needs to promote his star swimmer. In another, they aggregated an interview an anonymous team member gave to the conservative news outlet Outback in which Thomas is called a "FAKE" and is not supported by her teammates. And the DM columnist Piers Morgan weighed in, claiming (erroneously) that Thomas was unsuccessful as a male swimmer, and is winning at the expense of her non-trans-teammates.

Outsports called out the liberal and LGTBQ media for ignoring her.

"By staying largely silent in the public realm, the LGBTQ community and supporters of trans athletes are allowing Right Wing media and other anti-trans forces to dictate the conversation," Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler writes.

He even goes as far as saying that the "same silence when I tried to talk to trans advocates and league executives in the Premier Hockey Federation — formerly the National Women's Hockey League — about its new trans policy dropping all transition requirements (other than a yet-to-be-explained two-year waiting period) for trans and nonbinary athletes.

"For years I've heard trans advocates quietly hope trans women do well in sports, but not too well. It seems many people pushing for trans inclusion in women's sports want trans inclusion in sports — they just don't want anyone to notice."

After days of silence, the 22-year old Thomas spoke up about the controversy on Thursday in an interview with Swim

"I first realized I was trans the summer before, in 2018," Thomas said. "There was a lot of uncertainty, I didn't know what I would be able to do, if I would be able to keep swimming. And so, I decided to swim out the 2018-2019 year as a man, without coming out, and that caused a lot of distress to me," she said.

"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. I decided it was time to come out and start my transition."

Thomas began transitioning in May 2019, beginning hormone replacement therapy, and came out to the Penn swimmers in the fall of 2019.

"She describes the 2019-20 season, her junior campaign, as an incredibly uncomfortable phase, as she still competing on the men's team despite being in the process of becoming a woman," writes Swim Swam.

"Being in the early stages of transition, it was a very awkward experience of basically being a woman competing in a men's meet. It was uncomfortable, so I didn't compete that much," she said.

The Swim Swam report adds that "in the summer of 2020, one year after beginning testosterone suppression, she submitted all of her medical work to the NCAA, which was approved, allowing her to begin competing on the women's swim team at Penn." COVID-19 then led to the cancellation of the 2020-2021 college swimming season and Thomas took a year off, often unable to practice due to pool availability, before beginning to compete on the women's team this season.

The NCAA's transgender policy dictates: "A trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men's team but may not compete on a women's team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment."
Thomas, who is now two and a half years into hormone replacement therapy, is, therefore, eligible to compete on the women's team.

"It's been a lot of struggles in the 12 months prior to coming out to everybody, to the initial awkwardness, AND the uncertainty to first starting out transitioning," Thomas said.

"There just seems to be so much to do and things you have to take care of, and it just seems like this mountain. But you get by it day by day, and build confidence each day, and I'm feeling confident and good in my swimming and all my personal relationships.

"And transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects of my life, where I was struggling a lot before I came out."