The Knee-Jerk Tempest Over Lia Thomas’ Performance in Women’s Swimming

Yes, I’m wading into this morass…

The Human Rights Campaign recently posted to its FaceBook news feed and then seemingly sheepishly took down an article / video link entitled “Penn’s Lia Thomas Opens Up on Journey, Transition to Women’s Swimming”. Why they took it down I don’t know. Without the journalistic instinct to track down the why exactly, I would not be surprised if it relates to all the offensive, half-ignorant, and completely ignorant opinions posted in the comments section. Opinions that overwhelmingly demanded that trans girls and women be banned from female sport.

It’s sad because those who offered up rabid comments missed one of the truly human aspects of the story and obscured it for many other readers. Thomas let down her hair, let down her guard, and shed her privacy to share her beautiful, life-affirming story. Fortunately, the story remains online via the original publishing source. I have provided the link near the bottom of this essay.

I truly wonder whether the critics (and maybe even HRC itself) actually bothered to read the article and/or listen to the video interview. What is abundantly clear is that Thomas was an elite competitive swimmer when she presented male and competed in the men’s category in her sophomore year. In her junior year, well into a feminizing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) program, she continued to compete in the men’s category even as she became less competitive in that category, almost certainly due to the effects of hormones. And only finally in her senior year — still on HRT and with a good margin beyond the minimum NCAA requirements — did she undertake to compete in the women's category, whereupon she has now broken a few records.

The points I’m making are that somebody who competes at the top of the elite level in the men’s category prior to undertaking feminizing HRT (1) will experience athletic diminishment when they undergo feminizing HRT but nonetheless (2) could be expected to resume performing at the top of the elite level in the women’s category once they have undergone a feminizing HRT program.

Not once did her women’s-sport-coming-to-an-end critics acknowledge that she had been an elite athlete when she competed in the male category prior to HRT. Instead, they disingenuously pointed to her lackluster junior year men’s category performance, in the middle of HRT transition, relative to her current outstanding performance as a senior in the women’s category.

Sadly, the noise attendant on her outstanding performances will likely galvanize even more people — primarily those who don’t read below the sensationalist headlines — to reject the inclusion of trans women in women’s sport.

Haters, laugh all you want. Get this straight.

Trans women were NEVER men. Biologically, their brains tell them they are female, which is why they often experience body dysphoria and feel the drive to transition to a body that is consonant with their brains.

On the one hand, trans women who never undergo male puberty have ZERO advantages relative to cis women on average.

On the other hand, trans women who experience male puberty and then hormonally transition to their true gender sometimes end up with certain long-term advantages, again on average.

Often these individual residual advantages can be offset by elements lost due to transition (e.g., material shifts in the ratio of fast and slow twitch muscle fiber types). Importantly, advantages absolutely depend on the sport. The final considerations are whether these advantages exceed normal distributions for their gender AND whether these advantages are unfair.

Taken together, these issues are why it is especially nasty that some states would ban hormone blockers for youth. These are the very treatments trans girls can use to avoid an unwanted male puberty and all this controversy. These are often the same states that ban trans girls from competing in girls sport.

Sadly, the haters intractably view Thomas’ performance in the women’s category only through the lense of confirmation of their exclusionary point of view. There are so many more of their unthoughtful, exclusionary cries. So few voices of reason.

Here is the link to the article about and video interview with Lia Thomas:

For deeper, more thoughtful analysis about trans women’s participation in women’s sport, I offer for your consideration an article by Joanna Harper, a distinguished researcher in the area of trans participation in elite sport and an advisor to the International Olympic Committee:

I am adding my two cents’ worth because I am concerned that the ignorance- and hate-fueled but nonetheless gathering backlash against trans people seems to show no sign of abating. I hope, in some small way, even if that means changing only one mind or softening only one heart, that I contribute constructively to the conversations around trans inclusion on the part of the larger society. I earnestly hope that saner minds and the truth prevail. However, even if I am only one of a few raindrops of truth in a hurricane of ignorance and lies, I feel I must be resolute, must be true to myself, must speak truth to mob-incited power. What I most fear is not standing up to bullies who twist the truth or outright lie in the service of trying to oppress trans people.

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Former Wall Streeter and now Data Scientist trying to live a worthwhile life.

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Brooke Cooper

Brooke Cooper

Former Wall Streeter and now Data Scientist trying to live a worthwhile life.

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