UPenn Swimmer Deserves Fairness, Respect

Better understanding of transgender athlete required

     In recent months, Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer from the University of Pennsylvania, has quickly become a hot topic, pushing the question of what fair sports competition should look like to the forefront of conversation. The media, athletic institutions, and local governments have all debated whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete with athletes of the same gender identity. The debate over eligibility has long been based in the claim that female transgender athletes have a biological advantage over their cisgender competitors because they were assigned male at birth. While this certainly poses a concern, we should not exclude transgender athletes from competition simply for the sake of trying to be fair, but instead search for solutions that allows everyone to equally partake in and enjoy sports competition. Through the use of informed and thoughtful policies regarding transgender athletes, we can ensure that sports competition can be both inclusive and fair. 

     Thomas swam on the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for the first two seasons of her college career before coming out to teammates and medically transitioning through hormone replacement therapy in 2019. She continued to compete for the men’s team for the 2019-2020 season while she still exhibited high testosterone levels. After taking the 2020-2021 season off due to the pandemic, Thomas returned to competition this past season, but as a member of the women’s team. At the 2022 NCAA Division 1 Championships, she won the women’s 500 yard freestyle, becoming the first known transgender athlete to win a D1 national championship in any sport.

     Thomas’ success this season, however, has been followed with immense scrutiny that joins the many complaints surrounding transgender individuals participating in sports. In order to compete with women for the 2021-2022 season, Thomas had been on hormones for over two years and her testosterone levels were below the NCAA’s maximum. She lost both strength and muscle mass because of the hormones. As a result, her 500 yard freestyle time is 15 seconds slower than her best time before transitioning. I believe these policies are fair because if Thomas hadn’t medically transitioned, her previous best time of 4:18.72 would have easily beat Katie Ledecky’s record time of 4:24.06, but now after transitioning, Thomas sits nine seconds behind Ledecky. Despite the clear change to Thomas’ swimming, people argue that she continues to hold a biological advantage over her competitors. I implore you to think about what these critics consider to be a biological advantage. After transitioning to the extent that the NCAA deemed fair, how would an additional advantage Thomas held be any different than a tall swimmer, a swimmer with a large wingspan, or a swimmer with big feet? I believe these critics’ continued complaints are simply attempts to justify their transphobia.

      A lot of arguments against transgender athletes are rooted in the claim that individuals are changing their gender to cheat the system towards success, which I believe can be easily resolved with a better understanding and the acceptance of transgender people as a whole. The most important thing to understand is that being transgender is not a choice that an individual makes. Transgender athletes do not chose to change their gender in order to receive an advantage, they are simply affirming their own identity and asking that their sport does the same. Transgender athletes are subject to countless hate and discrimination, making the mere act of participation difficult for many. I urge you to treat the athletes who partake in sports despite this with more kindness and consideration. Lia Thomas is a woman and deserves to be treated as such.