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  • Nevan Malwana

Transgender Swimmer Lia Thomas Incites Varying Attitudes Toward Transgender Participation in Sports

On March 17, 2022, transgender swimmer Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania won the NCAA Women’s 500-yard freestyle race. Thomas competed on UPenn’s men’s swimming team during her first three years of college before switching to the women’s team following her transition, where she became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming event. However, her victory was followed by the revival of the debate over whether transgender women should be allowed to participate in women’s sports.

Opponents of allowing trans athletes to compete with their gender identity argue that permitting trans women to compete in women’s sports is unfair due to physical and hormonal differences between individuals’ assigned sex at birth: referencing examples like Thomas, who as a trans woman was able to break records and win accolades typically won by women assigned female at birth. Proponents argue that laws barring students who have come out as trans from competing with their chosen gender identity are non-inclusive, promote the idea that trans women are less than other women, can damage the mental health of affected athletes, and that the effect of testosterone may not be as impactful on athletic performance as opponents believe. Different states across the country vary in their laws regarding the issue: some bar athletes outright from participating in gendered sports are different from their gender assigned at birth, others have partial restrictions, and still, others enumerate very few to no restrictions.

Following Thomas’ victory, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) issued a proclamation on March 22 declaring the second-place swimmer in the race, Florida native Emma Weyant, as the rightful winner of the event. As part of his proclamation, DeSantis stated: “Whereas, it is my determination that men should not be competing against women such as Emma Weyant, robbing women and girls of achievements, awards, and scholarships… Florida rejects the NCAA’s efforts to destroy women’s athletics, disapproves of the NCAA elevating ideology over biology, and takes offense at the NCAA trying to make others complicit in a lie”. DeSantis cited Florida law SB 1028, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which does not allow any student listed as male on their birth certificate to participate in women’s sports, as the reasoning behind his proclamation. While DeSantis’ proclamation does reflect the attitude of many conservatives, it is important to note that he has no actual power to change the outcome of a race governed by the NCAA.

As of April 1, 2022, 13 other states have bills similar to Florida’s SB 1028 that at least partially ban trans students from participating in sports designated for the sex opposite what is on their birth certificate. Notably, a number of these bills, including Florida’s, only restrict transgender women, while others restrict both transgender men and women.

While nearly all 14 states in which sports restrictions are legal are solidly red states, Republicans across the board do not agree with these measures, sharing similar concerns as their Democratic colleagues. Republican Governors Eric Holcomb (IN) and Spencer Cox (UT) both vetoed bills in their respective states that would have restricted transgender girls from participating in men’s sports. While the veto stood in Indiana, on March 25, 2022, the Utah State Legislature overrode Cox’s veto, making Utah the 12th state in the nation to pass such legislation.

Utah’s bill was particularly controversial because at the time of its passage there was only one transgender female athlete in the state and four transgender athletes total who would be impacted by the bill’s passage. In his veto letter, Cox expressed that he agreed with many conservatives that “there are natural advantages that come from our birth sex, which is the very reason that we have men’s and women’s sports in the first place”, and cited Lia Thomas as an example of this. “Setting records and taking scholarships away from biological gendered women should give everyone pause. It’s bad for women and it is bad for the LGBTQ community, as it turns allies and reasonable people into opponents,” Cox continued.

Despite these beliefs, Cox vetoed the legislation due to concerns about the potential negative impacts the bill could have on transgender youth; citing that 86% of trans youth had suicidal tendencies, with 56% reporting a suicide attempt. Cox also expressed concern that the bill would affect only a handful of students, stating, “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few”. Cox concluded by acknowledging the political damage this decision could have on his career but affirming that: “I have always tried to do what I feel is the right thing regardless of the consequences''.

The divisiveness on this issue among politicians translates into the general population where national support for transgender sports participation varies wildly by political affiliation. An NPR poll found that roughly 47% of all adults support allowing transgender students to play on teams matching their gender identity, with 48% of adults opposed to the idea. However, dividing individuals by political affiliation shows stark contrasts: 75% of Democrats, 44% of independents, and only 17% of Republicans support the idea, respectively. Similar to Republicans, this highly divisive issue is still shy of a consensus among Democrats. In the days following Thomas’ victory, the Women’s advocacy group Save Women’s Sports protested the outcome at Georgia Tech. Members of the group who considered themselves feminists and were lifelong Democratic voters expressed to Fox News that they felt their concerns over women’s sports were being ignored by the Democratic party, and that they thought many others would join them in “walking away” from the party.

However, political differences have far less impact when asking adults about support for legislation to prohibit transgender athletes from joining sports teams consistent with their gender identity. Just 28% of all adults support the measure, with 25% of Democrats, 28% of independents, and only 29% of Republicans. The data seems to suggest that while many more may see a moral or ethical problem with the issue, few, regardless of party politics, are willing to take the step to legally restrict transgender athletes.

As both political parties buckle up for midterm elections in a few months, this is likely an issue that both parties will attempt to champion for their respective sides. Striking the right balance between competitive fairness and equality for transgender athletes will be an issue that continues to be debated both within states and in the court system. Lia Thomas may have been the first transgender athlete to win a division 1 NCAA title, but these next few months may well determine whether she will be the last.


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