Former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas found herself thrust into the center of a heated debate when she became the first transgender athlete to win a Division I national title at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championship earlier this year.
Competing in the 500-yard freestyle, Thomas set a program record when she finished at 4:33:24, edging out Virginia freshman and Olympic medalist Emma Weyant by just over one second. This also made Thomas the first female swimmer in Penn history to win an individual national title. But in the midst of celebration, Thomas’ historic win fanned the flames of an ongoing and controversial debate around what athletic competition and inclusion should look like for transgender female athletes.
“Trans women competing in women’s sports does not threaten women’s sports as a whole,” Thomas said in an interview with ESPN. “Trans women athletes are a very small minority of all athletes, and the NCAA rules regarding trans women competing in women’s sports have been around for 10+ years. We haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating.”
Although the exact number is unknown, it’s estimated that less than one percent of NCAA athletes are transgender, and the latest rules and regulations for those transgender female athletes are vague. In January 2022, the NCAA amended its decades-old Transgender Student-Athlete Participation Policy when the Board of Governors voted to begin using a sport-by-sport approach, aligning with U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee. According to the most recent changes “the resulting sport-by-sport approach preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion, and safety for all who compete”.
The latest updates will require that trans women confirm completion of at least one calendar year of hormone suppression and provide laboratory results demonstrating a one-time total serum testosterone level that is no more than four weeks prior to their first NCAA championship.
Yet while participation for transgender women in sports is incremental with less than 50 out of every 200,000 collegiate athletes identifying as transgender, public and government attention on the issue remains high. As of May 2022, eighteen states have enacted laws or statewide rules that prohibit or limit athletic participation for transgender women, most of those coming within the last year.
Thomas’ monumental victory comes at an interesting time with the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaching later this month. The law which passed in 1972 prohibited sex-based discrimination in any school or educational program that receives funds from the federal government, and is arguably the single most important piece of legislation for gender equality in sports in history. However, in recent months, Title IX has been sighted by both supporters and opposers of transgender athletes, with some critics saying that limiting transgender participation promotes the fairness outlined by Title IX.
“The biggest misconception I think is the reason why I transitioned,” Thomas said to ESPN. “People will say ‘oh she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win’ I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.”
Recently, Texas became one of several states to pass legislation barring transgender girls from participating in sports at public schools with House Bill 25.
“House Bill 25 is one of the greatest victories for equality for girls since Title IX passed 50 years ago!” said Valoree Swanson, a state representative from a district north of Houston in a piece from The New York Times.
Additionally, in places like Ohio, the House of Representatives recently passed “The Save Women’s Sports Act” which bans any athlete not identified as female at birth from participating in women’s high school and college sports.
However, for those who support transgender athletes, the latest wave of statewide legislative bans and limitations feels like steps in the wrong direction. Imposing stricter regulations and total bans in sports for transgender women is damaging to inclusive, safe, and respectful environments in public schools.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding and meaningful to be able to be authentic and to be myself, and be out and proud as a trans woman,” Thomas said. “I can only hope that I’m able to give other trans people the inspiration and motivation I was given.”
For trans women, the implications of Title IX are yet to be seen, however, the next few months and years will prove significant in the battle for fairness and inclusion for all women in sports.