Swimming is the first major salvo against trans female athletes, which will surely clear the way for other sports to impose similar bans ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Hopefully this doesn’t end a thoughtful, informed debate – backed by science, nuance and empathy – about the ways in which sport is open to all, especially those who already face enormous discrimination, marginalization and political attack .
A ruling directly against Lia Thomas, the first transgender woman to win an NCAA national championship, World governing body FINA effectively bans Athletes such as Thomas compete in women’s swimming.
Anyone who has not started transitioning from male to female before age 12 or the onset of puberty, whichever is later, will no longer be allowed to compete with cisgender women in their careers.
That all but ends Thomas’ hopes for the Olympics, not to mention that trans women in other sports may face similar restrictions in the near future.
FINA’s ruling was harsh, although it also endorsed inclusivity by calling for so-called “open” categories for transgender athletes.
But the group has said little about how these competitions will play out — or whether there will be enough competitors to make them viable.
“The ‘open’ category is incredibly alien and impractical,” said Shuler Bailar, the first openly transgender swimmer in the NCAA Division I who was a member of the Harvard men’s team.
“Consider whether Leah could make the Olympic team—now, she’s the only trans woman competing in women’s elite swimming. Who is she going to compete against?”
The new guidelines were hailed as a big step forward by many women’s sports advocates, including 1984 Olympic swimming champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar.
“I’m delighted that the leadership of our sport supports women’s equity,” Hogshead-Makar said by phone Monday. “We’re trying to protect the girls’ and women’s categories as women-only, while seeking to restructure sports in a variety of different ways to include trans people without undermining the women’s category.”
While most swimmers at the Budapest World Championships declined to comment on the issue, Australia’s Mosha Johnson appeared to support a ban on trans women.
“If you were a woman and you were racing against someone, like, what would you do?” she said. “It’s just about fairness in the sport.”
According to Hogshead-Makar, the research clearly shows that cisgender women are at a significant disadvantage when competing with transgender swimmers who go through puberty as men—even more so than when competing with people who use performance-enhancing drugs.
“Medically and scientifically, is this fair? The answer is no,” insists Hogshead-Makar. “So once you say it’s not fair, it’s game over.”
Of course, the game is far from over.
If trans women are to be banned from women’s events, the governing body will have to figure out a way to keep them in competition without being seen as an afterthought.
FINA insists it is committed to such a goal, but it is hard to imagine how this will play out.
Will transgender swimmers be restricted to outer lanes not normally used for big competitions? Will they have separate medals and their own record books? What about trans men who have been largely ignored in this discussion? Will the Olympics join?
Hogshead-Makar acknowledges that any discussion of a separate division for trans athletes is a work in progress.
“It’s a two-step process,” she said. “It’s just the first step, and that’s how we lock down the female category. With the second step, we have to figure out if we have another podium? Is there anything else we can do to ensure fairness?”
Hogshead-Makar insists her fight is not against trans athletes. But she points out — and it’s hard to disagree — Thomas seems to have a big competitive advantage As a woman, as she has barely had that much success in swimming for the Penn men’s team for three years.
“There is no female sports advocate who is not a sports advocate,” Hogshead-Makar said. “We all want more people to play sports, all kinds of people. I think sport is a social good. You get a lot out of the sporting experience. So the second step is very important for this discussion. But you It’s not fair to[cisgender]women to have this discussion at the beginning of the first step.”
Fair enough, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Thomas and all trans athletes who have under greater scrutiny than their paltry numbers should warrant — most of which are driven by political culture wars.
A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that of the 15.3 million public high school students in the United States, 1.8 percent, or about 275,000, are transgender. Of course, there are even fewer athletes in this group, with a 2017 Human Rights Campaign survey showing that less than 15 percent of trans boys and girls participate in sports.
And when you talk about trans athletes reaching world-class status, that number becomes paltry. In women’s swimming, it is one.
Just three weeks ago, Thomas appears Discuss her future after graduating from Penn on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” She talked about plans to go to law school, but also expressed a desire to continue competing.
Her goal is the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials, which will determine the teams competing in Paris.
“Competing in the Olympic trials has been my goal for a long time,” Thomas said. “I would love to make it happen.”
Now, that is over.
Bailer, recently launched A company called Lane Changer that provides training on gender issuessaid it was no coincidence that FINA largely killed Thomas’ hopes at a meeting in Budapest on Sunday.
“This new policy is unequivocally, absolutely, indisputably directed against Leah Thomas,” he said in an email. “There is absolutely no one else to target it. She is the only one that applies.”
While this is undoubtedly the end of Thomas’ Olympic dream, let’s hope this is just the beginning of another journey.
One that makes everyone feel included.
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