A transgender swimmer who broke three school records at the start of December has been defended by LGBT+ campaigners amid attacks and calls for her withdrawal from women’s competitions.
Lia Thomas, who has been competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) swimming league as a woman for a year came out as transgender in 2019.
She was competing in the 2021 Zippy Invitational as a part of the University of Pennsylvania’s swimming team when she broke three records on 3 December – causing furore among conservatives.
LGBT+ campaigners defending the swimmer included the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT+ civil rights organisation in the US, which praised Ms Thomas by tweeting: “Living your truth is an incredible and powerful feeling.”
“We’re in solidarity with Lia and all athletes who compete in the sports they love and on teams consistent with their gender identity.”
Many attacking Ms Thomas shared footage of her 2021 Zippy Invitational swims as an example of how fast she was compared to fellow competitors, including teammate Anna Kalandadze, who was 38-seconds behind and finished second in one race.
Accusing her of “destroying women’s sport”, the group American Principles tweeted “our female athletes deserve better”.
“Imagine being a female swimmer who trained your entire life and earned the opportunity to swim at the Division 1 level only to watch as a person who spent the first 21 years of his life as a man destroys the competition,” it added.
Piers Morgan, an outspoken conservative columnist, added: “If Michael Phelps began competing as a transgender woman, all hell would break loose – so why is nothing being done to stop trans athletes like Lia Thomas from destroying women’s sport?
Conservative news outlets including Fox News and the New York Post meanwhile shared complaints issued by 10 University of Pennsylvania parents who asked the NCAA last week to forbid Ms Thomas from competitions in the future because she is a “direct threat to female athletes in every sport.”
“The precedent being set – one in which women do not have a protected and equitable space to compete – is a direct threat to female athletes in every sport,” the parents reportedly claimed. “What are the boundaries? How is this in line with the NCAA’s commitment to providing a fair environment for student-athletes?”
That was in spite of the fact that Ms Thomas had been swimming under guidelines for trans athletes set by the NCAA, having been on testosterone suppressants for a year before she started competing in the women’s competitions.
She has also spoken of her struggles with mental health, competing on the men’s team prior to transitioning, and the impact of Covid, telling SwimSwam that “Transitioning has allowed me to be more confident in all of those aspects of my life, where I was struggling a lot before I came out.
“The team has been unbelievably supportive since the beginning,” she told the podcast. “I feel very supported. Just treated like any other member of the women’s team.”
Braden Kieth, the editor-in-chief of SwimSwam, afterwards tweeted: “It’s OK to disagree with Lia Thomas being on the women’s swim team. It’s OK to question the fairness. But some of the things that some of y’all are saying are not and will never be ok. Fix that.”
The debate about the inclusion of trans women in sports, as NBC News reported, has seen sports figures claim that two years of testosterone depressants are not enough to ensure equality among competitors – with 10 US states now forbidding trans women from competing.
Joanna Harper, a visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at England’s Loughborough University, told the news outlet that even after a year of such treatments, there is an impact on an athelete’s performance.
And as study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found, the impact on performance is more significant after two years, with each individual being unique.
“Everybody is able to compete in the category they’re most comfortable with unless there’s a proven unfair advantage that they have.”