The Role of Transgender Women in Sports


Arielle Biran, Opinions Editor


Riddle me this: Lia Thomas, a swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania, has performed exceptionally well this season, obtaining victory after victory at each of her meets, breaking records, and doing so graciously. Her many achievements should warrant an abundance of praise and hefty congratulations, yet, she has more often been met with cyberbullying and death threats. Why? Because Lia Thomas is a transgender woman, she is the new target of the prejudicial movement to ban transgender women from competing alongside cisgender women in sports.


This topic has bred controversy for several years, but is especially relevant now as just last week, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted new regulations in response to the backlash Ms. Thomas has received. In addition to the one year of testosterone suppression treatment already required for transgender student-athletes like Lia to compete, they are now required to document their testosterone levels, which must meet sport-specific levels, four weeks before their sport’s championship selections.


Though I will not argue against the science — testosterone inarguably boosts athletic performance — I take issue with this policy’s specific ostracization of transgender women. A notable ten percent of women worldwide suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), an affliction characterized by abnormally high testosterone levels. If hormones are truly the issue here, why don’t we document the testosterone levels of all female athletes to ensure fair competition? Shouldn’t we bar those suffering from conditions like PCOS from participating to even the playing field? Oh, wait, did someone say it would be unjust to restrict a woman from playing the sport she loves because of biological factors outside of her control? Interesting…


What most bothers me about this particular issue, however, is how it has been distorted to serve the conservative political agenda. The same men who argue against closing the wage gap between male and female athletes, the same men who don’t see heavily female-dominated sports like gymnastics as “real sports”, are now the biggest champions for protecting women’s sports. This sudden concern is a poorly constructed mask for transphobia and miraculously dissipates as soon as issues concerning other aspects of women’s sports arise. Their advocacy is nowhere to be found while discussing the disparities between men’s and women’s weight rooms in the NCAA’s annual March Madness basketball tournament, yet deafening when it comes to their idea of what a woman should be.


Though the media has devoured every record Lia has broken, blasting her for her success, misgendering and invalidating her talent time and time again, they turn a blind eye to her losses: the proof that she is not an unbeatable swimming machine. At the University of Pennsylvania’s last home meet of the season, she came in sixth in the 100-yard-freestyle, notably placing behind Yale junior Iszac Henig, a transgender male who still competes on the female team because he has yet to start hormone treatment. Despite not yet having gone through hormone therapy, Iszac was similarly blasted by online trolls for an “unfair advantage”, proving that no matter what transgender athletes do, someone will find an issue with it.


The question we must ask ourselves is what differentiates a biological advantage from hitting the genetic jackpot. Michael Phelps, the world’s most famous swimmer, has several biological features that provide him a unique advantage in swimming; his torso is abnormally long and his legs short, his wingspan is four inches longer than his height, and his lung capacity is twice the average. From head to toe, his body type and proportions are uniquely suited for swimming with both speed and endurance. However, he is lauded for this biological advantage, while transgender women are rebuked for theirs. Why?


Sure, biological differences can cause athletes to be advantaged or disadvantaged. Shaquille O’Neal’s lofty height, 7’1”, provided him with an immense advantage throughout his basketball career. But, Shaquille O’Neal was never subjected to online tormentors and incessant death threats. Shaquille O’Neal never had his league’s regulations changed in an attempt to hinder his success. 


I understand that there is a knee-jerk reaction to seeing the grossly overstated headlines, “Trans Swimmer Obliterates Competition”, and “Unbeatable Trans Athlete Discourages the Competition”. At the end of the day, however, there is little difference between Lia’s biological advantages and those of Michael Phelps and Shaquille O’Neal. Incredible athletes are typically rewarded with fame and wealth for their talents, and Lia Thomas’ assignment of male at birth should not hinder her reception of this same treatment.