The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lia Thomas’s swimming is getting swamped in others’ fears

Penn swimmer Lia Thomas speaks to her coach during a meet at Harvard. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds, File)
6 min

Hate to tell you, but in a way, everyone is trans. As writer T Cooper observed, all of us in life’s competitive arena are on the way to becoming someone profoundly different than we were, and keeping score is just a way to track the arc of a person from youth to prime to past it. If you subtract the aim of becomingness from competition just because you’re afraid of a Lia Thomas and make it strictly about the chance to win a prize, then you might as well go to an amusement park and shoot a squirt gun at a clown face because it will have about as much meaning.

The debate over whether Thomas, a transgender collegiate swimmer, has some sort of immutable biological edge over the field in this week’s NCAA women’s swimming championships will swamp whatever she does in the water. We look to facts to rescue us when a subject becomes heated, but here, the science remains unsettled. No one arguing the issue really wants to admit it — when is the last time you heard a doctor or any other expert say the words, “I don’t know”? But we don’t know. Therefore, to exclude trans athletes from elite competition, out of our own constricting fears and uncertainty, is wrong, harmfully so.

Read all the position papers for yourself, the strenuous arguments over nanomoles of suppressed testosterone, from briefs in a Connecticut legal case over a high school sprinter to a “briefing” book submitted to Congress by the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group. And then do yourself a favor. Sweep them all off your desk and pick up a stunner of a book called “Real Man Adventures” by Cooper, a literature professor at Emory University whose credits include writing the NBC series “The Blacklist.” See if what you read in Cooper’s work doesn’t ring more startlingly true than any of the disputed positions.

“It turns out nobody else is born a man either,” he writes. “Sure, roughly half of us humans are born male — but only a fraction of that fraction grow into men.”

A transgender college swimmer is shattering records, sparking a debate over fairness

What is the real aim and value of NCAA competition? Is it not to grow people? Surely, it’s about more than just vaulting a small subset of young talents on to a podium for the sake of name-image-and-likeness deals and spots in the Olympics. It’s supposed to be about exploring who you are, whether on the pool deck or starting block or basketball floor, and the truth is that “every person has multitudes in them,” as Cooper’s wife, journalist Allison Glock, observed in her own work. That’s the real worthwhile inquiry of college sports.

Using this as a starting point in the Thomas debate seems a much smarter approach than the uncivil fearmongering over bone density and hand size. And it allows you to ask without insult: Is Thomas’s presence preventing other swimmers from finding out who they are?

Every age category from pre-puberty to professional has changing stakes and urgencies around this issue, and none of those categories are neat. But what can be said with some consensus and conviction is that contests for maturing competitors should be more than a matter of mere physical overwhelming. That defeats the purpose of learning, too, and it’s why we have weight classes. “Sport is always taking into account how to group athletes in order to have meaningful, interesting competitions,” bioethicist Thomas Murray says. You can, like Martina Navratilova, support trans rights with your whole heart and still believe that athletes should compete in their birth category. That doesn’t make you a bigot. It makes you concerned that a meaningful and interesting category of women athletes might disappear.

The trouble is, whatever we think we know about this threat, there are complications to every assumption. Thomas’s Ivy League records this season at Penn coupled with her 6-foot-1 frame initially seem like an overwhelmingly unfair advantage — until you remember that Missy Franklin is 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds. For each researcher who presents certainty that the adolescent pulses of testosterone confer a “legacy” advantage in size and strength even after hormone therapy, there is the reasonable work of a Joanna Harper, a medical physicist who counters that it’s not that simple: There are disadvantages, too.

For instance, a larger skeleton is actually harder to aerobically push after the muscle loss of hormone therapy. And anyway, when has raw size or strength ever been the main determinant of victory in anything? The most titanic competitor I ever watched in any field was the least physically prepossessing: Chris Evert, who took apart the famed trans tennis player Renee Richards, 6-1, 6-0, in the 1979 U.S. Clay Court Championships.

The fight for the future of transgender athletes

Then there is the baffling truth that height differences within genders are much greater than between them. Transgender people have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2004 and have yet to medal, much less blot out women.

All of which is why LaGwyn Durden, the NCAA’s organization’s director of sports medicine, has said, “The science/medical community really hasn’t reached a consensus on testosterone threshold. We don’t have a definitive answer about that.”

For the moment we can only continue to calibrate judgments around the important question: Does our current collegiate model, with its inclusion of Thomas and other trans athletes, call forth competition that is interesting, meaningful and valuable? The answer is yes.

Women’s collegiate swimming was more meaningful and interesting thanks to Franklin’s dominant performances, including a 2015 record that still stands. The sport would have been a lot less so had a height limit prohibited her participation, based on some unverified fear or urge toward homogeneity.

One of the things that makes NCAA sport so captivating is the vast assortment of characters emerging from their chrysalis into the broader world.

Former Georgetown sprinter Aimee Mullins is living proof and articulates this better than anyone. Mullins, who made college track and field more interesting as the first double below-the-knee amputee to compete at a Division I school, joined an amicus brief asking a Connecticut court to let trans youth compete.

In it, she argues: “I think the greatest adversity that we create for ourselves is this idea of ‘normalcy’ as it applies to human beings. There is no normal. There’s common, there’s typical, but there’s no normal. Whether it’s gender, physical or mental ability, or another categorization used to make assumptions about people, sports help break down barriers that society imposes. If we can begin to shift away from the mirage of normalcy and instead view deviations from the common through a lens of possibility, we can increase access to sports and all the benefits they provide.”