Swimming has fired the first major salvo against transgender women athletes, which will surely clear the way for other sports to impose similar bans ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Hopefully, that won’t bring an end to thoughtful, intelligent debate — backed by science, nuance and empathy — about ways for sports to be open to everyone, especially those who have already faced enormous discrimination, marginalization and political attacks.
With a ruling aimed squarely at Lia Thomas, the first transgender woman to win an NCAA national championship, world governing body FINA effectively barred athletes such as Thomas from competing in women’s swimming events.
Anyone who has not begun the transition from male to female by the age of 12 or the onset of puberty, whichever comes later, will no longer be allowed to compete against cisgender women during their careers.
Which pretty much brings an end to Thomas’ hopes of competing at the Olympics, not to mention transgender women in other sports who will likely face similar restrictions in the not-too-distant future.
FINA’s ruling was draconian, though it also made a nod toward inclusion by calling for the establishment of so-called “open” categories for transgender athletes.
But the organization gave little indication how those races would work — or if there would even be enough competitors to make them feasible.
“The ‘open’ category is incredibly othering and impractical,” said Schuyler Bailar, who became the first openly transgender swimmer in NCAA Division I as a member of the Harvard men’s team.
“Consider if Lia were to make the Olympic team — right now, she is the only known trans woman competing in women’s elite swimming. Who would she compete against?”
The new guidelines were hailed as a giant step forward by many women’s sports advocates, including 1984 Olympic swimming champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar.
“I’m thrilled that the leadership in our sport stood up for fairness for females,” Hogshead-Makar said when reached by phone on Monday. “We’ve tried to protect the category for girls and women to just females, while at the same time looking to restructure sports in all different ways to include transgender people without blowing up the women’s category.”
While most swimmers at the world championships in Budapest declined to comment on the issue, Australia’s Moesha Johnson seemed to express support for the ban on transgender women.
“If you’re a woman out there and you’re racing someone else, like, how would you feel doing that?” she said. “It’s just about fairness in sport.”
Hogshead-Makar is among those who believes that research clearly shows cisgender women are at significant disadvantage when competing against a transgender swimmer who went through puberty as a male — even more so than racing someone who’s using performance-enhancing drugs.
“Medically and scientifically, can it be fair? The answer is no,” Hogshead-Makar insisted. “So once you say it’s not fair, it’s sort of game over.”
Of course, this game is far from over.
If transgender women are going to be barred from female events, it’s imperative that governing bodies come up with ways for them to compete without being viewed as afterthoughts.
FINA insists that it’s committed to such a goal, but it’s difficult to envision just how that would work.
Would transgender swimmers be restricted to outside lanes that normally aren’t used in major meets? Would they have separate medals and their own record book? And what about transgender men, who have been largely overlooked in this discussion? Would the Olympics jump on board?
Hogshead-Makar conceded that any talk of separate divisions for transgender athletes is a work in progress.
“This is a two-step process,” she said. “This is just step number one, which is how we lock down the female category. With step two, we’ve got to figure out do we have another podium? Is there anything else we can do to make sure it’s fair?”
Hogshead-Makar insisted that her fight is not against transgender athletes. But she pointed out — and it’s hard to disagree — that Thomas seemed to have a big competitive advantage as a woman since she didn’t have nearly as much success swimming on the Penn men’s team for three years.
“There is no such thing as a women’s sports advocate who is not also a sports advocate,” Hogshead-Makar said. “We all want more people playing sports, people of all kinds. I think sports is a social good. There’s so much you get out of sporting experiences. So step two is very important to this discussion. But you can’t have that discussion while having the debate about step number one, which is fairness to (cisgender) females.”
Fair enough, but it’s hard not to feel a great deal of compassion for Thomas and all transgender athletes, who have come under far more scrutiny than their minuscule numbers should warrant — much of it driven by a political culture war.
A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1.8% of the 15.3 million public high school students in the United States — about 275,000 — are transgender. Of course, the number of athletes within that group is even smaller, with a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggesting fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and girls play sports.
And when you’re talking about transgender athletes reaching world-class status, the number becomes microscopic. In female swimming, it’s one.
Just three weeks ago, Thomas appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to discuss her future after graduating from Penn. She talked of plans to attend law school, but also expressed a desire to keep competing.
Her sights were on the 2024 U.S. Olympic trials, which will determine the team that competes in Paris.
“It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time,” Thomas said, “and I would love to see that through.”
Now, that’s gone.
Bailar, who recently launched a company called LaneChanger that provides training on gender issues, said it was no coincidence that FINA essentially snuffed out Thomas’ hopes at a meeting Sunday in Budapest.
“This new policy is undoubtedly, absolutely, inarguably directed at Lia Thomas,” he said in an email. “There is quite exactly no one else it could be directed at. She is the ONLY one to whom it applies.”
While this is surely the end of Thomas’ Olympic dreams, let’s hope it’s just the beginning of another journey.
One that makes everyone feel included.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963.