March 25, 2022

When Ketanji Brown Jackson refused to define the word “woman” during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, the US Supreme Court nominee put it down to the fact that she is “not a biologist”. She is also clearly not a sports fan.

A few days before her hearing, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I 500-yard women’s freestyle race was won by an athlete named Lia Thomas. Looking at the medal presentation photographs afterwards, you don’t have to be a biologist to see that something is amiss. Huddled together on the right-hand side, on the number three podium, are three young women. The number two position is empty. To the left stands the winner, on the first place podium: to my eyes, a strapping lad, albeit in female attire and with long hair. I clearly have no hope of a place on the Supreme Court.

Lia Thomas, born William Thomas, has undoubtedly had an impressive swimming career. William started competing from the age of five, was All-American in high school and went on to follow in his older brother’s footsteps by swimming for the University of Pennsylvania. For three years, William was one of the stars of the men’s team.

But in 2018, William declared that he was, in fact, Lia and, in May 2019, began taking hormones to suppress testosterone. Thomas has not yet “fully transitioned”, and still has male genitalia. However, last year Thomas was allowed to switch to Penn’s female swim team and has since competed as a woman. Thomas recently told Sports Illustrated,“I am a woman, just like everybody else on the team”, adding: “There is no such thing as half-support, either you back me fully as a woman or you don’t.”

Now, there are some in the swimming community who do “back” her. Erica Sullivan, a biological woman, represented the US in the Tokyo Olympics and finished third behind Thomas. Before the race, she wrote in support of Thomas, claiming that sportswomen have a lot more to worry about than trans women competitors — such as sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay, and a lack of women in leadership roles.

By and large, however, Thomas’s competitors and their parents aren’t willing to ignore the biological repercussions of that victory. Reka Gyorgy, a fellow swimmer who finished 17th in the qualifying heats, just one spot away from the final race, has written a letter to the NCAA stating that Thomas’s win “was not a specific athlete’s fault. It is the result of the NCAA and their lack of interest in protecting their athletes.”

A fellow Penn female swimmer complained that Lia walks around the women’s locker room exposed, making teammates feel uncomfortable. “It’s definitely awkward because Lia still has male body parts and is still attracted to women,” she explained. Meanwhile, parents complain that the team is divided and “everything has fallen apart.” Such is the outrage that Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has been forced to wade in; this week, he signed a proclamation declaring the “rightful winner” of the race to be Emma Weyant, who came in second.

I have no prejudice against men who wish to identify as women. Nobody chooses to undergo surgery or take body-altering medicine on a whim. The transgender community deserves our support in the face of any and all abuse. None of this, however, means that biological women should be forced to accept the participation of trans women in their sports competitions. As law professor and former athlete Doriane Coleman has explained: “Compared to females, males have greater lean body mass (more skeletal muscle and less fat), larger hearts (both in absolute terms and scaled to lean body mass), higher cardiac outputs, larger hemoglobin mass, larger VO2 max (i.e. a person’s ability to take in oxygen), greater glycogen utilisation, and higher anaerobic capacity.”

The same applies to trans women who have gone through male puberty, regardless of any hormones they are taking, as many developments from puberty are permanent. As a report on male-bodied athletes by the International Women’s Forum makes clear, there are more than 3,000 genes that contribute to muscle differences between human males and females. “Genetic differences cannot be eliminated by reducing testosterone, and these differences may create different muscle responses to training between even those men and women who have the same concentrations of testosterone.”

This isn’t some fringe view: even the New Yorker agrees, noting that “males who have gone through puberty have, on average, more cardiovascular capacity, greater muscle mass, higher tendon mechanical strength, and denser bones… In many sports involving timed races, men are roughly 10-12% faster than women.” Lia Thomas proves this point, winning the NCAA 500-yard comfortably with a time of 4 minutes and 33.24 seconds. Though finishing at 65th overall when competing in the men’s 500-yard freestyle, Lia leapt to finishing first when competing against women.

The encroachment of male-born athletes into the female arena is not new: various controversies over female athletes deemed too masculine have played out over the past century. During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for instance, officials forced American runner Helen Stephens to undergo a humiliating genital examination after she was accused of being a man. And well into the Sixties, female athletes were forced to participate in “nude parades” and undergo chromosome tests. Such measures undoubtedly degraded the very women they were intended to protect; yet as the case of Lia Thomas demonstrates, the sporting world is yet to conjure up a reasonable solution to the transgender question.

In January, the NCAA announced a “sport-by-sport approach to transgender participation”, dropping its previous rule that all trans women could participate in women’s sports after just a year of testosterone suppression. Instead, it would now allow each individual sport to determine their own regulations. USA Women’s Swimming quickly responded with a new system that would have permitted trans women to participate only after three years of T-suppression, and added a panel examination to see if a trans woman had “physical developments” that might confer an advantage over biological women. But the NCAA struck down the new regulations, claiming that the late-stage rule change was “unfair” and had “potential detrimental impacts” on swimmers such as Thomas.

There was — surprise, surprise — little discussion about the “unfair” consequences the reversal would have on the other women competing. But should we be surprised? One sport after another now accepts trans competitors, from New Zealand’s weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who competed in the 2020 Olympics, to CeCe Telfer, who won an NCAA Division II track title in 2019. If this trend continues, it’s not inconceivable that biological women may find themselves squeezed out of sport altogether. What’s the point in a girl even trying to excel when, sooner or later, a trans woman could come along and deny them victory?

Yet there may be a solution: the Paralympics holds the key for how we can move forward. This isn’t to make any comparison between transgender people and those with physical disabilities — it’s merely to observe that it is possible to hold different sporting competitions for those with different innate physical characteristics.

At the heart of the Paralympics lies a fair and equitable approach to allowing athletes to compete against each other. All competitors are assessed by a panel of experts who examine both physical and technical limitations. The merits of the process are obvious: it stops able-bodied individuals from identifying as impaired and competing against those with limitations.

Why not develop similar events for trans athletes, allowing individuals such as Lia Thomas to compete with appropriate peers? If Thomas meant it when she said that “I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer”, then this solution would enable her to do just that, while also accounting for the aspirations and rights of biological women. For trans men, too, it would also be an attractive option, given they currently stand little chance of sporting success.

The alternative — allowing Thomas to continue competing against women — is simply untenable. Thomas has already expressed interest in competing in the Paris Olympics in 2024 for the US women’s swim team. And without the kind of system I am proposing, she might well make it, shattering the hopes of  biological woman who deserves that place.

“I want to swim and compete as who I am,” Thomas said in a recent interview. It’s a sentiment I suspect is shared by many of the female swimmers she has competed against in recent years. Along with them, I look forward to cheering her on in the Trans Olympics.