Fox News leads hate campaign against trans college swimmer Lia Thomas, airing 32 segments about her in just 6 weeks
Fox figures repeatedly deadnamed and misgendered Thomas and used the story to attack gender-affirming health care
As part of its campaign to vilify transgender athletes in order to malign the trans community as a whole, Fox News has obsessively covered University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas. From December 3 through January 12, the network aired 32 segments on Thomas’ swim career. Throughout Fox’s coverage of the story, hosts and guests spewed dehumanizing rhetoric about Thomas and went so far as to assert that “this is like everyone has taken a crazy pill and no one wants to admit that this is wrong.”
During an early December swim meet, Thomas came in first place in the 500-yard freestyle, 200-yard freestyle, and 1,650-yard freestyle races, setting conference records in each event. Thomas’ performance drew the ire of conservative pundits intent on framing her success as symptomatic of the purportedly unfair advantage trans women have when competing in women’s sports.
Thomas has exceeded the rules of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which require her to be on testosterone suppressants for at least a year prior to competing, and has the support of the Ivy League conference and her school.
Nevertheless, Fox News relentlessly framed Thomas' participation as a dire threat to women’s sports – even when she did not win. During a January 8 swim meet, Thomas placed sixth in the 100-yard freestyle with Iszac Henig placing first (Henig is a trans man competing on the women’s team as he has put off hormone replacement therapy for now.)
Fox News has an extensive history of spewing anti-trans rhetoric and in recent years has focused that hate toward individual trans athletes. In 2021, the network aired more segments on trans athletes in just the first three months of the year than it had in the previous two years combined.
Fox News has aired 32 segments discussing Lia Thomas since December 3
From December 3, when Fox first mentioned her after she won a swim race, through January 12, Fox News aired 32 segments that discussed Thomas’ swim career. Key findings include:
(In accordance with the Trans Journalists Association style guide, Media Matters has replaced Thomas’ deadname and pronouns in the quotes below.)
- Fox’s so-called “straight news” programs aired 9 segments about Thomas, accounting for over one-fourth of the total segments. The remaining 23 segments were from its opinion programs.
- Fox & Friends and its weekend counterparts as well as Fox & Friends First, the network’s weekday early morning show, together aired the most segments (12) about Thomas. America's Newsroom With Bill Hemmer & Dana Perino aired the second-most segments on the topic (9), followed by The Ingraham Angle (4), and Tucker Carlson Tonight (3).
- Fox News figures repeatedly deadnamed and misgendered Thomas. Deadnaming and misgendering are forms of harassment that involve using a trans person’s prior name against their wishes or referring to them as the incorrect gender. Misidentifying trans people goes against best practice journalistic standards.
- Lawyers and clients from the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom appeared on Fox News during three of the segments about Thomas. During the December 14 edition of The Ingraham Angle, ADF lawyer Christiana Holcomb misgendered trans athletes and fearmongered that “woke ideologues are silencing women like these University of Pennsylvania athletes for saying no to men in their sports.”
Fox’s coverage of the story was rife with anti-trans hate and dehumanizing rhetoric about Thomas. On January 9, a day after Thomas placed sixth in the 100-yard freestyle, right-wing pundit Buck Sexton decried the impacts of “the trans agenda” on women’s sports and lamented, “We now in the news business are all using female pronouns for males as just a matter of course. I don’t know why we have conceded that either.” On that same day, Fox host Rachel Campos-Duffy misgendered Thomas and claimed, “Everybody sitting there in the stands is participating in this lie. Lia is not a woman.”
Fox hosts and guests also used the story to fuel broader anti-trans attacks, including lying about best-practice health care and promoting conversion therapy. During a January 11 Fox & Friends segment, right-wing writer Cynthia Millen lied that “statistics have shown that if a teenager with gender dysphoria is allowed to work through it with proper therapy, they end up not wanting to transition when they are adult.” Millen also falsely claimed that gender affirming health care “involves mutilation of the body.” Fox dubiously referred to Millen as a mere “former USA Swimming official” even though she is also a writer for the website Catholic Stand, where she has documented extreme views on reproductive health care, same-sex couples, and critical race theory.
In reality, gender-affirming medical care for trans people is accepted as a safe, effective, and lifesaving treatment that is widely supported by medical professionals and yields clear mental health benefits.
On the December 7 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson brought on Kara Dansky from the anti-trans organization Women’s Human Rights Campaign. Dansky argued against federal protection for trans students along with trans inclusion in women’s restrooms and prisons, even going on to argue against the word transgender itself, saying, “Republicans are holding the line on material reality. All of that goes out the window when you use the word like transgender. It just doesn't exist, and I'm begging viewers to stop using it.”
Right-wing media are leveraging the story to fuel broader anti-trans attacks
Fox hosts were not alone in exploiting Thomas’ story to push transphobic talking points. Conservative radio host Clay Travis tweeted out an article on Thomas from his website OutKick.com that deadnamed her and claimed the NCAA’s policy on trans athletes was to tell “biological women … to suck it up and deal with it.” Travis also appeared numerous times on Fox News to comment on the story and argue against trans inclusion in sports.
Right-wing print and online outlets struck a similarly antagonistic tone, including Townhall, the New York Post, and the Washington Examiner. The Examiner ran an online piece titled “Liberals paving the way to turn women’s swimming into more men’s swimming,” in which writer Christopher Tremoglie claimed that “in the wake of this transgender destruction, collegiate females are the collateral damage.”
Other right-wing cable networks also saw the story as an opportunity to elicit anger in their base, with Newsmax’s Chris Salcedo saying on his show that Thomas competing was a “new form of political correctness being pushed exclusively by socialist Democrats.” One America News Network host Dan Ball said of Thomas’ participation, “Speaking of things that just aren’t right, like a grown man trying to have sex with teenagers, … how about a real biological man beating women, all women, in their own sporting events? That's not right either.”
Far from hollow attacks, this sort of rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with legislative efforts by conservative lawmakers to pass further restrictions on the rights of trans youth, with trans student participation in sports a key target. After 2021 saw a historic number of bills targeting trans kids introduced in state legislatures, the threat remains high as 25 bills specifically targeting trans student athletes are currently being considered in state legislatures across the country.
A recent poll from the Trevor Project shows how this new reality can impact the lives of trans youth, with 85% of transgender and non-binary youth saying debates around these bills have negatively impacted their mental health. As long as right-wing media continue to capitalize on stories like Lia Thomas’, manufacturing outrage with misinformation and hate, trans children will remain casualties in Fox News’ culture war.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for any of the terms “Lia Thomas,” “Leah Thomas,” or “gender” or any variation of the term “trans” within close proximity of any of the terms “Penn,” “UPenn,” or “NCAA” or any variation of the word “swim” from 4 a.m. EST December 3, 2021, through midnight January 12, 2022.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when Lia Thomas was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion about Thomas. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed Thomas with one another. We did not include mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned Thomas without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about Thomas scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We split Fox programs into “news” and “opinion” sides. We defined “news” programs as those with anchors, such as Bret Baier or Shannon Bream, while we defined “opinion” programs as those with hosts, such as Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham, at the helm. We used the designations from each anchor or host’s author page on FoxNews.com. We also considered the format of the program; we defined those using a panel format, such as Outnumbered and The Five, as opinion programs.