Update (2/3/22): This article’s headline has been updated after USA Swimming clarified that the new policy will not necessarily apply to Thomas, as “NCAA events are not considered elite events and Thomas is not a member athlete.” The NCAA will meet to discuss the rule change later in February, though the organization had previously announced that it will follow USA Swimming guidelines for trans athletes.
After months of obsessive coverage in right-wing media, USA Swimming released new rules governing the inclusion of trans athletes which appear to bar University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas from finishing her season.
Following intense pressure from right-wing media, the swimming association will now require three years of testosterone suppression, as well as approval from three “independent medical experts,” before allowing trans women to compete in the female category. Thomas had previously exceeded the rules set by the NCAA, suppressing her testosterone levels for over two years. According to a February 1 press release, the new rules are “effective immediately.”
In changing these goal posts, USA Swimming is capitulating to a right-wing hate campaign that repeatedly deadnamed and misgendered Thomas, a 22-year-old trans woman, and relentlessly framed her participation as a dire threat to women’s sports. (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.) As part of this campaign, which included 32 segments about her in just six weeks on Fox News alone, multiple right-wing media outlets misleadingly portrayed one longtime anti-LGBTQ writer as simply a “former USA Swimming official” to misgender Thomas and attack best-practice trans health care. Fox News also hosted a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, a body claiming to offer a “middle way” on trans inclusion in sports, in segments in which she deadnamed and misgendered Thomas.
The harassment against Thomas went even further, including paparazzi photos of the swimmer and her teammates as well as harmful, anonymously-sourced reports attacking her. Even after Thomas lost, the right-wing media continued attacking her, claiming that the loss had been fixed based on one anonymous interview speculating that Thomas must have colluded with the trans male swimmer who defeated her at a January 8 race to make it “seem like the gender identity issue wasn’t quite as much of a differentiator.” (The other swimmer, Iszac Henig of Yale University, was competing in the women’s category because he has not yet started hormone replacement therapy.)
Major news outlets’ coverage often followed the narrative established in right-wing media, presenting Thomas’ participation as controversial and platforming figures who have worked against trans inclusion in women’s sports. For example, The Washington Post cited Nancy Hogshead-Makar as “chief executive of Champion Women, a women’s sports advocacy organization,” while Forbes referred to her as a “longstanding Title IX advocate.” But in reality, Hogshead-Makar is hardly a neutral expert; the former Olympian circulated a petition that compared trans women with “the travesty of East German women dominating swimming by ingesting and injecting performance-enhancing drugs” and referred to transgender men as “biological women” -- a characterization at odds with modern scientific understanding.
In contrast with the picture presented in many of the media reports, Thomas’ participation is supported by her teammates, competitors, and league. The Ivy League and the University of Pennsylvania have both released statements supporting the athlete. Likewise, Thomas’ teammates offered their full support to the swimmer in a statement released before the policy change was announced. One of Thomas’ competitors, Stanford swimmer Brooke Forde, said, “I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.”
The right-wing outrage about Thomas’ participation is part of a broader campaign to bar trans athletes from competing in sports at any level. In 2021, nine states signed bills into law that would ban trans athletes from competing on teams consistent with their gender identity. South Dakota sent the first such ban of 2022 to the desk of Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, whose chief-of-staff compared trans youth to terrorists during debate over the measure. There are currently at least 25 more bills under consideration at the state level to limit participation from trans athletes, and former President Donald Trump has promised to enact a national ban on trans participation in sports if he retakes the White House in 2024.
While this issue has often been labelled a part of the culture war, trans people are the main casualties: according to one new poll from The Trevor Project, “85% of transgender and nonbinary youth say that recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health.”