Let’s talk about… Trans women in sports

You don’t care about women’s sports, you’re just excusing transphobia

When Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender woman to win the NCAA’s first division swimming competition on March 17th (just two weeks ago), her victory soon became a point of public debate about trans women in sports.

  Despite having been on gender-affirming hormone replacement therapy for three years – making her eligible to enter the competition per NCAA (the National Collegiate Athletics Association) policy – debate erupted over her right to compete in women’s races, with people claiming that her biological sex gave her an unfair advantage over fellow competitors. Some even went as far as to question her gender identity itself, claiming that she had transitioned solely in order to find more success in women’s swimming.

  The assumption at play here, that trans women have a competitive advantage over the cis women they’re competing against, is, according to the NCAA itself, not well founded – not to mention the lack of scientific evidence conclusively linking testosterone and athletic performance in the first place. And yet, this argument is the foundation for the criticism surrounding Lia’s win.

  The narrative sold is that due to her being trans, Lia was able to dominate the women’s competition, and that this was unfair to the cis women she was competing against. Mention is rarely given to her performance in other events in the competition, where she placed 5th and 8th; presumably because this doesn’t fit the narrative that any competition between a cis woman and a trans woman isn’t a fair fight.

  You would also think, given how much the NCAA competition has been brought up in the discourse over the past two weeks, that more attention would have been given to the twenty-seven records that were broken during the championships. After all, so much weight was given to the argument that trans women’s inclusion is unfair to cis women and we need to ‘protect women’s sports’, and yet no one was looking to celebrate women’s sporting achievements – instead doing the exact opposite.

  Needless to say, one thing made evident by the fact that those opposing Lia’s win opt to call her a man and invalidate her gender identity, is the underlying transphobia at play. Their problem with trans women participating in sports is rooted in an underlying belief that trans women are not women.

  Despite progress in more recent years, the trans community continues to face constant discrimination, and the transphobic comments and discourse that followed Lia’s win revealed that her opposers regard her as a man, and presume a man would have an obvious advantage over women. This presumption of women’s physical inferiority has served to justify and excuse the unequal treatment of countless female athletes over the years, as well as explaining why women’s sport is so often not given the same platform as men’s sport, and is extremely harmful.

  This is why it seems especially ironic that all those attacking Lia Thomas for her win are so eager to claim that they are doing so in the name of women’s sports; you don’t care about women’s sports, you’re making excuses for your transphobia. Women’s sports benefit the more we move in a progressive direction, and the further we get away from the presumption that ‘male’ implies physically superior. Women’s sports benefit from the inclusion of all women.

  If you only ever feel compelled to start advocating for women’s sports when you’re upset that trans women are participating, then you’re not kidding anyone. The thinly veiled transphobia and misogyny rife within the discourse over Lia Thomas’s win over the past two weeks has nothing to do with supporting women’s sports, and all to do with a culture that fails to respect trans women, and upholds the belief that biological women are physically inferior to biological men.

  Lia Thomas’s win was a milestone achievement, and though the reaction to her win has shown we’ve a long way left to go when it comes to our attitudes around trans athletes and women athletes in general, it is still very much a watershed moment for trans people in sports, and deserved to be recognised for such.