ATLANTA — Lia Thomas made history as the first male-born athlete to win an NCAA Division I women’s title, but her victory came at a cost, and not just to her female competition.
The transgender-rights movement took a public-relations hit at the four-day swimming championships at Georgia Tech as Thomas’s historic finish Thursday in the 500-yard freestyle became a rallying cry for advocates of single-sex sports.
“I think Lia has helped our cause by showing us the blatant unfairness of having a male athlete in women’s sports,” said Canadian track-and-field coach Linda Blade, a former NCAA Division I athlete who heads Athletics Alberta.
Blade was one of about two dozen Save Women’s Sports activists who kept up a continuous protest outside the McAuley Aquatic Center, backed by Concerned Women for America, Young Women for America, and Turning Point USA contributor Jon Root.
The protesters trained the focus on the fairness issue, stirring up a social-media outcry that was further stoked by photos of Thomas looming over the smaller female also-rans on the podium after the University of Pennsylvania senior’s victory.
Second-place finisher Emma Weyant of Virginia, an Olympic silver medalist, trended on Twitter as fans declared her the “real winner” of the 500 freestyle.
With the win, Thomas became the first male-born athlete to win an NCAA Division I women’s title, prompting congratulations from LGBTQ groups and renewed calls for stricter rules on transgender eligibility in female sports.
Rep. Ken Buck, Colorado Republican, warned of federal legislation in the absence of action by the NCAA.
“XX ≠ XY. If male-bodied athletes are allowed to continue competing on women’s teams, women’s sports will cease to exist,” tweeted Mr. Buck. “It’s time for the NCAA to protect female athletes. Otherwise, Congress will have to step in.”
Conspicuously absent at the meet was the powerhouse LGBTQ movement, which all but ceded the field at the annual collegiate championships that ended Saturday.
The major LGBTQ groups were no-shows on the ground, leaving it to a handful of Georgia Tech Pride Alliance students standing across the street with homemade signs to defend trans athletes competing in women’s sports.
Graduate student Ahron Cervania said the Save Women’s Sports activists had misgendered Thomas in that “their whole message is Lia Thomas is a man, and we are saying Lia Thomas is a woman.”
“We need to understand more about transgender athletes and how they compete, and there can be a discussion about whether that’s fair and what the regulations need to be, but not in a way that is denying transgender people their identity,” said Cervania, who held up a “We Support Transgender/Queer Athletes” sign.
Former Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar, a female-to-male transgender athlete and activist, accused the protesters Thursday of “textbook bullying.”
“The protests outside the pool today against Lia and trans athletes are textbook bullying,” tweeted Bailar. “I was personally harassed while I was trying to watch Lia swim, yelled and screamed at for supporting her. These people do not want to ‘protect women,’ they want to erase trans people.”
Tale of two transgender athletes
Save Women’s Sports activists countered that they don’t oppose transgender athletes competing in sports, just biological males entering events designated for women.
Making it that much easier to prove their point was Yale junior Iszac Henig, a female-to-male transgender swimmer who competed at the championships but drew no opposition from protesters.
“If we were trying to prevent trans athletes from competing in female sports, why aren’t we here protesting Henig’s events? We’re not,” said evolutionary biologist Colin Wright at the Thursday press conference. “The simple reason we’re not is because Henig is biologically female, and so competing in female sports is completely appropriate.”
The crowd greeted Henig and the other female-born swimmers with the same enthusiastic cheers, while the applause abruptly died down when Thomas was introduced before races.
“Iszac’s swimming in this competition. None of us care,” said Blade. “We totally support transmen, somebody who identifies as male even though they’re born female. We totally support that person being able to compete against the women.”
Although Henig has had “top surgery,” or breast removal, the Yale freestyler has not undergone female-to-male hormone therapy in order to remain eligible for the women’s team.
“As long as they just compete in the category that they’re supposed to be competing in, that’s no problem. All we’re saying is, be fair to women,” said Blade. “Because literally, Lia Thomas is making it unfair to Iszac as well. If you’re a transwoman competing in the women’s category, you’re literally taking away the rights of another trans person who happens to be born female. It’s actually hurting all women no matter how we identify.”
Henig and Thomas both wore “let trans kids play” messages on their arms during the Saturday final in the 100 freestyle, which was won by Virginia freshman Gretchen Walsh. Henig placed fifth and Thomas came in eighth in the eight-swimmer field.
Thomas also fell short Friday in the 200 freestyle with a fifth-place finish. In both losses, Thomas registered times that were slower than her finishes in the preliminary swims.
Some LGBTQ advocates said the defeats prove that Thomas, who underwent more than a year of testosterone suppression as required by NCAA rules, has no advantage over female-born swimmers, while others asked whether Thomas deliberately slowed down to avoid generating more controversy.
Conservative sports columnist Jason Whitlock, a podcaster for Blaze Media, posted Saturday a Twitter poll asking: “Did Lia Thomas tank?”
Thomas swam for three years on Penn’s men’s team before joining the women’s side for the 2021-22 season, smashing records and quickly becoming Exhibit A for foes of male-born athletes in female sports.
Even before Thomas appeared on the scene, however, LGBTQ advocates had struggled to gain ground on the transgender-athlete issue.
A Gallup poll released in May found that 62% of Americans believe athletes “should only be allowed to play on sports teams that correspond with their birth gender.”
Transgender-advocacy groups have had more success in the courts. Federal judges have temporarily blocked bills to ban male-born athletes from female sports in Idaho and West Virginia pending the outcome of court battles.
Perhaps the greatest factor working to the movement’s advantage is the fear, particularly among college students, of being labeled hateful or transphobic.
Several Penn swimmers have complained to media outlets anonymously about Thomas’s presence on the team, and 16 swimmers sent a letter anonymously last month to Penn in favor of USA Swimming’s stricter transgender eligibility criteria.
So far, however, no active NCAA Division I female swimmer has been willing to put her name on such objections – until now.
Virginia Tech fifth-year senior Reka Gyorgy posted a statement Sunday on Instagram saying that she placed 17th in the 500 freestyle, meaning that she missed both the final and the consolation final by one spot in the race ultimately won by Thomas.
“I’m writing this letter right now in hopes that the NCAA will open their eyes and change these rules in the future,” she said in the post reprinted on SwimSwam. “It doesn’t promote our sport in a good way and I think it is disrespectful against the biologically female swimmers who are competing in the NCAA.”
The New York Post on Friday ran an open letter from a “large group of parents” from five Ivy League universities decrying the situation, but again, none of the parents was identified by name.
“We are furious and most everyone in our community is furious as well. Parents, coaches, swimmers, and rational, logical people know this is grossly unfair. Female swimmers have not consented to this. In fact, many of them expressly said no. What response did they receive?” said the letter. “Be quiet. A new ideology ruled. ‘Transwomen are women’ no exceptions; the girls’ concerns: ‘transphobic.’”
One young woman identified as a Virginia Tech athlete told Rapid Fire at Thursday’s championships that the swimmers were “very disappointed and frustrated” about the Thomas situation, and that she had a teammate who lost a spot in the finals to Thomas.
“It’s heartbreaking to see someone who went through puberty as a male and has the body of a male be able to absolutely blow away the competition, and you go into it with the mindset that you don’t have a chance,” said the woman, who was shown on video but not identified by name.
On the other hand, more than 300 male and female NCAA swimmers and divers signed their names to an Athlete Ally-Schuyler Bailar letter last month in support of Thomas.
They included Texas swimmer Erica Sullivan, who lost to Thomas in the 500 but followed up with a Friday op-ed in Newsweek defending the transgender athlete.
“Women’s sports are stronger when all women — including trans women — are protected from discrimination, and free to be their true selves,” said Sullivan, who described herself as an “out gay silver medalist,” referring to her silver in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
At Thursday’s press conference, Young Women for America ambassador Macy Petty, an NCAA Division II volleyball player, urged collegiate athletes to speak out.
“My fellow female athletes, we must use our voices to protect the future of girls’ sports, or our daughters and future generations will never know the life changing opportunities that come from girls’ sports,” she said. “If feelings are allowed to dictate which team an individual plays on, that protection that women fought for will ultimately dissolve.”