Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas waits for results after swimming the women's 200 freestyle final at the NCAA swimming and diving championships, Friday, March 18, 2022. John Bazemore

Aoife Martin 'Those who wouldn't cross the road for women's sport are now upset by trans women in sport'

Our columnist addresses the contentious debate around trans women in sport and outlines the damage it is doing to many trans people.

LAST UPDATE | Mar 31st 2022, 9:39 AM

ON 17 MARCH University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender competitor to win the women’s 500-yard swimming freestyle in the history of prestigious college swimming competitions in the US. She was competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I.

This has generated much online comment and has reopened the debate around the participation of trans people, particularly trans women, in sport. Thomas has come in for much criticism and has been labelled a cheat, despite the fact that she broke no rules.

Some people would have you believe that the fact that Thomas is transgender gives her an unfair advantage over her competitors.

Thomas finished the race in a time of 4 minutes and 33.4 seconds, well short of Katie Ledecky’s US record of 4:24.06 at the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis, in 2017. She later finished 5th in the 200-yard freestyle and 8th in the 100-yard freestyle, placings that don’t seem to have generated as much comment.

Differing opinions

The rules around this differ depending on the agency and are ever-evolving. USA Swimming, the national governing body in the US specifies that trans competitors must have been receiving hormone replacement therapy for at least three years before competing. However, the NCAA regulations differ slightly and meant Thomas was perfectly within her rights to compete despite being somewhat short of the three years.

In a Newsweek article, Olympic medallist Erica Sullivan, who finished 3rd in the 500-yard race, wrote “Like anyone else in the sport, Lia has trained diligently to get where she is and has followed all the rules and guidelines put before her… Lia doesn’t win every time and when she does, she deserves to be celebrated for her hard-won success, not labelled a cheater simply because of her identity.”

Reka Gyorgy, who finished 17th in the race that Lia won, one spot shy of qualifying for the finals, released a letter she sent to the NCAA which stated that she “would like to critique the NCAA rules that allow her [Lia Thomas] to compete against us, who are biologically women.”

Thomas isn’t the first transgender athlete to cause controversy. In the 2020 Olympics Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender woman athlete to compete in the games. She had met the rules to compete at the time as the regulations in place meant she could compete without surgery as long as she took medication to lower testosterone for a year. Hubbard competed in the Women’s +87 kg weightlifting category. With three failed snatch lifts, she placed last in her group.

Stoking the fear

There’s a lot of scaremongering around trans women’s participation in sport. People who wouldn’t cross the road to watch a women’s GAA match or who would switch channels if a women’s football game came on the telly are suddenly concerned about a competition that they wouldn’t usually pay any attention to.

And it’s not just trans women who are affected. One only has to look at what has happened to Caster Semenya, a cisgender woman, to see that when you start policing who should or shouldn’t participate in sport then you are going down a dangerous road. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be rules, of course, there should, and Lia Thomas and Laurel Hubbard have followed those rules.

This is only a subset of a much wider anti-trans view that seems to be taking hold in many areas of society. Take a look at what’s happening in the US at the moment.

According to a recent NBC news article, nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in the US in 2022 so far, most of them targeting trans people. A number of things stand out from the article itself. I’m not going to repeat them here – you can read it for yourself – but I would like to point out some statistics that the piece refers to.

According to data supplied by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Freedom for All Americans, in 2019 37% of 60 anti-LGBTQ proposed bills in the US were anti-trans, in 2021 80% of 191 anti-LGBTQ bills were anti-trans, and as of 15 March, 65% of 154 anti-LGBTQ bills filed were anti-trans.

Trans rights are human rights

This should set alarm bells ringing. The pushback against trans rights is not just an online phenomenon, it is happening in the real world, and it is affecting people’s lives. I recently read a Twitter thread from the mother of a trans daughter who is attending university.

She described how her daughter is scared to use the bathroom and runs straight to the toilet when she gets home, how she refuses to join any sports clubs out of fear of being confronted and harassed, how the toxic debate around trans people has affected her mental health and made her feel utterly ashamed of who she is.

This young woman, who should be living her best life and enjoying all that university has to offer, has curtailed her life because of fear, fear of being attacked, fear of being mocked, fear of being judged.

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day that celebrates transgender people and raises awareness of the discrimination they face worldwide. I have spent most of this article talking about the discrimination that trans people can face because, at the moment, it can feel like there’s not much to celebrate.

Being visible comes with a cost. For some that price is not worth paying. They will live in stealth and get on with their lives, no one any wiser as to their trans status. For others, it might feel like they will never have the courage, that they are the only person who feels like this.

That’s why those of us who are visible and have a voice should use that voice. Happy Trans Day of Visibility to every trans and non-binary person who reads these words. Visible or not, you are seen. You are valid.

Aoife Martin is a trans woman and activist. In her spare time, she likes reading, going to the cinema and practising card tricks.