Most of you are probably aware that a male swimmer competing as a female for the University of Pennsylvania swim team—a fellow named Will Thomas but now calling himself Lia—has been cleaning house at the swim meets. Half of his female teammates oppose his presence on the team, but Thomas doesn’t care. He was a sub-par male swimmer, but he’s a champion female swimmer. A mother of one of those swimmers has spoken out. You should read it. An excerpt:
The next phone call that I had with my daughter after I learned this, I mentioned Lia and asked her if she was aware of the situation. She wasn’t. She quietly said, “That’s not fair. “ And the disappointment in her voice was clear. But she perked up and said I am sure they’ll figure this out once everyone understands. Oh, how I wish her faith in those that have the power to make change had been well placed.
Fast forward a few weeks to the midseason travel meets where Lia posted the fastest times in the country among women. Faster than NCAA winning times from the previous year and faster than all of our Olympians still racing in women’s collegiate swimming. All of a sudden, everyone but the major news networks was talking. Among leaders among the swimming families that I know it was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. No one could believe the insanity. I talked with families far and wide who were curious about what was happening in the Ivy League. I called a lawyer that I knew at the ACLU to ask how the law, women’s rights and Title Nine might be handled in a case like this. I was trying to be respectful in my language, using trans women and biological women to differentiate and trying to use requested pronouns. I made clear that I didn’t want to offend but pleaded that it seems there was an obvious conflict here for women who already have so much less opportunity in sport, to now have to give spaces away to individuals who identify as women.
I was met with the single most stunning response I’ve ever received on any issue. I was told that the words biological and genetic have no business being in a discussion around sex and gender. I was told trans women are women. They are female. They’re girls, no language that minimizes that point should be tolerated. I was told it was an offensive question. My language was out of date. I was told that sex and gender are equally important and that the ACLU is actively removing sex from legal documentations and legal language. I tried to gently prod at the preposterous arguments I was hearing and I was met with an absolute brick wall when she concluded with “let me tell you with certainty, the ACLU will never represent cis women against women.“
I didn’t sleep that night. The wool had been utterly stripped from my eyes. I now understood. And when I shared this with my mother in law the next day she said, “Well, there you go. We are literally flying the plane upside down now aren’t we?” The next morning my education began. I woke up determined to figure out what had gone wrong. What did I miss? I started researching feminism. I read JK Rowling statement. I read court history and medical papers. I started writing emails to politicians. I ordered books online and read every article I could find. I could not bear to see women’s sports redefined and reworked to no longer be a place where women could pursue and celebrate their physical limits without comparing themselves to men. While I was reading my daughter and the rest of the girls in the Ivy League were getting another kind of education, the kind no one should receive. The Ivy League released their statement literally dripping with sexism. I quote “the Ivy League releases the following statement of support regarding Penn’s Lia Thomas’s participation on the women’s swimming and diving team. Over the past several years, Lia and the University of Pennsylvania have worked with the NCAA to follow all the appropriate protocols in order to comply with the NCAA policy on transgender athlete participation and compete on the Penn women’s swimming and diving team. The Ivy League has adopted and applies the same NCAA policy. The Ivy League reaffirms its unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all student athletes while condemning transphobia and discrimination in any form. The League welcomes her participation in the sport of women’s swimming and diving and looks forward to celebrating the success of all of our student athletes throughout the season.” End quote.
My daughter screenshotted the message and sent it to me. “I’m so confused” was the text that I received. But not to worry, the schools were ready and prepared to address any confusion their athletes might have. Mandatory meetings were called with scripts read off by coaches from the athletic department or in some cases handed out. The girls, already caught off guard and intimidated but upset, were now silenced. They were manipulated, coerced and emotionally blackmailed. They were told their leagues and their schools had spoken and made their positions clear. They as athletes had made the decisions to be a part of these schools and this league and they needed to support it. They were told if they had opinions, or were asked to speak, they had to clear it through their coaches and their athletic department leaders. This was also of course for their own protection as no one wants their team slung through the mud. Finally, they were told their first priority needed to be the safety and protection of their trans classmates who are being thrust into the media. Any harm or damage that befell their classmates due to expressing opinions that might not support them would be their responsibility.
Work done! Message received. Now there was little to no chance they would speak out. I know girls from Harvard, Penn, Dale and Dartmouth that all received various versions of this same message. After these meetings, I spoke to my daughter, the influence was clear. She thought it was completely unfair that Lia was competing. She confirmed that almost all the girls did and they spoke about it amongst themselves. She said there had been talks of one team of girls boycotting their domain, and some of the faster girls from other schools wanting to sit on the blocks in direct places with Lia, that those ideas were disappearing. She wanted no part of being hated on her campus. No part of hurting people that she knew, and no part of being embarrassingly kicked off her team. She said the instructions she got were to extend to the families of the swimmers. I said hell no. We agreed I would do my best to stay anonymous.
There were still conversations among the mothers as the girls prepared for jovenes (?) How are you helping your daughter? What is she telling you? What should I tell my girl? I know that my daughter took two days to emotionally prepare to face Lia. She spent the days writing down her thoughts, working through her emotions, trying to mentally prepare for standing in front of a crowd next to a man where everyone present knew the race was unfair, but no one would speak. (begins crying) She knew she would not win but this was not about shame and losing. This was about being asked to measure her worth as a female athlete, next to a pharmaceutically man who wouldn’t make her look like a child. She worked through how to shake hands at the end of the race and how to make sure that she wouldn’t cry, something I’m apparently not doing. She also worked through how many towels to take in her bag into the locker room in case she needed to cover herself completely as she changed. All the girls knew Lia was still physically intact and had been using the locker rooms. It turned out that stress was not necessary as Lia used another locker room space during the meeting. But it came up again before Ivy Championships where the girls usually share a space for all the teams. I asked my daughter what she would do if Lia was changing in there. And she said resignedly. I’m not sure I have a choice.
I still can’t believe I had to tell my adult-age daughter. “You always have a choice about whether you undress in front of a man.” What messages that these girls have been receiving this year. How many of the other girls were feeling this? My heart was ripped apart. Damage far greater than the sports arena was now apparent to me.
After the Ivy League released its statement, the NCAA released their own, washing their hands of any responsibility of women’s sport, by deferring to the governing bodies of each sport, as they said, effective immediately. USA Swimming quickly put together a policy that appeared it would limit Lia’s participation while still couched in language that didn’t clearly define sex or women. The relief among the girls and the parents was palpable. That relief was not long-lasting, as the NCAA quickly renaged on its words, stating that the new USA Swimming policy would not be implemented this year. It argued that doing so would be unfair to athletes already training for the season. Unfair. To whom? It appeared that the concern of fairness only extended to the lone male athlete participating. Misogyny and the worth of women confirmed.
At this point I had openly spoken with mothers across the Ivy League, swim parents across the country, friends involved in high level sports with their daughters, neighbours and former elite athletes from all walks of life, all races and all political backgrounds. I have yet to run into someone who wasn’t outraged and indeed several other parents confronting the same issue with their daughters and younger club level competition. Everyone thought Lia’s participation was wrong and humiliating. In safe conversation. parents didn’t know what to do, but they still talked freely while their daughters especially as the season progressed grew clearly more uncomfortable discussing the topic.
Like my daughter, the girls wanted to put their heads down, wish it away and plow through as briefly as they could. I know there are a few girls on the Penn team that support Lia. And I know several that signed the petition circulated by Pink Manta Ray Skyler Baylor, the former female swimmer that transitioned and participated on the Harvard men’s team who now earns a living as a trans consultant. That petition was widely reported to be supporting Lia’s participation in the media but it was more of a request to not change the rules midseason. Every girl on my daughter’s team was asked to sign it, as were most of the girls on teams in the Ivy League. Hardly any did. A small act of free will.
A few weeks later, Ivy championships was underway. A huge banner was draped behind the starting blocks that red ‘EIGHT AGAINST HATE’. Referring to the eight Ivy League schools and every team was given T-shirts with the same message. Several teams were required to wear it. I know many of us desperately wanted to rewrite that logo with ’ EIGHT AGREED TO DISCRIMINATE’. The warm-ups would begin, the announcer reading his monologue at the beginning of every session. “The Ivy League condemns all forms of transphobia“ and went on from there. Not a word about sexism in the message. It was a warning. Don’t say one thing perceived as transphobic but women deserve the abuse they are receiving and should stay silent when confronted with their schools and their league robbing them of opportunities and fair treatment.
Supporting the girls had begun to feel like it was taking on an element of brought (?) a sickening twist in our stomach as we took our places in the stands, determined to cheer our daughters on as best we could. The joy of the meet was spoiled from the onset, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to let our girls face this alone. Day after day, we watched as a young lady was replaced in a final swim, replaced on the podium, erased from a record, a relay spot and finally replaced for (unclear) by a man, a six-foot four man with a back twice as wide as any one of the girls out there. A man that didn’t appear to put forth full effort in all of the races.
In reflection, there were a few bright spots, several beautiful swims young women accomplishing some amazing things. And one big highlight on the last night of the meet when no one was in danger of being kicked out of participation, the distance free girls who had raced Lia all season finally had a race to themselves in the final of the 1650. The one race in the meet where the girls all knew beforehand who was competing and had a chance to talk to each other across multiple teams. They all marched out holding hands from the ready room, around the pool all the way behind the blocks. I have never seen this at a meet. It’s never been done.
It was a message. It was silent but it was a message. “We support each other”
I wish that women had responded collectively and angrily as soon as the news of Lia had broken. I wish that seas of people were too incensed to stand by and had protested outside athletic departments and presidents offices of universities. I wish that power in numbers had turned the tide against silence. I wish that society was in a place where it would recognize the effects of this run deeper than one person. I wish people knew the ACLU’s current stance and the danger of mangling the meanings of words that define women. I wish that women, and men for that matter, were not in a place where we have to defend ourselves from the absurd idea that men can be women, that men can compete as women. I cannot believe that we are having to argue that women and girls deserve to be able to get dressed and undressed without men in their locker rooms. Now, more teams and more women across the country will race against Lia at NCAAs. I want this to go away. But I need it to stay in the limelight, in the news. Now that I see it. Now that I know, I desperately want people to wake up to the world we are creating for women.