When Lia Thomas first entered the women’s NCAA swimming scene in 2021, her presence was immediately felt. National media outlets became obsessed with her. She got the kind of attention rarely given to swimming athletes outside of the Olympics.
Thomas was good, but she wasn’t the next Simone Biles of her field. So what explained such a frenzy? Simple: Thomas was a transgender woman having success in the women’s division.
From December 7, 2021, to February 22, 2022, CNN spent nearly 15 minutes criticizing Thomas’s participation in the women’s division but less than two minutes discussing the dozens of bills being introduced across the country banning trans people from sports. Meanwhile, from December 3, 2021, through January 12, 2022, Fox News aired 32 segments that attacked Thomas, according to Media Matters for America. That pace didn’t slow down for months. “That level of coverage of women’s swimming, specifically, has not come close to being matched in the year after the end of [Thomas’s] swimming career,” says Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director at Media Matters. “They like to say that this is coming from a place of caring about women’s sports, but it’s hard not to notice that they don’t really cover women’s sports unless trans women are competing in them.”
The intensity of the critical media coverage helped fuel an equally intense backlash against Thomas. Sixteen of her University of Pennsylvania teammates signed a letter midway through the season saying that she had an unfair advantage. That letter was organized by former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who, along with fellow Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona, is a founding member of the Women’s Sport Policy Working Group, which has been leading the movement to ban trans women and girls from competing in the women’s division in sports across the board. (The Human Rights Campaign has called the WSPWG “a hate group.”) And World Aquatics, the international federation that governs the sport of swimming, released a new transgender participation policy in July 2022 that essentially bans trans women from competing by creating incredibly restrictive requirements for their inclusion. (As I have written previously, there is no real evidence that trans athletes have an inherent advantage over their cisgender counterparts.)
It was hard not to see World Aquatics’ new policy as a direct response to Thomas’s success in the sport—according to the website Swimcloud, Thomas was ranked 32nd among women college swimmers in the United States for the 2021–22 season and was the first openly transgender swimmer to win an NCAA D-1 National Championship—particularly since she wasn’t even the first trans woman to compete in NCAA swimming. (In 2019, Natalie Fahey came out as trans but continued to swim for the men’s team. She competed in one women’s meet but entered as an exhibition swimmer.)
The World Aquatics policy was the culmination of a long-simmering anti-trans sentiment in the sport of women’s swimming, particularly in Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. While most sporting bodies have taken a hard turn to the right in recent years when it comes to allowing transgender athletes—and transgender women, in particular—to compete, women’s swimming is, in some ways, uniquely anti-trans. It’s a sport whose culture created the perfect conditions for trans-exclusionary beliefs to take over, through a combination of its overwhelming whiteness, history of rampant sexual abuse, and a 40-year-old doping scandal that still haunts it.
Transphobia is often closely linked to white supremacy, as gender non-conformity threatens norms regarding white, Western gender ideals, and swimming’s history is decidedly anti-Black. According to a 2021 USA Swimming report, of its 331,206 year-round athletes, 35.5 percent (117,423) identified as white, while only 1 percent (3,440) identified themselves as Black or African American and 2.4 percent (7,933) said they were Hispanic or Latinx (21 percent did not respond to the ethnicity question at all). “I would say the sport has shifted marginally over time but it traditionally is a very white, very elite sport,” says Schuyler Bailar, the first openly trans athlete on a men’s team in the NCAA and founder of Lanechanger.com. “I experienced swimming as an outsider in many ways. Many of my friends were white—my whole team was white.”
Throughout much of the 20th century, public pools were sites of segregation and racial violence. Not only were Black Americans and other people of color prevented from having access to pools, but swimming as a sport was seen as perfect for showing off whiteness and promoting traditional ideas of femininity.
“The sheer white, middle-classness of the sport of swimming [impacted] how it reproduced white, heteronormative, ‘traditional’ American values,” says Matthew Hodler, assistant professor of sports media and communication at the University of Rhode Island and a former swimmer. “It was one of the sports middle-class white women were allowed to participate in earlier on because it shaped the ‘right’ kind of body for women. It was considered a ‘clean’ sport—they could be graceful in the water. It is bound up in these traditional femininities.”
Women swimmers were sexualized from the very beginning of the sport. In the 1920s, during the period following the First World War when women were really first allowed to participate more broadly in sporting events, women swimmers became some of the first athletes to be treated as heterosexual sex objects, as photos of them in their swimsuits could be printed in newspapers under the guise of covering women’s sports.
“I can’t think of other sports where a female or male body is so thoroughly displayed to the eyes of the world,” says Helen Lenskyj, professor at the University of Toronto and co-editor of Justice for Trans Athletes. “Wearing a swimsuit discloses pretty much everything about one’s body. There is a lot of scrutiny of female bodies in swimsuits.”
Thomas found herself scrutinized in a particularly poisonous way. Her figure became the focus of obsessive, transphobic scrutiny, her every muscle denounced as an affront to “real” womanhood. (It’s worth noting that other muscular women who swim, like Katie Ledecky, are not subject to the same kinds of relentless critique.)
This tendency to both deify and constantly assess women’s bodies has manifested itself repeatedly over the decades, and the generation of swimmers who came up in the late 1960s to early 1980s—many of whom are now coaching or, like Hogshead-Makar and de Varona, continue to be involved through advocacy or organizational positions—have taken the prejudices of that time period, as well as the traumas they endured, and weaponized them at the expense of transgender women swimmers.
At the 1976 Olympics, for instance, the East German women’s swimming team won 11 of the possible 13 gold medals. This was a result of a state-sponsored doping effort, in which more than 10,000 athletes—disproportionately, but not solely, women—were given synthetic testosterone (often without their knowledge; they were told the pills were “vitamins”). American swimmer Shirley Babashoff, who won one gold medal in the 4 x 100 relay, called out the GDR swimmers for having “deep voices and mustaches”—these are common effects of testosterone—and was giving interviews as recently as 2016 about how much she was robbed of as a result of their doping. Sharron Davies, who swam for Great Britain in the 1980 Olympics and competed against GDR athletes who were doping, has been outspoken in wanting trans women banned from all women’s sports.
Bailar, who swam in the women’s division until college, when he moved to the men’s division, does not remember much discussion of the GDR doping scandal when he was growing up.“The most I’ve ever heard about that doping scandal has been since Lia has competed,” he says, believing it to be a convenient corollary for anti-trans actors to pull out. But other swimmers do remember it being talked about.
“One of my coaches swam in the ’76 Olympics,” says Hodler. “I heard the stories of the teenage girls jumping up and covering themselves when they heard the voices of the East German swimming team, thinking that men had infiltrated their locker room.”
Of course, athletes’ using testosterone to enhance athletic performance cannot be compared to the experience of gender-affirming hormone therapy—nor does it take into account that trans women are taking medication to suppress their testosterone, while the GDR swimmers were increasing theirs. However, their experience with competing against athletes who were using performance-enhancing drugs was not the only trauma that swimmers of that generation suffered. Swimming had (and still has) a rampant sexual abuse problem. Before turning her attention to targeting transgender women and girls, Hogshead-Makar had been public about her sexual assault history and had nobly dedicated herself to rooting out sexual abuse from the sport. She is a Title IX lawyer who used her expertise to found Champion Women, a legal advocacy group for female athletes, and to advocate for stricter protections for girls in sports. Diana Nyad, another well-known swimmer, has also been public about her sexual assault and has recently come out against transgender inclusion in the sport.
How did someone like Hogshead-Makar, who fought so hard for girls to be protected in the world of sports, end up on the perpetrating end of such a targeted campaign of harassment and exclusion? If you ask her, she believes she is still “protecting” girls—by defining girlhood as exclusively belonging to cisgender girls and seeing transgender girls as a threat. In doing so, she has fallen for one of the most insidious transphobic talking points—that transgender girls are “biological men” and therefore a threat both on the sporting field and in the locker room.
“It would be easier to support transgender women if they weren’t trying to invade our spaces,” she tweeted recently. “It is not ‘hate’ to have women-only spaces, like sport, changing rooms, medical care, rape crisis centers.”
“To argue that cis women have a kind of unique claim as the victims of assault, the victims of harassment, the victims of violence at the hands of mostly cis men is just not accurate or fair,” says Drennen. “This is a common experience that all women and all people of marginalized genders have, and certainly not a reason to exclude an entire category of women from spaces.”
Research from the Williams Institute at UCLA found that trans women are four times more likely to suffer from assault, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated assault than their cisgender counterparts. Trans women are far likelier to be victims of assault in a locker room setting than they are to be perpetrators of it.
“They’ve totally got it twisted, and they’re being played,” says Bailar. “It’s a very effective trick to use fear to pit people against more marginalized people and say, ‘Oh, they are making the problem.’ And the reality is the people who are creating that propaganda are the ones making the problem in the first place. We shouldn’t punish trans women for the harm that cis men perpetrate.”
And swimming hasn’t confronted its sexual abuse history, even though USAS created the first Safe Sport program to deal with the public relations fallout of its rampant sexual abuse. USAS and World Aquatics are still led by men. Johanna Mellis, a former D1 swimmer and cohost of the podcast The End of Sport, theorizes that “maybe if [anti-trans women] are loud enough about needing to exclude ‘trans cheaters,’ their women’s swimming will get more attention.”
USAS has more white women on staff than white men, according to their website. It is probably telling, considering USAS’s discriminatory policies and culture, that they co-opted white, cis women as “diversity,” when it is often that very demographic that contributes to exclusionary sporting culture. (According to the website, the majority of people of color on staff work in DEI and community engagement positions).
The Women’s Sport Policy Working Group held a meeting in January 2022 that included “heavy hitters” within US swimming circles, according to a Sports Illustrated story by Robert Sanchez. Among them: former Olympic swimmers, current and former NCAA champions, and various coaches, parents, and USAS board members. Journalists were forbidden from naming any of the 250 attendees or attributing any quotes to them.
“It appears that these supporters of trans exclusion were demanding anonymity because of their (alleged) fear of being seen as transphobic, and the probable damage to their reputations if their identities were revealed, although none of these fears appear to have hampered Hogshead-Makar,” Lenskyj wrote in her recent book, Justice for Trans Athletes. The participation of many swimmers’ parents is not surprising; Bailar noted that some of the loudest voices against Thomas at her meets were from the parents of other competitors, something similarly demonstrated in the documentary Changing the Game, which showed the parents of cisgender high school athletes heckling and harassing the trans students competing against them.
That is not to say that there aren’t people within the sport fighting for trans women to be able to compete. Erica Sullivan, an Olympic silver medalist who lost to Thomas at the NCAA championships, came out in support of Thomas’s right to compete. Another Olympian, Brooke Forde, said she would have “no problem” with competing against Thomas. More than 300 current and former NCAA, Team USA, and international swimmers and divers signed a letter in support of Thomas. And Bailar, who was in the stands supporting Thomas throughout her NCAA season, says that Thomas and other athletes told him the culture on the deck was much more welcoming and accepting than the environment on the stands, indicating that a majority of Thomas’s fellow athletes respected her and her right to compete.
“We cannot all be ourselves and do what we love anymore because of the amount of anti-trans bills that are happening and the amount of anti-trans legislation and policy,” says Bailar. “I firmly believe that we will get back to a place where that statement is true, but it’s going to take some time. I don’t know how much time.”
Thanks to the new anti-trans policies, Thomas’s Olympic hopes have been dashed. And while she avoided most media interviews during her collegiate career, she’s beginning to speak out on her own terms.
“They’re like, ‘We respect Lia as a woman, as a trans woman, whatever, we respect her identity, we just don’t think it’s fair,’” Thomas said on a recent episode of Bailar’s Dear Schuyler podcast. “You can’t really have that sort of half support, where you’re like, ‘Oh, I respect her as a woman here, but not here.’ They’re using the guise of feminism to sort of push transphobic beliefs.”
“Swimming isn’t inherently transphobic,” Bailar says. “It just was the first sport in which a trans woman excelled in the way that Lia did, and so publicly in the way that Lia did and I think that galvanized the preexisting, building anti-trans sentiments that were already there. I think that could have happened in any sport.”