UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas, a transgender female athlete who has been criticized for competing in women’s events, came in sixth in the women’s 100-yard freestyle at a twin dual meet between Yale, Dartmouth and U Penn, losing to four cisgender female competitors and race winner Iszac Henig, a trans male who has not yet undergone hormone therapy.
Thomas, who first gained recognition in December when she broke school and Ivy League records by winning three events at the Zippy Invitational, has been having a banner season, posting fast times — especially in distance events, where she excels — and qualifying for the NCAA women’s championship, to be held in Atlanta in March. In one of the Zippy races, she finished 38 seconds ahead of her next competitor in the 1,650-yard freestyle.
Many anti-trans advocates have been outraged by Thomas’ decision to compete, even though she has met the NCAA requirement of one year of hormone suppression therapy to compete in women’s sporting events.
The editor of a prominent swimming magazine opined that her physical advantage was akin to the edge enjoyed by Olympic cisgender female swimmers who had taken steroids to win gold medals in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Prior to Saturday’s meet, the UK-based tabloid The Daily Mail claimed that some of Thomas’ teammates had even considered boycotting their last home dual meet, which was held at Sheerr Pool on UPenn’s campus, to protest Thomas’ inclusion in the sport.
But while Thomas was able to win the 200-yard freestyle, beating the second-place finisher by less than two seconds, and the 500-yard freestyle, which she won by just over a second, she came in sixth in the 100-yard freestyle.
The race winner was Yale swimmer Iszac Henig, a transgender male who has undergone top surgery but has not started hormone therapy, allowing him to continue to compete on his school’s women’s swim team under NCAA guidelines, reports LGBTQ sports website Outsports.com.
Henig, a senior, who came out as transgender last season, also won the 50-yard freestyle, with his time of 22.76 seconds, shattering a record for Sheerr Pool that has stood since 1990, according to Yale Athletics. Henig also posted a faster split (50.45 seconds) than Thomas (51.94 seconds) in the 400-yard freestyle relay, helping Yale’s team finish first while UPenn came in third.
By delaying hormone therapy, Henig was allowed to retain a spot on the women’s swimming team, telling The New York Times in a Pride Month special last year: “I value my contributions to the team and recognize that my boyhood doesn’t hinge on whether there’s more or less testosterone running through my veins. At least, that’s what I’ll try to remember when I put on the women’s swimsuit for competition and am reminded of a self I no longer feel attached to.”
Anti-transgender activists and self-appointed defenders of women’s sports have since expressed outrage over Henig’s win on social media, with many attempting to misrepresent the facts by falsely claiming that Henig is receiving hormone therapy based on an “eye test” of his body, or incorrectly asserting that Henig’s assigned sex at birth was male. In fact, many Twitter users seemed confused by what the term “transgender male” signifies.
Some commenters argued that the person placing second in the 100-yard freestyle should be awarded the win because she was a “biological female,” despite the fact that prior to Saturday’s meet, social conservatives would have also labeled Henig a “biological female” because doing so gave them an argument for opposing Thomas’ inclusion.
Still others tried to accuse Thomas of “throwing” the races she competed in by deliberately swimming slower, despite Henig being the better swimmer of the two at shorter distances.
The pretzels that the two swimmers’ detractors contorted themselves into following the meet led pro-LGBTQ individuals to highlight their hypocrisy and claimed that the desire of anti-trans activists to dismiss Henig’s win demonstrates a desire to erase transgender people from the public sphere.
One commenter tweeted: “The reaction to Iszac Henig (a trans man) winning a race in which Lia Thomas (a trans woman) came fifth (sic) proves that neither competitive advantage nor [assigned gender at birth] is what matters to transphobes: it’s about their supposed ‘right’ to not have to be around the icky trans people.”
The reaction to Iszac Henig (a trans man) winning a race in which Lia Thomas (a trans woman) came fifth proves that neither competitive advantage nor AGAB is what matters to transphobes: it’s about their supposed ‘right’ to not have to be around the icky trans people.
— Tristan Oscar Smith 🌈🦇 (@tristanoscars) January 9, 2022
The debate over whether Thomas — and, possibly, now Henig — should be able to compete is likely to continue for the remainder of the college swimming season, through UPenn’s final dual meets, the Ivy League Championships, and the NCAA Division I Championships in March.
For now, Thomas has received statements — from the Ivy League, the University of Pennsylvania, and Penn Law School students backed by certain law school student groups — supporting her ability to compete as consistent with NCAA rules.
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