Metro Weekly

Lia Thomas Loses Challenge to Overturn Transgender Ban

The Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected a challenge from Lia Thomas seeking to overturn World Aquatics' ban on transgender athletes.

Lia Thomas – Photo: Instagram

Lia Thomas, the former University of Pennsylvania swimmer who became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA title, has lost her challenge to overturn a policy banning transgender female athletes from competing as women in elite competitions.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport dismissed Thomas’s request for arbitration with World Aquatics, the governing body in swimming and diving events, effectively dashing any hope she had of competing in the Olympics or elite global competitions, reports The New York Times.

The Lausanne, Switzerland-based international body, established to settle disputes related to elite sporting competitions, ruled that Thomas did not have standing to bring the case because she was not a member of its member federation — USA Swimming — prior to bringing her challenge.

Thomas had also not competed in female events “for the purpose of qualification or selection” for World Aquatics competitions, such as the Olympics or world championships.

Technically, NCAA meets, like those Thomas competed in, are not governed by World Aquatics, even though the college sporting organization has adopted a policy of deferring to individual sporting bodies to determine athlete eligibility.

Thomas first began transitioning in May 2019 when she began hormone replacement therapy. She swam for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team over a three-year period from 2017 to 2020.

By the fall of 2020, she met what were, at the time, the NCAA’s hormone therapy requirements for competing in female sports. However, the bulk of the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many NCAA athletes, she was granted another year of eligibility and began competing for the women’s team during the 2021-22 season. She smashed longstanding school, pool, and program records in various events.

Just prior to Thomas winning the 500-yard freestyle race at the 2022 NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships, USA Swimming responded to an outcry over her success at the collegiate level by adopting a policy meant to weed out most transgender athletes from female competitions.

That policy required transgender females to go before a three-person panel of medical experts and submit bloodwork to determine whether an individual athlete had an unfair physical advantage over female competitors.

Those requirements were adopted in place of firm guidance from World Aquatics, which subsequently established its own eligibility standards.

In June 2022, after Thomas’s victory at the NCAA Championships, World Aquatics adopted its own policy that effectively bans most transgender swimmers from competing in female events.

Only transgender athletes who have never undergone male puberty — meaning those who never developed secondary sex characteristics due to hormone imbalances, or those who started puberty blockers prior to age 12, are exempt from the ban.

World Aquatics also created an “open” category for transgender athletes, although no “open” events have been held at the elite level. Select events were expected to debut at the World Championships in Berlin last year, but were canceled due to a lack of entries from both transgender and cisgender athletes who could have been eligible.

In a statement responding to the dismissal of Thomas’s challenge, World Aquatics stood by its sex-segregation policy and insisted that it would push for future “open” category events.

“World Aquatics is dedicated to fostering an environment that promotes fairness, respect, and equal opportunities for athletes of all genders and we reaffirm this pledge,” the organization said in a statement, according to USA Today. “Our policies and practices are continuously evaluated to ensure they align with these core values, which led to the introduction of our open category. 

“We remain committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders to uphold the principles of inclusivity in aquatic sports and remain confident that our gender inclusion policy represents a fair approach.”

Thomas called the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision “deeply disappointing.”

“Blanket bans preventing trans women from competing are discriminatory and deprive us of valuable athletic opportunities that are central to our identities,” she said in a statement. “The CAS decision should be seen as a call to action to all trans women athletes to continue to fight for our dignity and human rights.”

Swimming is one of many sports that have adopted policies in recent years limiting the ability of transgender athletes to compete as the gender by which they identify.

Last year, the governing bodies of track and field, cycling, and rugby adopted policies barring trans athletes from women’s events, arguing that they retain an inherent competitive advantage — even after years of hormone therapy — over cisgender females.

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