“Lia Thomas”: another perspective

Anybody who has ever competed in a sport can agree: an athlete’s “biology” does not guarantee victory. Hours of practice, years of experience, and lengthy reflection on every performance, strategy, and opponent all go into shaping athletic capability. Though it’s a common rhetoric, this idea is forgotten the moment transgender athletes like Lia Thomas are brought into the picture.

In the coverage of a sport with little popular coverage, the story that happened to get pushed to the forefront of wider public attention at the time the Stampede deadline hit was one bathed in controversy for the mere fact that the woman involved was of a circumstance that could be weaponized against the transgender community.

The previous edition of the Stampede featured an article suggesting for the exclusion of swimmer Lia Thomas from competing in women’s sports (and, in its concluding paragraph, for excluding all transgender athletes from competing in the division best aligning with their gender no matter the level of medical transition they undergo by “[limiting] the Women’s categories to biological women”). As a response to the lack of a counterpoint to fully contextualize the situation, the Monte Vista Gender-Sexuality Alliance was offered the opportunity to correct some of the misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and misinformation of the piece. Our purpose is not to argue for one side or the other, but rather to address some of the more harmful statements and implications made in the piece.

Thomas’s critics perpetuate a common narrative used to fear-monger the public about transgender topics—especially when it concerns transgender women—through a “cis women’s tears” approach. The argument dates back to sex-essentialist activists like Janice Raymond, who liken trans women’s mere existence to rape, “reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves” (Raymond 1979, p. 103-104). Ever since, trans-exclusionary radical feminists have adopted this narrative in its various forms, all of which aim to place cisgender women as the victims to what they see as an inherent violation.

Chase Strangio and Gabriel Arkles, deputy director and former senior counsel for transgender justice at the ACLU, apply this best when they outline the direct harms of arguments made under the umbrella of this narrative. In addressing trans-exclusionary arguments about how the participation of trans athletes hurts cis women, they apply “the ‘protection’ trope,” seen not only in sports but “in 2016 when [politicians] tried banning trans people from public restrooms by creating the debunked ‘bathroom predator’ myth. The real motive is never about protection — it’s about excluding trans people from yet another public space” (Strangio and Arkles 2020). By reinforcing the stereotypical call for protecting cisgender women, this narrative has been weaponized to justify anything from bathroom bills claiming the unverified pretense of male predators, to transphobic discrimination in competitive sports claiming that transgender athletes intentionally take advantage of their opponents.

Zhang’s article attempts to take on this latter subject from a perspective solely rooted in fairness, though the sources used made it difficult. The only LGBTQ+ voice cited is Martina Navratilova, a lesbian tennis player. Despite her identity under this umbrella, however, Navratilova has held consistently transphobic stances in the past, writing in The Times in 2019 that “letting men compete as women simply if they change their name and take hormones is unfair.” These statements have been so blatantly transphobic that they were cited by a lobbyist with the Montana Family Foundation in striking down a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the Montana Human Rights Act. In addition, it is harmful to have Navratilova speak in place of what Reneé Richards, a transgender athlete who is never directly quoted in the Stampede article, “thinks” (Zhang 3).

Even worse is the statement selected for Navratilova—“she had an advantage and she knows that”—a bold claim cushioned between the safety net of quoted words and the umbrella term of  “LGBTQ rights” (Zhang 3), following directly in line with Raymond’s precedent in declaring that Thomas competed against other women not because that was the next step in her transition and in her career, but because she deliberately wanted to put down those which Navratilova considers women.

The main source perpetuating this issue is also the one most prominently used. The first half of the Stampede article is largely informed by an editorial published in Swimming World Magazine by John Lohn, its editor-in-chief. Though Zhang claims that Lohn’s arguments were “completely separate from transphobia” and “about fair competition” (Zhang 2022), Lohn explicitly described Thomas’s transition as nothing more than a “move [that] allowed Thomas to go from ho-hum male swimmer to the elite level as a woman” (Lohn 2022). Even if that slipped by, the top comments on the magazine page, clearly indicative of its viewership, should have at least raised some concerns: the first, with 159 upvotes, laments “this insane idea that men can be women simply by claiming to be.”

Meanwhile, a response calling out the ridiculousness of such an accusation (“It seems you are out of touch with reality if you believe trans athletes exist to win medals… She transitioned to feel comfortable in her body not to cheat the system.”) was voted down to -177. Even a comment agreeing to have Thomas compete by her height and weight was voted down to -71 for claiming that she and her gender identity deserve respect. Others intentionally misgender Thomas, compare being transgender to paranoid schizophrenia, and accuse her of finding pleasure in beating (with all senses of the word implied) women.

Why would such a source have come under fire? Would it, perhaps, have something to do with the fact the author has had a long history spanning multiple articles of framing Thomas’s title as a “joke” and an “insult” and intentionally isolating her from their definitions of “girls and women” (Lohn 2022)? Not only does the author ignore these statements, they are justified in the article as “completely separate from transphobia” and “about fair competition” (Zhang 2). Whether or not something is transphobic does not depend solely on a cisgender person’s assumptions. Moreover, if the magazine’s information had come with such strong warning signs through both its insulting content and through the response it received from the voices it spoke over, why would one repeat its mistakes by echoing it to the Stampede?

Zhang’s article was not blind to the existence of another side, though it never tries to investigate or consider the matter beyond acknowledging that one of its sources had “resulted in strong accusations of transphobia” (Zhang 1). Understand that attempting to remove evidence introduced to perpetuate a dangerous narrative from its purpose and then stitching it back together under the guise of neutrality is not accountability; at best, it simply decontextualizes the source material.

Worse than a source that is not credible for a lack of prestige, Lohn uses the prestige of his platform with Swimming World Magazine to push the story forth from his own perspective. This is never discounted in the Stampede article. Lohn clearly was not being accountable to the transgender community, and the prejudices which he held should have been contextualized—at the very least, given a foreword that Lohn’s own piece was an editorial seeking only to present his own opinions—to guarantee that these statements are not conveyed or justified as a holistic and unbiased truth.

Uncritically citing prejudiced arguments in the Stampede—ruling, solely based on a cisgender swimmer’s personal evaluation, that it is not transphobic—upholds the same narrative that the magazine comments had because the goal of that source was to push that narrative; and whether or not either Lohn or Zhang continuously affirm that they are speaking only out of concern for fairness rather than bigotry, the language of their articles and the stories they choose to tell imply otherwise.

Specifically, there’s the article’s comparison of Thomas’s performance to doping, gathered from another Swimming World Magazine editorial by Nancy Hogshead-Makar. “I swam on the U.S. National Team,” she writes, “the same years that East German swimmers dominated women’s competitions by cheating with anabolic steroids. I was able to win three Olympic gold medals and a silver medal because the East Germans boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. We all knew they were cheating” (Hogshead-Makar 2021). Zhang cites the statement that follows: “The [East German] boycott [of the 1984 Olympics] announcement was a relief. I knew I’d have a fair shot at winning” (Zhang 2).

This statement draws a direct parallel between explicit cheating and Thomas’s title. If it were truly about fairness, any other comparison—including those made in Zhang’s comparatively more-objective piece on sports technologies—would have sufficed. Instead, Hogshead-Makar and others who refer to her editorial select an extreme example with loaded connotations to make righteous victims of the situation, comparing those who lost to Thomas to those who lost to the state-sponsored actions of an oppressive regime. The context removed from Hogshead-Makar’s original statement makes the point ever clearer when she explicitly describes “cheating.”

Why would this information about doping be relevant in application to Lia Thomas? Lohn’s purpose for including these quotes was to shape a story that could be interpreted by his audience to be accusing her of deliberately cheating and taking advantage of the women’s bracket while falling behind the deniability of fairness.

Beyond implications and the misuse of evidence, however, the Stampede article also includes other flaws that further contribute to the misinformed framing of a transgender person. For one, it uncritically repeats and even adopts for its own the phrase “as a male” (used a total of four times, twice in quotes and twice independently) to describe Thomas’s pre-transition career, mirroring the misinformed sentiment that transgender individuals supposedly “become” another gender through hormone treatment and surgeries, as if putting oneself in danger and at risk of ostracization from friends and family is an easy choice, as if gender dysphoria were a mere excuse to pick an easy fight and not a pre-transition condition resulting in severe distress.

The same means of equating Lia Thomas with men can be seen in the article’s approach to her “biology.” It attempts to take on a complex and ever-developing understanding of gender identity, presentation, and transition with an oversimplified and under-researched narrative commonly used by trans-exclusionary or even transphobic circles, about how Thomas’s “biology” gave her an unfair advantage against cisgender women.

It’s certainly true that Thomas performs well, but the only sources that the Stampede actually cites are from a critical, non-expert, cisgender competitor (Hogshead-Makar) and one scientific article. Unfortunately, this article was written on the athletic capabilities of cisgender men and women who have not undergone any procedures relevant to gender-affirming transition and is only tangentially relevant to the differences presented to the Stampede: the study’s main commentary was not to justify strict sex segregation that would exclude transgender athletes, but rather, to investigate the causes for recent “female dominance in long-distance swimming” (Knechtle et al). The only conclusion that can be drawn from this study is the athletic capabilities of cisgender men, which is not only inapplicable but inconsiderate.

Lia Thomas’s circumstances demand a more nuanced approach than merely looking at the capabilities of a cisgender man. Cara Ocobock, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame identifies four broad categories of causal variables contributing to athletic achievement: “anatomical (physical features such as height), physiological (functional factors like the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to muscles), psychological, and socioeconomic (such as access to equipment and training knowledge)” (Ocobock 2021). That which is used by trans-exclusionary narratives, anatomical and physiological, only touch upon half, and is poorly applied at that.

While trans-exclusionists, some of whom had their views represented thoroughly in the Stampede, cite an oversimplified view of biological males and females to justify their accusations against Thomas, Ocobock applies a more diverse understanding of biological sex—based on the presence of gonads, internal and external genitalia, chromosomes, or hormones—in application with sports. “None of these consistently present a clear and hard boundary between male and female,” she expands. “Instead, each presents a range of variation.”

Other experts confirm these statements, applying them directly to the NCAA’s standards of testosterone suppression. Dr. Joshua D. Safer, executive director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, testified as an expert against Idaho’s HB 500, a law which would exclude transgender athletes from participating in Hecox v. Little. In his expert declaration, he wrote, “after a transgender woman lowers her level of testosterone, there is no inherent reason why her physiological characteristics related to athletic performance should be treated differently from the physiological characteristics of a non-transgender woman” as “a person’s genetic make-up and internal and external reproductive anatomy are not useful indicators of athletic performance” (Safer 2020).

Expert evidence that actually pertains to transgender athletes contest the reasoning of Zhang’s sources. This trans-exclusionary logic of biological advantage based on narrow-minded standards of evaluation also is not a uniform standard in sports commentary, seemingly only applying when one wishes to exclude transgender athletes. Anatomical differences are revered in sports like basketball, where an athlete’s disproportionate height, despite giving clear advantages, is celebrated rather than condemned. Most clearly is this conflict of application in swim itself: Michael Phelps, hailed as the “Greatest of All Time” in his events, is known for a “disproportionately vast wingspan, […] double-jointed ankles, [and] just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete,” preventing fatigue (Hesse 2019; rhetoric abridged). 

Meanwhile, Thomas, grouped with “men” by Zhang’s application of the ‘Sex Differences in Swimming Disciplines—Can Women Outperform Men in Swim ming?’ study in evaluating her physicality, has her height, weight, and even “larger hands and feet” (Lohn 2022) scrutinized and dissected under the same lens.

This leads us into the final issue: the article’s disregard for transgender voices and experiences. In all of its “heartbreaking” (Zhang 3) stories of athletes playing the victim to Thomas’s career, never once did the article consider Thomas’s views on her own situation. Never once did the article cite or interview a single transgender person beyond having Navratilova, a lesbian tennis player also criticized for publishing transphobic statements, speak in place of one as if all LGBTQ+ identities and experiences were interchangeable. In fact, the only statements that the article independently makes about Thomas are that she “created a storm of controversy” (Zhang 1) as if it were her choice to compete in the women’s division and that her performance “was difficult for former swimmers to watch,” (Zhang 2) a difficulty later revealed to be rooted in their own bigotry upon taking a closer look at his sources.

That is the central issue with this publication. In covering a subject well-known to be controversial, the Stampede piece still chose to represent the digressive voices of a biased majority over a marginalized group. How much of this piece genuinely discussed fairness, and how much of it merely quoted people complaining about it? In a “storm of controversy” where Lia Thomas was made the unlucky title of transgender issues, why was she never given a voice?

With all this being said, the misinformation presented by the Stampede’s previous article on Lia Thomas was fully avoidable, at the very least with cursory research—as shown above—that would reveal an extensive past of controversy prompting more care to the subject. 

Accurate information and fair representation should, above all, be at the heart of journalistic responsibility. We hope that this response will be able to point to this practice in the future.