Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas may be setting records in the pool, but her standout collegiate season is also propelling Republican-sponsored bills to prevent male-born athletes from competing in female sports.
Take Arizona. Last week, Democrats who blasted the Save Women’s Sports Act during floor debate as a solution in search of a problem were met with an update on the University of Pennsylvania senior’s winning run on the women’s team after three years competing as a man.
“Biological male swimmer Lia Thomas easily smashed records set by female athletes on the UPenn women’s swim team, and then was bragging about how easily she is crushing these girls’ records,” said Republican state Sen. Nancy Barto, the bill’s sponsor. “She beat the second fastest female by a full 40 seconds. Women are the targets of a situation that is nonsensical.”
Senate Bill 1165 passed the Senate on a 16-13 vote, sending it to the GOP-controlled House.
Other state bills are also on the move amid escalating alarm over Thomas’s dominance, which offers what women’s sports advocates have long warned about: a male-born transgender athlete topping the female field at the highest levels of collegiate competition.
For better or worse, Thomas has become the face of the issue, eclipsing transgender competitors such as New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, a male-to-female weightlifter who failed to complete a lift at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and the two high school track athletes born male who won 15 girls’ titles in Connecticut.
“Opponents of equality in women’s sports love to say that this isn’t a problem, it’s just two transgender high school runners in Connecticut. Well, it’s not just two transgender runners in Connecticut,” said Jennifer Braceras, director of the Independent Women’s Law Center.
Federal lawmakers have taken notice. Last week, Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, linked the Thomas case to his Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, which would ensure that Title IX treats sex as “a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”
“The immutable characteristics [of] Lia Thomas’s male biology is something that puts female competitors at a disadvantage relative to Lia Thomas,” said Mr. Lee on a press call held by the Independent Women’s Forum. “That’s a fact that I honestly believe most women and most men recognize.”
His measure stands virtually no chance of passage in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
But for similar pieces of legislation in the pipeline at the state level, it’s a different story.
Lawmakers in at least 18 states have brought measures in the 2022 legislative session aimed at barring male-born competitors from girls’ and women’s athletics.
One proposal has already passed: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed Thursday the Fairness in Women’s Sports bill, making her state the tenth to approve such legislation, and others are expected to follow despite the all-but-guaranteed legal challenges.
An Indiana bill advanced last month to the GOP-led Senate after clearing the House on a 66-30 vote. The measure, House Bill 1041, was sponsored by Republican state Rep. Michelle Davis, a former Division I basketball standout and member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
Despite her skills, she said that when she played boys her age who had been cut from the high school team, “I was the worst player on that court, and I could barely keep up. They were bigger, faster, stronger.”
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp gave a shout-out in his State of the State address to women’s sports legislation, which stalled during last year’s legislative session.
This year, however, the urgency is greater, said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project.
“Women’s sports are under serious threat nationwide,” he said in a statement. “That has only become more clear in recent months, as instances such as Lia Thomas’ domination of collegiate women’s swimming have gained national visibility. For those who care about protecting a fair playing field for female athletes, inaction is no longer an option.”
The Human Rights Campaign is fighting back against Republicans by calling on corporate America to back transgender athletes and oppose “anti-LGBTQ state legislation.”
The group has enlisted the support of 158 businesses, including powerhouses like Amazon, AT&T, Nike and Microsoft that have signed the Human Rights Campaign’s statement.
“Laws that would affect access to medical care for transgender people, parental rights, social and family services, student sports, or access to public facilities such as restrooms, unnecessarily and uncharitably single out already marginalized groups for additional disadvantage,” the statement reads.
After Ms. Noem signed Senate Bill 46, HRC legislative director Cathryn Oakley said the governor and legislators “need to stop playing games with vulnerable children.”
“Transgender children are children. They deserve the ability to play with their friends. This legislation isn’t solving an actual problem that South Dakota was facing: it is discrimination, plain and simple,” she said in a statement.
The South Dakota bill requires that only female-born athletes as defined by their birth certificates compete on female teams in scholastic sports, including collegiate athletics, and creates a private cause of action for violations.
At Penn, Thomas has set multiple pool, meet and program records this season, and holds some of this year’s top NCAA times in freestyle events. At the Zippy Invitational in December, she defeated the second-place finisher in the 1,650-yard freestyle by 38 seconds.
Thomas reportedly bragged about winning the 200 freestyle at the same tournament, saying, “That was so easy, I was cruising,” according to OutKick, citing a source. The Washington Times has not verified the comment.
Her ability to compete next month in the Division I championships was thrown into doubt with the release of USA Swimming’s updated transgender-eligibility standards, which require 36 months of testosterone suppression, a standard Thomas would not be able to meet.
HRC interim president Joni Madison blasted the mid-season rule change without mentioning Thomas by name.
“By caving to the avalanche of ill-informed, prejudiced attacks targeted at one particular transgender swimmer, USA Swimming has created a deeply unequitable policy that could disqualify current transgender athletes who worked tirelessly to comply with rules that were already in place, as well as those who want to play in the future,” Ms. Madison said.
The Ivy League said the revamped criteria will not prevent Thomas from competing in the Feb. 16-19 league championships at Harvard. An NCAA committee plans to review the USA Swimming standards later this month.
“The recent rule changes do not impact Lia‘s eligibility for this month’s Ivy League Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships as the effective date for this unprecedented midseason NCAA policy change begins with the 2022 NCAA Winter Championships,” said the Ivy League in an email.