Published On: Mon, Jun 20th, 2022

Will FINA’s transgender policy embolden or neutralize anti-trans hate?

The scene outside Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center on March 17 was one of the most revolting things I’ve seen in more than two decades covering sports.

Typically an off-the-radar event, the NCAA women’s swimming championship had momentarily become the center of the sports world — and, on this day, a magnet for anti-transgender hate. 

Inside the pool, Lia Thomas was about to become the first transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I national title in the 500-yard freestyle. Outside, protest groups purporting to be concerned about the integrity of women’s sports lined up along the walkway into the venue, shouting into bullhorns and handing out leaflets. But listening to many of them talk – and argue with counter-protestors across the street – it did not seem like athletic competition was their actual concern. For many of them, Thomas was just an excuse to spew hateful rhetoric, referring to Thomas by the name she used before transitioning and warning that she foreshadowed the end of women’s sports. One activist who came all the way from England even accused transgender athletes of being predators – an ugly framing with no basis in reality, rooted only in evil and hate.

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These were not serious people interested in a legitimate debate about how to deal with the evolving science of transgender participation in sports. They were largely hucksters and bigots, interested only in using Thomas as a platform to whip up anti-trans sentiment. The question is whether these folks were emboldened Sunday or neutralized by FINA’s decision to bar many (if not most) transgender swimmers from competing in women’s events

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas made history in March 2022 by becoming the first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming competition in Division I.

In practice, not much will change by virtue of what FINA officials approved Sunday, setting a standard that swimmers who were born as biological males and went through puberty retain some type of competitive advantage over women regardless of their testosterone levels.

Quite simply, there are not very many transgender athletes competing as women at any level, and the science is not advanced enough yet to show us exactly what that advantage looks like, how long it lasts after transitioning and whether there’s something beyond hormone levels to account for it. Much of this, so far, has been guesswork. 

In practice, though, FINA’s decision could set a new precedent for international sports where the accepted standard is that only transgender athletes who transitioned before age 12 can compete in women’s events. 

Maybe that’s the correct line to draw. Maybe it isn’t. I am perfectly comfortable acknowledging that there could be an unfair competitive advantage for someone like Thomas, who transitioned while she was in college, without being certain about how it should be handled by governing bodies for sports or where these cut-offs should fall. 

I’m also confident that the alleged threat of people changing their gender in pursuit of athletic glory or the idea that women’s sports are under attack by transgender athletes is a red herring rooted in transphobia. That it’s being indulged in any way by FINA or the Olympic movement is an unfortunate backward step for humanity and empathy.

Sports have a crucial role to play in promoting equality and understanding all people, including transgender athletes. At the same time, Thomas’ ascension into the public discourse did not merely raise questions about what’s fair – a legitimate question – but enabled too many bad-faith actors to promote an awful agenda that helped further marginalize an already vulnerable group of people. It does no good for anyone if every swim meet, track meet, tennis tournament or soccer game where a transgender athlete participates becomes the kind of hateful circus we saw at the NCAA swimming championship. 

It is the fair thing to do for all competitors, regardless of gender, if there are clearer lines drawn. At the same time, this is an evolving debate undergirded by inexact science. 

As Utah’s Republican governor Spencer Cox wrote in explaining why he vetoed a bill about transgender participation in high school sports, “When in doubt, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion.” 

He also noted that in the entire state of Utah, there were four transgender students playing high school sports – and only one playing girls’ sports. When weighed against the myriad mental health concerns and suicide rates for transgender youth, these bills seem like a solution in search of a problem.  

There are no easy answers here, but the best-case scenario for FINA is that its decision will lower the temperature on the overall debate around transgender participation in sports. The risk is that adding a so-called “open” division where transgender swimmers could compete will be perceived as kowtowing to anti-trans rhetoric. 

It’s not outlandish to believe that puberty confers an athletic advantage that can’t be undone by lowering testosterone, but FINA needs to show how the science actually supports that. And its decision Sunday needs to be subject to rigorous evaluation over time, along with a willingness to change if the science does as well. 

If that’s the way it works in practice and neutralizes the anti-trans elements that have bubbled up around competitions like the NCAA swimming championships, FINA may well have done the sports world a favor. But if this is simply going to be an instrument for activists to beat their chest and embolden their efforts to marginalize trans people from society, it will be remembered as one of the most cowardly acts a sports organization has ever undertaken. 

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