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Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas showed off her new septum piercing on Wednesday ahead of her highly-anticipated debut at the NCAA championships, with the UPenn competitor the favorite to take home the title in the 500 yard freestyle.
Thomas, 22, has become the focus of intense debate throughout the sporting season, with passionately-held opinions on whether she should or should not be allowed to take part in women’s competitions.
The Texan student was swimming for UPenn’s men’s team in 2019 when she began to medically transition, taking testosterone blockers and estrogen.
She is allowed to compete as a woman because she has completed the NCAA’s required year of hormone treatment. On February 10 the NCAA announced they would not follow USA Swimming’s lead and demand 36 consecutive months of testosterone-blocking treatment.
Yet Thomas’s participation has remained controversial.
Lia Thomas is seen on Wednesday watching the NCAA swimming championships at Georgia Tech. On Thursday she will compete for the first time in the meeting
Thomas, sporting a new septum piercing, is due to compete on Thursday in the 500 yard freestyle
The UPenn swimmer is seen talking to head coach Mike Schnur on Wednesday
On the eve of her swim, NBC News poured fuel on the fire with an op-ed entitled: ‘Lia Thomas and the long tradition of ‘gender policing’ female athletes’.
The author, Julie Compton, wrote a history of female athletes having their gender questioned if they were successful in sports, detailing the challenges faced in 1937 by U.S. Olympic runner Helen Stephens, and writing about South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya.
Critics online pointed out that it was unfair to class Thomas, who was born a man and went through puberty as a male, in the same category of stars such as tennis player Martina Navratilova, challenged for her muscular frame and sexuality.
‘Utterly absurd,’ said one reader.
‘The #liathomas situation has NOTHING to do w/historical ‘sex policing’ in sports.
NBC News on the eve of Thomas’s swim published an op-ed about female athletes whose muscular build led to them facing questions about their own gender
Thomas is seen on February 19, having won the 100-yard race at the Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships at Harvard University
‘There was NEVER a doubt that Lia Thomas is a natal male. There was NEVER a doubt that LT experienced male puberty. There was NEVER a doubt that LT competed as a male.’
Another added: ‘Clickbait from @NBCNews.
‘I won’t link to this garbage. Gender identity ideology has already its claws in the word ‘woman’. They’re now corrupting the biological nomenclature of sex classification by claiming the word ‘female’.’
A third commented: ‘This is so insulting to women and the legacy of actual oppression women have faced. Lia Thomas is not a female in sport and you know it.’
In an interview with Sports Illustrated that was published earlier this month, she defended her place in the team.
Parents of her teammates told the magazine, however, that she is ‘eliminating women from the sport’.
Thomas said: ‘I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team. I’ve always viewed myself as just a swimmer. It’s what I’ve done for so long; it’s what I love.
‘I get into the water every day and do my best,’ she said.
The magazine writer said Lia ‘insists’ she does not care about winning or setting records.
‘The very simple answer is that I’m not a man. I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team.
‘Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets,’ she said later in the interview.
Thomas told of how she started to question her gender when she was in high school.
‘I felt off, disconnected with my body,’ she said.
She Googled what she was feeling then came across the stories of trans women who she sympathized with. Then, UPenn gave her a trans mentor.
‘Like, “Wow, this is such a close mirror of what I’m feeling.’ It started to make more sense.’
She told her parents and brother that she identified as female in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at UPenn.
Her father Bob told the magazine: ‘We will do everything and anything we need to do to have Lia be part of this family. We were not going to lose her.’
Lia with her female teammates at a swim practice in Florida in December last year
Lia with her teammates on February 19, 2022, at a meet in Boston
She continued attending school as a male but became ‘depressed’ and had panic attacks in the pool.
Thomas on the cover of Sports Illustrated
‘I was very depressed. I got to the point where I couldn’t go to school. I was missing classes.
‘My sleep schedule was super messed up. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed.
‘I knew at that moment I needed to do something to address this.
‘I tried my best to inch closer to coming out to close friends, a couple of coaches,.
‘But in that depressive, very struggling state of mind, it’s hard to make progress when so much of my energy was trying to get through each day,’ she said.
In 2019, she started taking the hormone therapy drug HRT and says she knew it would make her less strong.
‘I did HRT knowing and accepting I might not swim again. I was just trying to live my life,’ she said, adding she ‘immediately’ felt better once she had started taking it.
‘It surprised me. I felt, mentally, a lot better and healthier pretty quickly. The relief it gave me was quite substantial.’
In her junior year, she came out to her UPenn swimming coaches. She says they were immediately supportive.
She went by her old name – Will – until New Year’s Eve 2020 then started using Lia.
‘It’s a milestone in a very long process of transitioning where you feel like this is who I am, and I’m going to live this.
‘In a way, it was sort of a rebirth, for the first time in my life, feeling fully connected to my name and who I am and living who I am. I am Lia,’ she said.
But her continued participation in women’s competition has proved deeply divisive, with former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner – who won gold in the decathlon as Bruce Jenner – among those criticizing Thomas for swimming in women’s races.
‘If a cis woman gets caught taking testosterone twice, she’s banned for life, whereas Lia has had 10 years of testosterone,’ said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming and the president of the advocacy group Champion Women.
‘It’s about the principle of having sport continue to be sex-segregated: having a space where women are really honored and where they can triumph,’ she said.
Hogshead-Makar coordinated a letter, signed by 16 of Thomas’s anonymous teammates, expressing concern about her participation.
Thomas is competing at the N.C.A.A. championships this week
‘We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman,’ the letter states, CNN reported.
‘Lia has every right to live her life authentically. However, we also realize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.
‘Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female.’
Yet other members of the team spoke in support of Thomas.
‘We want to express our full support for Lia in her transition,’ the athletes said.
‘We value her as a person, teammate, and friend. The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values, and opinions of the entire Penn team, composed of 39 women with diverse backgrounds.
‘We recognize this is a matter of great controversy and are doing our best to navigate it while still focusing on doing our best in the pool and classroom.’
THE RULES ON TRANSGENDER ATHLETES AND WHEN THEY CAN COMPETE FOR GENDER THEY ARE SWITCHING TO
Lia started taking hormone therapy while she was still competing as a male back in May 2019.
Under USA Swimming rules, athletes had to have recorded low levels of testosterone for 36 months to compete in the female category.
That meant that Lia didn’t qualify for the championship this month.
But the tournament organizers, the NCAA, said that she would be allowed to compete because they were refusing to adopt the threshold this year.
Last month, the NCAA committee said: ‘The subcommittee decided implementing additional changes at this time could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championships.’
It is unclear what they will do next year, however.
Source: Daily Mail