The debate as to whether or not University of Penn swimmer Lia Thomas, as a transgendered individual, should be allowed to swim on the women’s team is being framed as a Transgendered Rights issue. Lia commented, “I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone…I am a woman, just like anybody else on the team.” Yes, she is a trans- woman. But, this is not a Trans Rights issue. This is a Woman’s Rights issue. It’s about privilege. It’s about sexism.
Thomas grew up as a white, heterosexual male. This is not to dismiss any pain she ever felt as a child or adolescent struggling with her identity. However, it cannot and should not be ignored or dismissed that as that boy she experienced advantages, privileges, and entitlement. The exact kind that Lia is acting out today. She’s claiming a right to a space — on the women’s swim team — without any consideration for how she is appropriating the space of a teammate. A team mate without the physical advantages of having gone through puberty as a male.
Ignoring disparity and unfair advantages or operating in a way as if they do not exist are emblematic behaviors of a privileged class.
Because she grew into early adulthood as boy, Lia did not experience the inherent cultural sexism that is part and parcel of being a female athlete. The sexualization of female bodies. The lack of parity in opportunities, training, and equipment. The difference in community and media response and support. Lia’s inability to see or acknowledge this historical context; how she’s personally benefiting from her position and; the lack of empathy or understanding she has for her teammates’s experiences is telling.
As a transgendered person, Lia has not been marginalized. She was given immediate and swift support from her Ivy League university, the NCAA, and her teammates. She has been given multiple platforms to tell her life story and defend her right to be on a women’s swim team. She has been treated with respect and dignity; her opponents defend her right to swim, not her right to be.
Lia Thomas, the University at Penn, and the NCAA are controlling the situation and narrative at the expense of all women athletes. In their misguided attempt to support Trans rights they have created an uneven playing field that, as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps called it, is akin to doping. They have abandoned and silenced the other forty women on the team.
All three are doing what patriarchal and privileged systems do to undermine marginalized groups: they pit them against each other.
The University of Penn and the NCAA need to change their position. However, it’s Lia Thomas who should be embarrassed. Her actions are selfish and demanding. For her, it’s all about winning. And, now her eye is on Olympic gold. Let’s be clear, Lia Thomas is a woman. That’s a fact. But, let’s be also be honest; her white, male, privilege is definitely showing.