It pains me to say this, but there is something unfair about Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania star swimmer, winning the 100- and 200-yard women’s freestyle against Harvard in January, setting five records at the Ivy League championship in February or winning the NCAA 500 last week. She’s the first transgender athlete to win an American college swimming championship. And there is something rational in calls by some of her competitors–and by some transgender athletes themselves–for a rule change.
By saying this I may be breaking with liberal orthodoxy, but I don’t think so. Fairness is never illiberal. Unfairness is. I might be breaking with a form of orthodoxy on the left that takes certain things to extremes in the name of invented equalities of fabricated offenses, the sort of orthodoxy that’s giving us absurd speech codes on campus, fueling the pyres of “cancel culture” or letting human resource departments turn workplaces into reeducation camps. The intent might be laudable. It’s to foster respect and encourage us to be accepting of all differences. It’s to counter “the depluralizing of America,” to quote the words of a recent New York Times editorial. But like the old ways of bloodletting patients to save them, the cure is worsening the disease. Sometimes certain equalities, certain forms of inclusion, are not possible. At least not the way things are today.
Thomas is a woman. She was born male. She is transgender. Those facts are beyond dispute or debate. Identity lived or adopted authentically is nobody’s business to question, only to accept. It isn’t appropriation. It’s choice. If we believe the last six words of the Pledge, sexual identity is no more the place for lawmakers to trespass than religious or cultural identity.
Identity is beyond question. Rules taking account of identity are not, especially when the rules are new, the data they’re based on is inconclusive, and the rules’ consequences are clearly unsettling–not for discriminatory reasons (the rules are obviously intended to counter discrimination) but as a matter of fairness.
Current NCAA rules clear Thomas for competition as a woman. No matter her testosterone suppressants, Thomas likely has biological capacities her competitors do not. The science isn’t rich in this regard. That’s another problem, though it’s a matter of time before data better clarifies the issue. For now, what data there is strongly suggests, as in a 2020 peer-reviewed study, that while physical advantages decline for females after gender affirming hormone therapy, the advantages are not eliminated. The differences are significantly larger than 1 percent. Even if they were just 1 percent, in sports like swimming, running and weight-lifting, where medals are minted of fractional glitter, those differences remain decisive.
So results have been justifiably dismaying to some of Thomas’s competitors. Based on current rules, it’s a matter of time before other transgender women break various athletic records.
Put it this way. The late Florence Griffith Joyner set the world record for the 100 and 200 meter sprint in 1988. The records have stood for 34 years. Four of the eight boys in a 2016 high school competition in the United States beat her record. Of course the comparison makes no sense, because they’re boys, and because any boy or man beating her record wouldn’t make it anywhere near Olympic qualifiers for men. But based on current rules, it’s a matter of time before a transgender woman breaks Joyner’s record. And that would make no sense.
Inclusion is essential. But current rules don’t seem to address the matter of fairness any better than previous rules that excluded anyone based on gender or race or anything else. I don’t know what the rules should look like. I do know that in a country that once had a tradition of pragmatism second to none they can be made to work for everyone. We just haven’t figured out how yet. “Americans have a breathtaking confidence either in the simplicity of the world or in their own capacities,” the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote as she traveled the country in 1947. We still have that confidence if we take it, too, as a premise. Instead we’re doing an excellent job of mucking things up to ensure that there is no dignified resolution, because it’s almost impossible to discuss this subject without being branded either a bigot or a nut job.
That’s the bigger problem: the fact that there is an ideological divide rather than differences of opinions on a challenge that isn’t quite resolved, but that we should be grateful to face. That transgender people are finally out of the closet is not a problem. It’s a triumph, like interracial or gay marriage and other defeats of age-old discriminations. Lia Thomas winning competitions is also a triumph, but it’s also a wake-up call that rules, for all their good intentions, aren’t yet where they should be. We must say this with the certainty that they will soon be.
So the way to respond is not like Gov. Ron DeSantis, who couldn’t wait to further poison the ideological divide with his camera-mugging decree that the second-place finisher in the 500, a swimmer from Sarasota, was really the only legitimate winner last week. Nor is it legislatures’ place to define identity today, whether through molesting ID checks or bathroom bans, anymore than it was Congress’ and Bill Clinton’s place to define marriage in 1996. And it’s not right-wing talking heads using words like “grotesque” and “freak” to describe Thomas’s achievement or worse: Thomas herself. That’s just vileness from people whose ethics are a closer match to those words.
There’s room for apprehension. There’s plenty of room for discussion and exploration of means to resolve the dilemma, taking both inclusion and fairness as starting points. But let’s not demonize transgender athletes along the way or build them new closets carpentered on the recycling of separate but equal repugnance. That would be grotesque.