University of Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas, a male-to-female swimmer who has become the face of the debate on transgender participation in competitive women's sports, lost a race Saturday to Iszac Henig, a female-to-male trans swimmer who swims on the women's team at Yale University, according to a report from NBC News.
Though Thomas won two events at Penn's last home meet of the season, she came in sixth in the 100-yard freestyle after swimming head-to-head against Henig, a junior at Yale. Because Henig has chosen not to receive gender-affirming hormones, such as testosterone, Henig is eligible to compete on the women's team as a trans man.
The NCAA — the governing body for intercollegiate athletics — issued guidance for transgender athletes in 2011. They state: "Any transgender student-athlete who is not taking hormone treatment related to gender transition may participate in sex-separated sports activities in accordance with his or her assigned birth gender."
When Henig came out as trans to his parents in April, he decided to transition socially, which describes how some trans people change their names, pronouns and outward appearance to align more with their gender identity.
For a June article about coming out during the pandemic, Henig told The New York Times, "As a student athlete, coming out as a trans guy put me in a weird position.
"I could start hormones to align more with myself, or wait, transition socially, and keep competing on a women's swim team," he said.
He decided to wait. "I value my contributions to the team and recognize that my boyhood doesn't hinge on whether there's more or less testosterone running through my veins," he said.
The NCAA guidance requires that trans women, like Lia Thomas, receive testosterone suppression treatment for at least one year to compete on women's teams, though some critics argue the organization's guidance is the issue.
According to SwimSwam, two-time Olympic medalist in swimming Erika Brown wrote on her Instagram stories last month that, "A few years of testosterone blockers and estrogen doesn't change the fact that she will have more powerful muscles, a larger heart and greater lung capacity than a biological woman."
The science is limited and varied on whether trans female athletes have a competitive advantage over cisgender, or non-transgender, women. Joanna Harper, a visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at England's Loughborough University who published the first performance analysis of trans athletes in 2015, told NBC News last month that, while every person is different, trans women will maintain some advantages after hormone therapy.
She said the NCAA's guidelines for trans female athletes is "perfectly reasonable" and that it "will result in meaningful competition between trans women and cis women."
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, chief executive of women's sports advocacy organization Champion Women and a critic of the NCAA policy, argues that there might be enough trans athletes in some sports to allow for a category just for trans people.
Harper disagreed and said trans women are still greatly underrepresented in the NCAA. Of the more than 200,000 women who compete in the NCAA every year, trans people make up about 1% of the population, she said.
Much of the criticism of Thomas is rooted in transphobia and misinformation, advocates say, fueled in part by an ongoing political debate. Last year, more than 24 states considered bills that would ban trans student-athletes at the K-12 and college levels from playing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity, instead of their sex assigned at birth. Ten states have enacted such measures.
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