For months I have thought about the transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania and the national publicity surrounding a young woman who two years ago was a male and recently won the NCAA 500-meter freestyle championship, as well as setting four women’s school records.
Is it fair?
This question has rattled my justice scale for months. I wondered if the raging controversy was one in which I wanted to dive.
So here it goes. Lia Thomas began taking testosterone suppression drugs two years ago. A former member of Penn’s men’s swimming team, Lia saw her speed diminish. Yet she was setting records as a woman.
Sixteen teammates complained in a well-publicized letter. A few teammates supported her. I wondered how she could cope with the increasingly intense media attention. I worried about her mental well-being, though the university strongly supported her participation.
I was torn and anguished. The fairness question dominated my thinking.
Meanwhile, some of my 76-77-year-old college classmates, when approached by me for 55th Reunion donations, adamantly criticized the school’s “woke” (progressive) environment. What about a contribution? In one case, the response was a flat no.
Still, I was still undecided. Were a daughter of mine a member of Penn’s swim team, having spent most of her sports life anxious to break records, she might have found the aspiration closed to her because of Lia Thomas. She might have been angry. And so might I have been.
Pictures of Lia show a powerfully built woman. Her size and strength are impressive, let alone her talent in the pool. Mind you, tennis greats Serena and Vanessa look strong to me. They are tremendous athletes.
My knowledge of biology is minuscule. What I do know is that puberty changes the makeup of a boy, enabling him to outrun and our-swim most young women. Of course, there are exceptions. I am not questioning determination, competitiveness and inner toughness.
The line between men’s and women’s sports is blurring. That’s possible. Maybe I am blind to that phenomenon. Transgender athletes may become more commonplace as our society accepts biological changes that roil a pool’s lanes.
Anyone who reads this column knows I disdain discrimination. While I honor and respect Lia Thomas’ decision, I cannot ignore the fairness factor. As a former college lacrosse jock, I well understand the difference in athletic ability between outstanding athletes and average ones (like this writer). I easily accepted my limited ability compared with teammates blessed with superior athletic talent. I compensated with scrappiness.
The crunch point is athletic prowess based upon the physiological difference between men and women. Is it completely understood?
I believe that the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater) did not take sufficient time to study Lia’s physical attributes and the impact on the performance metrics of her teammates. Was the decision inherently fair? That question continues to hound me.
The decision was fraught, I am sure, encompassing respect for Lia and her difficult decision to become a woman and the legal complexities involved in appearing to punish a person for a courageous action. I hope, however, that Penn considered Lia’s teammates and their athletic goals and dreams.
The resulting criticism by Lia Thomas’ teammates and the intense media controversy have proved harmful to Penn’s image.
Thomas and her teammates have dealt with emotional pain on top of the normal physical exertion. It will be a season steeped in historical significance, punctuated by troubling undercurrents. Penn could have handled this explosive situation in a more balanced way.
In time, these decisions may become routine, barely requiring media attention. That’s not the case now.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
Letters to Editor
DEIRDRE LAMOTTE says
Perhaps she should have excused herself from swimming on the women’s swim team until she fully transitioned to a woman?
Do these people not take hormones that take time for such a reversal? I would be really upset if I was on that
Howard Freedlander says
Thank you, Deidre. As I wrote, teammates
were upset. Lia Thomas did undergo treatments in becoming a woman. This situation is fraught.
Jim Maguire says
So, after all of that, you offer no opinion?
Howard Freedlander says
Thought I did.
Stephen Schaare says
Hi Jim, This is a tremendous dilemma for the left. Women’s rights? Trans rights? Common sense or make believe?
What’s a liberal to do? Steve
Stephen Schaare says
Lia Thomas retains male genitalia and many of this swimmer’s teammates are uncomfortable in the locker room.
Lia needs to show her identity has indeed changed. Make the commitment, have the surgery.
Charles Zvirman says
I confess I also know very little about biology but I’m ok with the Google. She is taking testosterone suppression meds which is all well and fine, but my question is what are her current levels? Google says “In the healthy, normal males and females, there was a clear bimodal distribution of testosterone levels, with the lower end of the male range being four-to-five fold higher than the upper end of the female range”. I understand the complexities but think a good first step would be that if her testosterone levels are not squarely in the average female range, she should not be able to compete as a female.
Rev Julia Hart says
GRACE resides more within the gray or “in-between” areas of life. One of my ethics professors in Seminary bottom lined everything to one question: What is the most loving thing to do(or say)? But over the last 4 decades everything has drastically changed. Lines are blurred on just about anything and everything. As human beings we seek definition and clarity.
So in a moment of Grace, I defend Howard for his struggle, and NOT coming up with an opinion or solution. Howard, I believe you are striving to live within a Grace-filled life!
It is very hard to live by Grace and Grace alone. THERE is the gospel–the good news–the Grace. But we live by Law as human things. Law wants clear definition at the risk of eliminating freedom of thought and action. And so Law and Gospel are at odds. But it is The Law which drives us toward Grace.
Grace and Peace to All,
Rev Julia Hart
John Fischer says
When I was high school, the opportunity for girls to compete in athletics was practically nil. Since that time, women (and men) have worked tirelessly to correct that unfairness, that inequality, that destructiveness, the stupidity assuming women are not strong enough or able enough to compete physically.
We are not there yet but we’ve come a long, long way. Now, today, all that has been accomplished is threatened by the insanity of some confused souls believing that males who “feel” like women actually are women. You can’t make this stuff up.
DEIRDRE LAMOTTE says
Interesting. Not to venture off course, but we women have enjoyed Title IX, health protections, voting rights,
work, economic freedom..all our mothers and grand mothers, great grand mothers fought for.
Now, another GOP controlled State Legislature in OK has banned abortions even in rape or incest. . GOP misogynist
white males and pitiful GOP women will be stripping women of rights like the Taliban, want to need a man to
sign your credit card or loan application? Better get used to this in Red States. The only thing the GOP wants the government to control is a woman’s uterus and more.
The GOP way: forced birth for all women including raped and incested little girls.
Just let this sink in. Guns in this nation now have more rights than women. All this talk about less government regulation is more hypocrisy. Who wants a Party to regulate a person’s body? The hate rolls on and on like the winds sweeping down the plains.
Barbara Denton says
You need to read the new rule the Dept. of Education is trying to implement which turns Title IX on its ear. This has nothing to do with abortion or what a state has passed. The Dems are the ones pushing this transgender nonsense and taking away rights of women. Comparing the Republicans to the Taliban is egregious and over the top. Non of the rights you mentioned are being taken away from women in Red states. The Republican party is not trying to regulate a person’s body. Your hate is so vicious it is palpable. It radiates off the page like a vapor. I feel sorry for you.
Sandra Snowden says
First the William sisters are Venus and Serena!
Second, your reference to their physical bodies seemed out of place. They have been the constant victims of the bodies that they were born with; not those that they constructed regardless of the reason. A better reference might have been about Billy Gene King and the male tennis star Doctor she played against who also was a man and wanted to then play as a woman.
You don’t want to discriminate? I hope not!
John Lacoco says
I believe that each of us has both male and female traits of our psyches. Sometimes referred to as Yin and Yang. Over the centuries humans have learned to deal with imbalances in these forces through insight, self acceptance and loving kindness toward ourselves and others. I have known many “feminine” men and “masculine” women over the years. Those who accepted who they are and lived their lives accordingly have been very happy. When they have resisted and tried to fit into societal stereotypes they were unhappy. This has been my personal observation.
In the current era pharmaceutical and surgical methods of modifying ones physical gender have become widely available. To me this seems like a sort of violent act towards oneself and an in some cases an unethical act on the part of the Medical community. This is only my opinion and I do not object to individuals seeking this remedy. In cases of those born as hermaphrodites surgical intervention seems like a reasonable intervention to consider. The fear and hatred of some sectors of society toward those individuals who have psychological and personality traits inconsistent with their chromosomal makeup has driven many people to seek physiological modification in order to find happiness.
We are not victims of our bodies. We have the good fortune to be incarnated as conscious, thinking, loving beings. Fear and hatred can only be overcome through loving kindness.