Should we exclude transgender athletes from competition?

Should we exclude transgender athletes from competition? February 15, 2022

Lia Thomas is a competitive swimmer on the UPenn women’s swim team – a statement that, in and of itself, is not noteworthy. But it caused absolute mayhem, and here’s why: Lia Thomas used to be William Thomas, and used to be on the UPenn men’s swim team.

Yes indeed, Lia Thomas is transgender. Her transition began in May of 2019 with testosterone suppression therapy, a process that causes fatigue and loss of muscle mass. Thomas swam for the men’s team during the 2019-2020 school year. Needless to say, it was not a stellar season.

Lia Thomas swimmerLia is doing really well now on the women’s team, and enjoys the support of hundreds of other competitive swimmers. Some folks, however, feel that she is doing too well.

It’s not like anyone can come to the pool, claim to be a female, and swim with the ladies: the NCAA has strict rules about testosterone levels in trans athletes. The science is still evolving, but the rules emphasize inclusivity.

Does Lia Thomas have an advantage? Yes.

Is it an unfair advantage? We could have a conversation about that, if you’re willing!

(I’ve had more debates than I can count with people who’ve already decided they’re right. What I’m talking about here is real conversation – give-and-take, exchange of ideas.)

So, if anyone is up for some real adult dialogue, I have some thoughts on Lia Thomas and other transgender athletes (I’m serious about conversation – you’re welcome to make a constructive comment on my Facebook page).  BTW, if you question “business as usual” in Christianity – or want to question it – subscribe to my newsletter, and we can journey together!)

Full disclosure, this is not how I thought a few years ago (I grew up evangelical). If I could, after half a century, learn to embrace LGBTQ+ folks and wish them all success (even in athletics), anybody can. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

  1. Disapproval of a transgender competitor seems to imply that they are cheating just by being who they are: “the fact that Lia exists as a female is unfair” doesn’t seem kind, loving, or sportsmanlike. Genuinely wishing competitors well and congratulating them when they beat you sounds more Christlike, does it not?
  2. Every day, everywhere, people have advantages and disadvantages. (Think about the “take a step forward” videos we’ve all seen.) That’s part of life. Some students have a leg up due to unique factors in their home life and/or genes. We all know someone who is freakishly talented in something – and we celebrate it! A trans swimmer competing as a female is not much different. Why not celebrate her, not just as a great swimmer, but also as a courageous person? (See James 3:14-16)
  3. Let’s talk about Lia’s poor performance on the men’s swim team during her transition. She was competing as a male, but with abnormally low testosterone. Would we accuse her of having an unfair disadvantage? What about athletes who transition from female to male? Would we complain that because they are smaller, they don’t have an equal chance next to cisgender males? (Did you notice that we’re more likely to complain when somebody might be better than us, but not when we’re better than they are? See Philippians 2:3.)
  4. Lia has managed to change her gender – but don’t think for a moment that, just because she dominates in swimming at this moment, her life is or will be without difficulty. She is probably facing a lifelong struggle against people who don’t understand or approve of her. (Her former life as a male was also no doubt full of trials.) As followers of Jesus, is it right for us to deprive her of activities that give her joy? is that a form of persecution against her?

It’s not easy to reverse a mindset that one has held one’s entire life, and held with great certainty – but it’s not impossible. Maybe it’s not even about a mindset. Maybe it’s a heartset.

It’s not easy to change – especially when it requires us to take a step back in the game of life.

But Jesus told us, “the last will be first, and the first, last” (Matthew 20:16). Maybe it’s time to let someone else win once in a while.

(If you are energized by challenges to the evangelical status quo like this, you’d enjoy my blog. Sign up for my free newsletter here!)

(If you would like to comment, please pop over to my Facebook page. All of my posts are there and open to constructive comment! I welcome your thoughts. And don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter!)


Can we learn to love our trans neighbors?

My U-turn from evangelical to LGBTQ+ affirming

Learning to love my gay neighbor, Part Three: Affirmation

Learning to love my gay neighbor, Part Two: Empathy 

Learning to love my gay neighbor, Part One: Preface

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