Lia Thomas made a really good point about what makes a woman, whether you like it or not
Unlike her critics, transgender swimmer Lia Thomas has remained largely silent since her first-place finish in the 500-meter freestyle at the NCAA Women’s Swimming Championships in March. Earlier this week, however, she sat down with Good Morning America’s Juju Chang to tell her side of the story. Describing a childhood spent feeling bewildered and depressed by a body that betrayed her, Lia told a story similar to that of many trans people, including my own. Lia shared how swimming helped her cope and how fear of losing her ability to compete led her to postpone her medical transition until her sophomore year at UPenn.
Asked by Chang whether the disputed possibility that a testosterone-fueled puberty could leave “inherited effects” on a trans woman’s body after a medical transition that should disqualify her from competing in elite sports, Lia replied, “I’m no medical expert, but there’s a lot of variation among female cis athletes. There are cis women who are very tall and very muscular and have more testosterone than another cis woman, and should that also disqualify them? »
And therein lies the crux of the matter: what makes a woman and who decides that? Are they chromosomes? Hormones? Genitals? The possibility of getting pregnant?
Many who would like to see Lia lose her championship title argue that Title IX policies were meant to protect women and girls in collegiate sports. They ignore the fact that Title IX protects all students against discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Insinuating that trans women are not “real” women, they weaponize transphobia and widespread misunderstandings about sex and gender to justify draconian and discriminatory policies. And, as the dark history of sex testing in women’s sport shows, it’s a real concern. These policies not only encourage women to view each other with unnecessary distrust, but also to pander to harmful and outdated ideas of what femininity should look like.
Take Ewa Klobukowska, Polish athletics star and the first to fail the International Association of Athletics Federations (the governing body now known as World Athletics) chromosome test. Three years after Ewa won the gold and bronze medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the IAAF ruled that an extra chromosome prevented her from competing as a woman, publicly calling her an “impostor masculine” and depriving her of both her medals and her dignity. The following year, Ewa became pregnant and gave birth to a son. A medical journal later published the results of the test that changed his life – XX/XXY – a result of a condition called mosaicism which occurs when a person has two or more genetically different sets of chromosomes. Ewa, now 76, has retired from public life completely after a failed suicide attempt. The IAAF has never formally apologized or restored its medals.
Forty years later, the IAAF administers another chromosomal test to Santhi Soundarajan, a young Indian from the “untouchable” caste who has enjoyed success in athletics. Slated to represent her country at the next Olympics after winning a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games, her joy was devastated when she was sent home bewildered the very next day. First informed that she had failed a routine doping test, Santhi learned several days later – via national news – that she had in fact failed a “sex test”. Born with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, Santhi has XY chromosomes, female genitals and internal testes that produce testosterone, but her body lacks the androgen receptors that would allow her to use no any of these hormones. Even though she shows levels in the typically male range, so it doesn’t express any physical effects on her body.
More recently, Dutee Chand, an 18-year-old lesbian, was subjected to a series of tests after winning two gold medals at the 2014 Asian Junior Athletics Championships. later, thought she didn’t appear feminine enough, so suspected she might be male. IAAF doctors tested her testosterone levels and gave her an ultrasound, chromosomal analysis, MRI and physical examination which included “measurement and palpation of the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as the ‘assessment of breast size and pubic hair’. The IAAF officially replaced chromosome testing with testosterone testing in 2011 after another lesbian runner, Caster Semenya, was found to have naturally high levels, a move that would later inform the NCAA’s own policy on transgender athletes. Dutee was later told that she suffered from “hyperandrogenism” and would be disqualified from further competition unless she wanted to undergo unnecessary medical treatments to lower her levels.
In a 2013 issue of The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, a group of French researchers are recording IAAF-recommended “treatments” performed on four female athletes who, like Dutee Chand, were diagnosed with hyperandrogenism. All inner gonads were removed, estrogen replacement therapy (like that undergone by Lia Thomas) started, and female genital mutation – including clitoridectomy for size reduction and “feminizing vaginoplasty” for lip fusion – was carried out, even if none of these conditions cause health problems. risks for women and the procedures themselves can cause a myriad of problems.
Affected female at birth, I lived more or less unsuccessfully as a female for nearly 30 years before making the decision to transition. When I finally found the doctor who would prescribe my first rounds of hormone replacement therapy, she asked me how long I had been “self-medicating,” implying that I had been doping on anabolic steroids. I was confused – I had never tried a stronger drug than dark beer – until she told me my testosterone was high enough to get me kicked out of elite sports.
I didn’t have PCOS, amenorrhea, hirsutism, or XY chromosomes (though admittedly a lot of men don’t). I had given birth and I was not particularly athletic. Genetic testing I underwent during my daughter’s pregnancy, years later, suggested mosaicism, but randomly testing my entire body for genetic material would have been prohibitively expensive with little gain. Those who would call me a confused, mentally ill woman seemed unlikely to be swayed by such truths. Yet, under IAAF policies, I would have been classified as a male, and many of those same people would support that.
Although being transgender is not currently classified as a disorder of sex development, many endocrinologists and biologists who work and research in the areas of sex, gender and genetics believe that gender identity is at least partially – and perhaps entirely – biological, and studies seem to show that trans women lag behind cis men in terms of physical strength and body mass even before starting hormone therapy. If that’s the case, and Lia Thomas was never really or fully a man, then we have to admit that she’s just one more victim of a nefarious system that could force any athlete accomplished woman to lose her identity, hard-earned medals, and even part of her clitoris, based on sex measurements that seem increasingly arbitrary. And when we allow that to happen to any woman, all women lose.