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Lia Thomas and trans-athlete debate not as easy as left vs. right

The perspective of people on the inclusion of trans women in women’s sports isn’t easily defined by ideological labels.

University of Pennsylvania Lia Thomas
Lia Thomas will compete in three races at the NCAA Division I women’s swimming national championship.
Sports Illustrated

Appearing on Hallie Jackson Reports on MSNBC recently, I said something true that stirred debate.

I was on the show to talk about Penn swimmer Lia Thomas, a trans woman, and the interview she gave to Sports Illustrated. She is now headed to the NCAA Championships this week. My task was to give context on that interview and the continuing conversations about trans women in women’s sports.

“This is not a left or right issue,” I said. “Many of the people who are leading the charge to change policies and further restrict trans athletes are some of the greatest advocates for women, are feminists, or are on the far left. So this debate is not easily divided into left and right. And unfortunately this young woman is stuck in the middle of it.”

In the hours that followed, I got a lot of feedback from viewers saying mostly one of two things.

First was the group stating they were “on the left,” “as left as you can be,” “not a Republican” or even “a trans woman” and were in some way opposed to Lia Thomas competing in women’s college swimming, or they were against trans women generally competing in the women’s category.

The second group of people said the first group doesn’t exist.

Everyone who in some fashion opposes trans athletes, they claimed, is “conservative” or “far right.”

The assumption by too many people is that if you’re “liberal” you support unfettered access for trans women to women’s sports, and if you’re “conservative,” you want to ban them from existence.

It’s easy to understand — particularly given recent headlines — where this belief comes from. Efforts in many states across the country to ban transgender girls from girls sports have gotten a lot of attention, and they come from one direction. Conservative politicians in states like Texas are going even further, pushing bans on families making collective medical choices for their trans children.

Without exception (that I know of), the most vocal and ardent elected officials backing these bills restricting athletes to their sex-at-birth are Republicans. They’ll get a Democrat voting for them, or Republican against them, from time to time. That includes Utah Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, who has so far said he will veto a ban on trans athletes from competing in their gender category.

But make no mistake: Republican and conservative elected officials are the politicians currently pushing full — and unnecessary — bans on trans girls in girls sports.

While Republicans have currently seized on the topic — in part to push back on the dozen-plus states that allow trans girls to compete with no transition requirements — what’s happening in the political and policy realm of state legislatures isn’t the entirety of this conversation.

Olympic champion, women’s advocate and civil-rights attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a registered Democrat who opposes these bans. She is also a leading voice for elevating restrictions on trans women in competitive women’s sports while maintaining a path to inclusion. She has emerged as one of the loudest voices opposing Thomas’ current inclusion in NCAA women’s swimming, saying her participation is unfair and revealing petitions with thousands of signatures asking for a stricter look at the participation of trans women in women’s sports.

Same with Martina Navratilova, who hasn’t found an anti-Trump tweet she didn’t like. Navratilova, another champion of women’s sports and a loud liberal on social media, wants stronger restrictions on trans athletes.

Both of these women have been branded by some trans advocates as “transphobic” and working against trans women.

They are both liberal and/or Democrats.

Robert Dover, the Olympic dressage rider who was the first publicly out LGBTQ athlete at an Olympics, said he’s observed the same dynamic — feelings about trans athletes crossing over political ideology — at the highest levels of sports.

“I have been on the Athlete’s Advisory Council of the [USOC] for 8 years and a part of 8 Olympic and World Championship Games and have heard so many valid points from both sides of the issue,” Dover tweeted. “Honestly, it was rarely the case that they were L/R.”

After my MSNBC appearance, many people on Twitter or in direct messages proved my point (and please excuse the spelling and grammar — it is Twitter). This is just a small sampling:

  • im as left as you can be but i do not think Trans women should be allowed to compete against women whos sex was female at birth .. its not fair
  • It is so wrong and I am glad (even though there is nothing I agree with in the Republican Party), this is one thing I cannot go along with.
  • Thomas in a race means a young women misses out. Thomas replaced women in several relay teams. Even if Thomas was small or slow, doesn’t belong in female sports. We need safe, fair and meaningful sports.

I have talked with so many people across the political spectrum who say they have reservations about further opening women’s sports to trans women. Heck, I’ve talked to numerous trans women and LGBTQ sports advocates who have the same reservations.

And I’ve also spoken to conservatives who think easier access to sports for trans athletes is the best path forward. Yes, believe it or not, they do exist.

It’s borne out in polls.

In a Gallup poll last year, 66% of respondents said trans people should be able to serve in the military. Yet almost that same number — 62% — said they should play on a team that matches their sex-at-birth, not their declared gender.

On the flip side, 10% of Republicans said a trans woman on a women’s team is OK to them.

Issues like this can break through party affiliation and ideology in part based on who knows whom. A “liberal” parent of a cis woman losing to a trans athlete may be more likely to support trans-athlete bans than a “conservative” parent of a trans girl. My personal embrace of trans athletes in sports has absolutely grown based on knowing — and conversations with — trans athletes.

Yet reality of the current conversation is stark: A recent study for the Transgender Law Center found “our opposition wins the debate on trans youth in sports against any and all arguments we have tried for our side.”

How do you break through that — a seeming rebuke of every message? I go back to my own journey: I know lots of trans people. For years at Outsports we’ve seen the power of telling the stories of LGBTQ athletes. Telling more stories and elevating more voices can help.

While the current messaging from trans-athlete advocates focuses on value of “inclusion” in sports, for now, messages about “fairness” and “competition” are winning the day across political ideology.

To tell trans girls they have no path to participate in girls high school sports is a shame to me and, as I said before, unnecessary. I personally stand firmly on the side of a path to inclusion for these athletes in their gender category.

Yet labeling everyone who thinks otherwise a “conservative” or “right winger” fails to address the realities of the debate.