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Lia Thomas is the center of a brewing culture war, and the LGBTQ community is largely silent

Lia Thomas is shattering records in the pool. It’s time we and the NCAA engage on her performance.

Lia Thomas is in her first season competing for the University of Pennsylvania women’s swimming team.
Penn Swimming & Diving

Lia Thomas is now the conference record-holder in the Ivy League in two women’s swimming events after an historically dominant performance at the Zippy Invitational last weekend.

In these two events — the 200-yard free and 500-yard free — the trans swimmer has the fastest times in the country and is one of only two athletes in each to meet the “A” standards of qualification, giving her a direct invitation to the national championships next March.

Headlines that say she’s “shattered” these conference records are not an exaggeration. She has now bested the then-conference-record headed into this season in the 200 by 3.22 seconds, and in the 500 by 2.25 seconds. In the pool, that’s a long time. And the season has only gotten started — Her times will continue to drop.

Her dominance in the pool is incredibly unusual to do from the Ivy League, which has had only one swimmer — Cristina Teuscher — win a women’s NCAA individual title in any event.

Thomas is now the national top seed thus far in two NCAA events and fifth in a third — the 1650-yard free — making her story the most compelling of any LGBTQ college athlete heading into the winter sports season possibly ever.

Here’s an LGBTQ athlete who is dominating — yes dominating — her key events, yet if you look around the LGBTQ community, it’s largely crickets. And I think a lot of that is intentional.

Most LGBTQ publications and advocates so far seem to be publicly ignoring Thomas’ incredible athletic accomplishments. As I write this, only PinkNews in the UK — outside of Outsports’ reporting by Karleigh Webb — has published a story on Thomas’ record-breaking success that I have found.

Who hasn’t ignored Thomas’ story? Right-wing media and anti-trans forces. Outkick. Fox News. New York Post. Newsmax. Various Christian sites.

They have seized on Thomas’ growing collection of victories — and rewriting of some record books — as evidence that trans women don’t belong in women’s sports, that their participation is “unfair.”

They’re deadnaming her. They’re publishing pre-transition photos. They’re pointing to the fact the she competed pre-transition on the Penn men’s team as evidence she doesn’t belong on the women’s team.

Piers Morgan mischaracterized her time on the men’s team as “unsuccessful” (she finished second in multiple Ivy League Championship events her sophomore year). OutKick claims that her times haven’t been affected by transitioning (she is now considerably slower in each of her events than she was pre-transition).

By staying largely silent in the public realm, the LGBTQ community and supporters of trans athletes are allowing Right Wing media and other anti-trans forces to dictate the conversation.

I found the same silence when I tried to talk to trans advocates and league executives in the Premier Hockey Federation — formerly the National Women’s Hockey League — about its new trans policy dropping all transition requirements (other than a yet-to-be-explained two-year waiting period) for trans and nonbinary athletes.

For years I’ve heard trans advocates quietly hope trans women do well in sports, but not too well. It seems many people pushing for trans inclusion in women’s sports want trans inclusion in sports — they just don’t want anyone to notice.

Yet here’s the thing: Lots of people are noticing. The story of Lia Thomas isn’t going away. The coverage from anti-trans advocates isn’t going away. And by staying silent, the LGBTQ community collectively leaves Thomas out in the cold.

Some of those staying publicly silent are the very people and organizations who have pushed the NCAA to change its trans-inclusion policy in women’s sports to base it on one year of testosterone suppression. Some of these LGBTQ advocates now want to eliminate that requirement all together, so trans women can compete in women’s sports with no medical transition at all.

Thomas’ pre-transition time in the 500 free would have obliterated the national women’s record, held by Olympic champion Katie Ledecky, who herself has dominated the next closest female swimmers on the international stage by record margins.

As Thomas navigates her senior season in the pool, it will be essential that the LGBTQ community doesn’t shy away from her story. She is competing within the rules our advocates and leaders asked for.

Despite anti-trans forces labeling Thomas a “cheater,” she is not in any way cheating by competing in the women’s category.

For that matter, the NCAA also should be out front on this, explaining exactly what their trans-inclusion policy is and making it clear that Thomas has met the criteria. This week we at Outsports have been receiving so many completely mis-informed messages on email and DM, and the NCAA coming out strong in support of Thomas’ eligibility is a much-needed addition to the conversation.

There can be a thoughtful, healthy dialogue about inclusion policies in sports. There should be — And that conversation needs to be void of some of the misgendering and dead-naming we’ve seen so far.

Yet a debate needs more than one side. So far, in the media and social media, only one side is weighing in on the senior season of Lia Thomas. And it’s not the side virtually anyone in the LGBTQ community wants controlling the conversation.

We at Outsports will be embracing the news that Thomas generates, and the thoughtful conversations that come from it. We hope everyone who advocates for trans athletes will join the important conversation as well.