There is a man competing in NCAA Division I women’s swimming. But it isn’t Lia Thomas.
Thomas is a trans woman who has generated headlines competing in women’s swimming in the Ivy League, shattering multiple school and conference records.
This past weekend, she lost to a man.
Iszac Henig is a trans man competing for Yale. Last weekend he beat Thomas head-to-head, setting a pool record at Penn in another race.
We have seen so much debate about Thomas’ inclusion in women’s swimming. Before medically transitioning, some of Thomas’ times would have set world records in women’s swimming; Transition has slowed her times, and some claim by not enough.
Yet last weekend — almost three years into her transition — Thomas lost in the 100-free to Henig, a trans man. And that sent some minds spinning.
If you’re not used to the nomenclature, a trans woman is someone assigned male at birth who identifies as a woman. Henig — a trans man — was assigned female at birth and identifies as a man.
Trans woman. Trans man.
Some people don’t want to use these terms. They believe that if they call someone a “trans woman,” then they are ceding the argument that those athletes can face different competition requirements from cisgender women (or, sadly, be banned entirely). They would rather use terms that many people find incendiary, further flaming the culture war.
Yet the people who have established these different rules were very open about their use of these terms. No, because you acknowledge a trans person is a woman, you don’t forfeit your ability to engage in the conversation or take the position you see fit. Frankly, you elevate it.
Still, what defines the women’s category in sports is in flux. Here we have an athlete — Thomas — assigned male at birth who identifies as a woman. She competes in the women’s category.
And with Henig we have an athlete assigned female at birth who identifies as a man. He also competes in the women’s category.
They are both challenging how we look at the binary system of sports.
They’re not the first ones. In addition to dozens of trans athletes before them, various women have done the same thing in football, including some Division I football players like Sarah Fuller, Katie Hnida and others. Some boys have earned the right to compete in girls sports like field hockey, when there isn’t a boys category.
Finding paths to inclusion for athletes of different genders has a rich history in sports.
In the meantime, while people on different sides of the conversation use incendiary language to make their point, the rest of us in the middle are looking to find a way to affirm athletes, give them a “fair” pool to swim in and advance opportunities in sports for as many people as possible.
For the most part, it seems the trans-inclusion policies of college sports have worked pretty well. We have seen few headlines of trans athletes upending sports. As Karleigh Webb and I chronicled, at least 27 publicly out trans athletes have competed across college sports in the last decade or so.
You’ve heard of virtually none of them.
Still, Thomas and Henig raise important questions about how we as a society define “women’s sports,” and what qualifications to compete should look like.
Should trans men be relegated only to men’s sports? Should we redefine entirely how we describe our binary system of sports? Create new tiers of sports?
The facts and information we have, frankly, continue to evolve. The season for Thomas and Henig won’t end until March, at the NCAA Championships — Their stories are still being written.
As some of the architects of the NCAA trans-inclusion policy have told me, if people come along who upset the apple cart, they’ll rethink their suggestions. When NCAA policy was written in 2011, it was based on the best-available information. Over the last decade, that information has changed, gotten more robust. By how much? We’ll see.
Until something changes, yes, a man is competing in women’s swimming.
In addition to him, Thomas will continue to compete in the pool for Penn as well.
By all accounts, they’re both playing by the currently written rules of women’s sports. And unless those NCAA rules change, a man like Henig and a woman like Thomas will both be there.