If a single image could sum up Lia Thomas’s victory in the 500-yard freestyle event at the NCAA swimming championships last week, it would be that of Thomas and the runners-up taken right after they were awarded their medals. Behind a sign with the number “1” on it stands Thomas, who seems barely able to conceal embarrassment at what is undoubtedly an awkward situation. To the right, noticeably keeping their distance and a full head or two shorter, are the runners-up. Their smiles seem no less awkward.
The scene resembles an eerie propaganda video, in which a jubilant dictator can be seen waving at fawning crowds who know their lives depend on making it all look authentic. Thomas’s competitors will not face firing squads should they choose to complain, but they will almost certainly face a social media pile-on (assuming that Twitter doesn’t preemptively suspend them for suggesting that transgender women are not biological women). Their names and reputations will be dragged through the mud, their career prospects destroyed or severely curtailed, and their place on the college swim team—and, with it, their scholarships—jeopardized. A teammate of Thomas’s who criticized her participation in women’s sports told a U.K. newspaper that she would speak only on condition of anonymity, for she was concerned that future employers might Google her name and deem her “transphobic.” Meantime, those who support Thomas’s participation in women’s sports speak their minds freely and without fear of repercussions. What was that about transgender people being powerless?
Thomas, argue her defenders, is both a woman like any other but also a transgender trailblazer. Only in the minds of ideologues for whom reason and logic are oppressive social constructs can these two claims peacefully coexist. If gender identity alone is what makes one a woman, and Thomas has a female gender identity, then her transgender status is simply irrelevant to her achievement. Indeed, it doesn’t technically exist. Many transgender people prefer not to be recognized as trans at all, as this qualifies their self-identification as “real” men or women. “They hate, and I mean hate, the word trans,” reports trans activist and child psychologist Diane Ehrensaft. And how could it be otherwise?
The Human Rights Campaign warns that “contrasting transgender people with ‘real’ or ‘biological’ men and women is a false comparison” that “can contribute to the inaccurate perception that transgender people are being deceptive or less than equal, when, in fact, they are being authentic and courageous.” This is a strawman wrapped in a non sequitur. Critics of gender self-identification do not argue that people like Thomas are “being deceptive,” but rather that they are themselves deceived. HRC’s use of “authentic” here really means “sincere”: transgender women are being sincere, not deceptive, when they say they have a strong inner sense of being a woman. But that sincerity is irrelevant unless one first assumes that what makes a belief true is the fact that it is sincerely held, rather than its correspondence to objective reality. Who, apart from academic postmodernists, believes such a thing? Surely not those who display signs insisting that “science is real” on their front lawns.
This question-begging contrast of biological reality with “authenticity” and “courage” appeals to the therapeutic ethos, that powerful current in American culture. Elite support for transgenderism was never rooted in philosophical arguments about human sex differences or new discoveries in the human sciences. It derives from a narrative that stresses the harm to a person’s mental health if that person’s gender self-identification is not “affirmed.” The claim that only affirming someone’s internal sense of gender can release her of her agony has been subjected to serious and sustained criticism, but activists continue to tout it as gospel, and America’s power brokers seem unable or unwilling to resist it.
The sudden prominence of transgenderism in the West owes in large part to compassion having become unmoored from reason, and to ethics having been reduced to compassion. The proliferation on college campuses of mental health bureaucracies is one the more visible aspects of the rise of the “therapeutic state.” When the parents of female University of Pennsylvania swimmers wrote a letter to the university complaining about Thomas being allowed to swim on the women’s team, the university responded with a brief note reiterating its commitment to “inclusion” and providing a link to campus mental health services.
Even in sports, an activity divided by male and female only because of physical distinctions between the sexes, the therapeutic ethos comes first. Proponents of allowing trans women to compete in women’s sports have argued that they should be included not necessarily because they really are female but because excluding them would be detrimental to their mental health. The Women’s Sports Foundation, which has committed itself to that position, recently proclaimed that the “most valuable aspects of sport participation” are not to compete but “to instill health and wellness; to build camaraderie and belonging; [and] to learn discipline and leadership.” In response to the Lia Thomas controversy, WSF tweeted: “We need to create sport environments that allow athletes to be their authentic selves.”
Such statements miss the fundamental purpose of sports. Sports do not exist to promote self-esteem but to showcase human striving, physical achievement, and beauty. For decades, WSF aggressively lobbied policymakers to increase funding and opportunities for female varsity sports, even though this effort came at the expense of money for academic resources and scholarships for gifted students and contributed to the decline of intellectual rigor in the classroom. At the heart of WSF’s case was the idea that women, taught from a young age to be cooperative and to put others first, were being held back. The organization’s emphasis on high-octane varsity sports as a measure of “equal opportunity” was calculated to break down “stereotypes” about female docility. In time, this became the official justification that courts gave for overriding the discretion of university administrators in regard to how they should allocate scarce resources. WSF’s recent flip-flop—from promoting competitive aggression to defending women’s sports as an engine of “inclusion” and compassion—is therefore ironic.
But WSF’s new understanding of the fundamental purpose of women’s sports is both misguided and demeaning. The idea that sports should promote self-confidence, self-discipline, and physical health over personal achievement and record-setting is a good one to teach to children; when applied to the world of adults engaged in such Olympic-qualifying events as the NCAA swimming championships, it is infantilizing. Try telling Katie Ledecky that Stanford University granted her use of its pool primarily in order to guarantee her “mental health.”
And politically, the insistence that trans women must be included in women’s sports is a losing proposition for progressives. A 2021 poll found a majority (53 percent) of voters in support of banning transgender women from women’s sports, with only 32 percent opposed to such measures and 16 percent unsure. The gap is wider among Republicans (74–15) than among independents (49–33), but even among Democrats only a bare majority (42–40) favor letting athletes compete based on their subjective sense of gender. Of course, for trans activists, the lack of popular support for trans-inclusive policies only inflames the sense that gender self-identification is a genuine civil rights issue, one best dealt with by unaccountable judges and invisible bureaucrats, like the acting deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Roughly three dozen bills that would ban trans women’s participation in women’s sports are currently wending their way through state legislatures. If they are passed, courts will almost certainly strike them down as unconstitutionally broad. These legal battles might eventually make their way to the Supreme Court, where their fate would be anyone’s guess. During Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing, Senator Marsha Blackburn asked the Biden nominee if she could define what a woman is. “No, I can’t,” the nominee responded. “Not in this context. I’m not a biologist.”
Understanding why courts have sided with transgender activists against science and common sense requires an appreciation of a key feature of the judicial process. Social policy decisions generally require balancing competing, though legitimate, ends and carefully weighing trade-offs. Lawsuits, by contrast, are zero-sum events with clear winners and losers. When a lawsuit may have important precedential value, reform-minded lawyers will typically go hunting for the perfect plaintiff: someone whose circumstances will make victory more likely precisely because those circumstances do not fully capture the complexities of the broader controversy. In this case, a lawyer who wants to get a judge to strike down an athletic ban on trans athletes will seek out a male-to-female athlete who is not dominating women’s sports. Because judges enter the policy process only in response to plaintiffs who bring suit, political scientists have argued, they are far more likely than legislators and bureaucrats to think about public policy through the lens of extreme and unrepresentative cases.
This explains why Republican lawmakers have made life easy for the ACLU when litigating cases on behalf of trans athletes. Last year, the ACLU got the District Court for the District of Idaho to block that state’s ban on trans women in women’s sports. It had only to find a plaintiff who, unlike Lia Thomas, did not dominate in the female category, and to convince the judge that at least some trans women do not enjoy unfair advantage over at least some biological women. Fear of defeat in court is one of the reasons Indiana governor Eric Holcomb, a Republican, gave this week for his decision to veto a trans women sports ban in his state. Utah governor Spencer Cox, another Republican, who issued a similar veto, also raised concerns about “lengthy and very expensive lawsuits” that will not serve the noble goal of protecting women’s sports. They have a point.
Meantime, Lia Thomas herself seems to have imbibed the new narrative surrounding what women’s sports are really all about. In an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated, Thomas claimed to be unconcerned with winning or setting records. She wanted merely to swim—and to set an example. “I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone,” she said. “They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.” One of Thomas’s teammates told the Washington Examiner—anonymously, of course—that Thomas has compared herself to Jackie Robinson. Thomas’s belief that she is a civil rights hero is probably sincere, or, to use the Human Rights Campaign’s preferred language, “authentic and courageous.” Whether it is true, however, is another story.
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