Trans swimmers faced off in an Ivy League meet, and the results upended transphobic arguments against their participation

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Trans swimmers faced off in an Ivy League meet, and the results upended transphobic arguments against their participation
Lia Thomas (center) lines up alongside fellow Ivy League swimmers for a freestyle event.Hunter Martin/Getty Images
  • The University of Pennsylvania hosted a swim meet featuring two trans competitors on the women's side.
  • Yale's Iszac Henig and Penn's Lia Thomas faced off in a closely-watched 100-yard freestyle event.

Transgender athletes' participation in women's sports has been the hot-button issue of hot-button issues in recent years.

But for all of the arguments over whether it's fair for trans athletes to compete in women's sporting events, there are scant concrete examples available for either side to cite.

This weekend, an Ivy League swim meet received outsized attention for providing just that. Two trans swimmers — the University of Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas and Yale's Iszac Henig — faced off head-to-head, and the results challenged many transphobic talking points used to argue against their participation.

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Trans swimmers faced off in an Ivy League meet, and the results upended transphobic arguments against their participation
Thomas (center) prepares for a race.Hunter Martin/Getty Images

In a closely-watched 100-yard freestyle event, Henig — who identifies as a man but has not yet undertaken a hormonal transition — finished first and bested the next-fastest swimmer by more than one and a half seconds. But Thomas, who has been at the center of controversy in recent weeks for her perceived biological advantage, touched the wall 3.27 seconds after Henig to take sixth place in the race.

In other words, the notion that trans women will indubitably dominate any women's sporting event they compete in doesn't hold up. At least, it didn't in this instance.

Trans swimmers faced off in an Ivy League meet, and the results upended transphobic arguments against their participation
Thomas participates in an Ivy League swim meet.Hunter Martin/Getty Images

For the first three years of her college swimming career, Thomas competed for the Quakers' men's swimming team, according to SwimSwam. But after coming out as a trans woman, the Austin, Texas native spent two years transitioning and working with the NCAA and Ivy League to comply with rules that would allow her to compete in women's competitions.

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The NCAA requires trans women to complete at least "one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment" before competing in women's events, according to the association's policies for transgender participation. Though Thomas has fulfilled that prerequisite, many scrutinized her participation in women's events due to her recent dominance in the pool.

Just this week, the Ivy League needed to issue a statement of support for Thomas after calls for her exclusion from competition reached a fever pitch. In an Instagram post published January 7, the conference reiterated its "unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all student-athletes while condemning transphobia and discrimination in any form."

A post shared by The Ivy League (@ivyleague)

But on Saturday, Thomas struggled in her race against Henig. The Bulldogs junior freestyle and butterfly specialist is also trans, but unlike Thomas, he has not switched over to the competition that more closely aligns with his gender identity.

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Instead, Henig has chosen to continue competing with Yale's women's team — as he's done since arriving in New Haven in 2018. Though he's gotten top surgery, Henig's put off hormone treatment to comply with NCAA regulations.

But the delay has decidedly put him "in a weird position," as he wrote in The New York Times last June.

"As a student-athlete, coming out as a trans guy put me in a weird position," Henig wrote. "I could start hormones to align more with myself, or wait, transition socially, and keep competing on a women's swim team. I decided on the latter."

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A post shared by Iszac (@iszac.henig)

"I value my contributions to the team and recognize that my boyhood doesn't hinge on whether there's more or less testosterone running through my veins," he added. "At least, that's what I'll try to remember when I put on the women's swimsuit for competition and am reminded of a self I no longer feel attached to."

Despite the added challenge, Henig has done well for himself in the pool this year. In addition to his 100-yard freestyle victory over Thomas and others, Henig won the 50-yard free on Saturday and broke a 32-year pool record in the process.

And aside from her sixth-place finish, Thomas had a successful showing Saturday as well. On her Senior Day, Thomas won the 200-yard free by nearly two seconds and narrowly beat a teammate for first in the 500-yard free.

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