In recent years, transgenderism in sports has risen.
In the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Laurel Hubbard, born a biological male, competed in women’s weightlifting. Hubbard was eliminated in the first round, which could be one reason media attention didn’t focus on the athlete much. In contrast, transgender mixed martial arts fighter, Fallon Fox, unfairly dominated in the ring in 2014. Fox even fractured the skull of an opponent in a match.
For years, cultural commentators have predicted that sports will be a point of controversy in the movement for transgender rights since sports is a realm of competition based on objective results, and it’s something that many people are passionate about. Around 75 percent of American adults are either avid or casual fans of sports.
Collegiate swimmer Lia Thomas from the University of Pennsylvania has become the center of that predicted controversy. Thomas broke several women’s records in February 2022.
Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle in the Division I national championship on March 17, 2022, becoming the first transgender athlete to win a Division I championship of any sport.
Does it matter that she was born biologically male?
Who is Lia Thomas?
Thomas was born a biological male but started transitioning to become a female in 2019. Transitioning genders involves taking testosterone blockers and estrogen hormones to go through artificial puberty in addition to sex reassignment surgery.
Before transitioning, Thomas was nationally ranked #462 in the NCAA men’s official swimming competitions. After transitioning, Thomas jumped to #1 in the NCAA women’s category.
According to the New York Times, Thomas holds the national best in the women’s 500 freestyle with a time of 4:34.06 (though the time is still fifteen seconds worse than Thomas’ personal best from before the transition).
The NCAA previously required transgender athletes to have been on testosterone blockers for some time. Such athletes are medically tested to only have a certain amount of testosterone in their system near the time of competing. However, this measure doesn’t account for certain biological advantages (especially in swimming), like hand size, height, bone structure, lung capacity, and other factors.
Backlash and new state laws
Recently, however, the NCAA dropped this policy and allowed each sport to determine its own rules.
After the NCAA did this, USA Swimming released new rules for “elite” athletes, which lowered the amount of testosterone that can be in the person’s system and increased the time (thirty-six months) they must be on the suppressants before competing. It is dubious whether these measures will even the playing field enough. Aside from this, the NCAA ignored this ruling and allowed Thomas to compete.
After USA Swimming’s ruling, sixteen of Thomas’ teammates from Pennsylvania anonymously sent a letter to the university asking them not to challenge the stricter policy. The letter says, “When it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.”
After Thomas’ most recent win, previous Olympian swimmer Reka Gyorgy wrote an open letter to the NCAA that challenged their position, saying, “This is my last college meet ever and I feel frustrated. It feels like that final spot was taken away from me because of the NCAA’s decision. . . . it hurts me, my team and other women in the pool.”
A few protestors and counter-protestors gathered outside while the meet went on, and when Lia Thomas took the podium for the first place win, there were hardly any cheers (although no boos either.) Thomas did not place particularly well in the other categories.
Many, even the famous transgender Olympian Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner), have supported a fair playing field for athletics, even if it means some transgender athletes are barred from competing. According to Jenner, Thomas shouldn’t compete in swimming. In an interview, Jenner said, “We need to protect women’s sports and the NCAA needs to make the right decision.”
This controversy has brought additional attention to athletic fairness concerns that have led several states to act. South Dakota recently passed a law that prohibits transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem says that the law protects “fairness in women’s sports.” Ten other states have similar laws in place.
The scientific evidence, though currently scarce, preliminarily demonstrates the obvious: even after receiving estrogen and blocking testosterone, transgender athletes who’ve transitioned from male to female continue to hold a competitive, athletic edge.
How normalizing is a key to cultural acceptance
One of the most important steps in the fundamental shift in the culture means normalizing behavior or beliefs. Normalizing deviation from biblical sexuality took place during the sexual revolution in the ’60s and ’70s on a general level. This normalized sex with multiple partners, sex before marriage, and the objectification of women through abhorrent media like in Playboy, leading to a cultural acceptance of pornography.
This acceptance became mainstream through a trickle-down from influential people presenting it as though it were normal. This in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, we have kept up with the Kardashians. It happened that one family member of the Kardashians was Bruce Jenner, who transitioned to the transgender identity of Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner was subsequently shown on the front cover of Vanity Fair.
As Carl Trueman notes, human nature shifted to becoming pliable in the culture’s worldview through several important thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
According to modern culture’s worldview, there is no objective morality concerning sexuality; this, combined with the value of secular authenticity and new advances in medical technology, inevitably led to the acceptance of transgenderism.
Though only about 0.5 percent of the US population identifies as transgender, the fact that culture so radically accepts their claim to a formulated reality reveals something existential for the culture at large. And this sentiment is largely shared internationally. At least 179 LGBTQ athletes competed in the Summer Olympics in 2021.
A high school wrestler named Mack Beggs, who is now in college, switched from female to male and wrestled first in the women’s bracket and then in the male bracket later. In this instance, the athlete did well in the opposite bracket even though one would expect the switch from female to male to be a disadvantage. And in accordance with the necessity to normalize, Beggs is featured in a new Hulu documentary, Changing the Game.
This simply reveals that the issues are complicated. Certainly, our culture has made it the highest priority and value to accommodate individuals’ personal sexual desires and beliefs about their identity. How we engage and argue on the culture’s “turf,” so to speak, is an important way forward that we discuss frequently at Denison Forum, and Dr. Jim Denison addresses these issues in-depth in The Coming Tsunami.
Referring to sports can be helpful in showing the denial of reality that transgenderism takes.
Why was the letter from Thomas’ teammates anonymous?
At this point in time, with public figures leading the way, anything that appears to reject someone’s individual authentic expression tends to lead to vicious condemnation from the culture.
This is why the letter from Thomas’ sixteen teammates was anonymous. They recognize that any rejection of the culture’s understanding of inclusivity, or even the possibility of that rejection, could lead to the end of their swimming careers, their rejection in the workplace, or ostracization by other students.
As Dr. Jim Denison often points out, one of the main drivers of our cultural problems is a tragically misinformed view of authenticity. Ubiquitously, the articles used words like authentic to describe Thomas in reference to the difficult transition. Even the anonymous letter claimed to support Thomas’ transition and the right to live “authentically.” While our society is currently finding that meaning in the empty value of absolute “personal authenticity,” as believers, we ought to be authentically following something higher—Jesus.
The backlash and possibility of stricter regulation show that the culture is susceptible to changing its direction. Cultural descent is not an inevitable march.
Despite our culture’s current trajectory, there is hope. While debating the merits of something like transgenderism may be exhausting, and Christians may suffer persecution because of our position, we shouldn’t give up. We are the salt and the light in a desperate culture that is searching for meaning. This witness happens best at the individual level. If we can dedicate ourselves to Christ in our own lives, and work outward from there, then revival will come.
Christ didn’t give up on his followers, he didn’t give up on us, and he hasn’t given up on the souls in America. As long as God is working, we should be working alongside him.