Feb 8, 2022

Trans swimmer Lia Thomas.

Trans swimmer Lia Thomas.

Her success has caused a stir.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 14 minutes.

We're covering Lia Thomas, the trans swimmer at Penn who is breaking records. We're giving this story some extra space today and skipping our reader question.

Swimmer Lia Thomas competing. Photo: JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP
Swimmer Lia Thomas competing. Photo: JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP

A shoutout.

As many of you know, Tangle doesn't run ads or have any investors. But we do have a few partners, and occasionally I like something so much I decide to plug it in the newsletter. Today is one of those days: My friend Jody Avirgan helped launch This Day In Esoteric Political History, a really fun podcast that goes long on unique days in American history.

A couple weeks ago, for example, they covered the time the U.S. almost accidentally nuked itself. Yeah, you can read that again. Anyway, if you're into history, which I know a lot of you are, give the podcast a shot! Jody and I are going to be shouting out each other's work this week and so I wanted to show him some love.

Quick hits.

  1. After mounting criticism, the IRS announced it was ending its plan to require facial ID in order to file taxes. (The decision)
  2. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama Republicans do not need to redraw a congressional map before the 2022 midterm elections. The map had been struck down by a lower court for diluting the influence of Black voters. (The ruling)
  3. President Biden warned Russia that if it invades Ukraine, the U.S. would "end" Russia's plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that sends natural gas to Germany. (The warning)
  4. Eric Lander, President Biden's science advisor, resigned yesterday after a report that he bullied colleagues. He became the first Cabinet-level official of this administration to resign or be let go. (The resignation)
  5. Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon have all announced plans to lift statewide, in-school mask mandates. New York is reportedly considering a similar move. (The end)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Lia Thomas. The University of Penn swimmer is a trans woman who is competing on the women's swim team. During her first three years at Penn, she swam on the men's team. Thomas was a successful swimmer in the men's division, finishing second in the men’s 500, 1,000 and 1,650 freestyle at the Ivy League championships as a sophomore in 2019. She took two years off of swimming to undergo hormone replacement therapy as part of her gender transition, and returned to swimming this year on the women's team.

While her times have fallen precipitously from her days swimming in the men's division, Thomas has had much more success on the women's side. She made headlines this season after winning the 200-yard free and 500-yard free races at a meet in December. Not only did she win, she shattered the Ivy League conference records, besting the 200 yard record by 3.22 seconds and the 500 meter record by 2.25 seconds, which is a huge margin in swimming (her 500 meter time in the women's division was more than 15 seconds slower than what she swam in men's). She also won a 1,650-yard freestyle race, setting meet, pool and Penn school records in that event and winning the race by 38 seconds.

In January, the NCAA released a new sport-by-sport policy for transgender athletes' participation. Each sport's governing body will now independently determine how to handle individual athletes. USA Swimming released a new policy last week that establishes clear criteria for trans athletes, including the use of a three-person panel of independent medical experts to determine if a swimmer's prior physical development as a man gives the athlete a competitive advantage. For trans women in the women's division, swimmers also must show a concentration level of testosterone in their blood below a certain threshold for at least 36 months before competing.

Last week, 16 of Thomas's teammates anonymously signed a letter asking the Penn and Ivy League officials not to fight the new NCAA rule that could potentially prohibit Thomas from competing in the NCAA Championships next month.

“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically,” the letter read. “However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity. Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female. If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women’s Swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.”

Her teammates said Thomas was taking “competitive opportunities” away from them, like the chance to compete in the National Championships. Not long after, another group of teammates signed a letter supporting Thomas's transition and her right to compete. “We want to express our full support for Lia in her transition,” those athletes said in a statement given to ESPN. “We value her as a person, teammate, and friend. The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values, and opinions of the entire Penn team, composed of 39 women with diverse backgrounds.”

While it's unclear if Thomas will be able to compete next month, it seems likely that she will. The new policies are being phased in over three stages, and the first stage only requires her to submit documentation to the NCAA's Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports showing that she has "completed at least one year of testosterone-suppression treatment and provide proof of a one-time serum testosterone level that falls below the maximum allowable level for the sport," according to The Washington Post. Phase 3, which won't begin until the 2023-2024 season but would prohibit her from competing, will require swimmers to meet the USA swimming standards.

The NCAA swimming championships are scheduled for March 16-19. Thomas has qualified for multiple events, and some onlookers think she could break records set by Olympic swimmers like Katie Ledecky, assuring more attention will be paid to this topic. Below, we're going to take a look at some commentary from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left supports more inclusive trans policies, though some worry about the impact on fairness in women's sports.
  • Some have said unequivocally that Thomas should be allowed to compete and transphobia is what is stopping her.
  • Others have accused the right of transphobic attacks, but encouraged more nuanced discussion about the path forward in athletics.

In Outsports, Karleigh Webb warned in December that an anti-trans panic is "coming to an Ivy League school."

"You’ve probably heard about some unwritten rules in sports. It seems when it comes to transgender people, certain commentators, pundits and twitter sports shock jocks have another one: Transgender women can play against cisgender women as long as the transgender woman always loses," Webb wrote. "Enough with the slurs and willful ignorance. Enough with selling the concept that 'trans women are just mediocre males who figured they’ll transition to win.' As I said earlier this year: Nobody transitions to win in sports. PERIOD... Enough with this 'it’s about fairness for women' and 'we wanna save women’s sports!' Really? ... Some of you johnny-come-lately wannabe right-wing shock jocks are the same people who put up the same weak jokes about the WNBA, NWSL, or any women’s sport that doesn’t conform to your views.

"Enough with calling trans women 'cheaters' after every win. Cheating denotes that a rule has been broken. If you are coming at Lia Thomas with the charge that she is a 'cheat', show me a rule she’s broken and quote it directly from the NCAA regulations," Webb said. "Enough with 'where’s the trans men succeeding in sports' argument. You all know how much of a deflection that is. Never mind that perhaps the most decorated transgender athlete in the world is a trans man: Chris Mosier gets more of your vitriol because he stands up in this issue [more] now than he got in competition ever... Like it or not, Lia Thomas will crouch in a starting block and hit the water flying for Penn from now through the conference and national championships."

In The Guardian, Sean Ingle said — at last — the debate is progressing to how we can fairly include trans athletes.

"Thomas’s surge to the top of the rankings also poses questions of the IOC and NCAA," Ingle wrote. "Remember the female category exists because the performance gap between elite men and elite women is so stark. It starts at around 10%-13% for running and swimming and rises thereafter. That is why most sports require trans women to suppress their testosterone to compete in the female category. Recent studies, though, suggest that significant strength and muscular advantages remain even after hormone therapy.

"Thomas’s performances appear to back that up," Ingle said. "Before transitioning, she was not a serious challenge to male records but is now swimming only 2.6% slower than the current 200-yard female record. It means, as the developmental biologist Dr. Emma Hilton points out, Thomas has gained a significant ranking advantage from switching category... Some will argue that sport is never truly fair, that Michael Phelps’s big wingspan gave him genetic advantages too. But male puberty provides such a categorical advantage – in terms of muscle mass, strength, lean body mass and bone density – that it far exceeds the advantage of a few centimetres in arm length. No magic bullet, no one-size-fits-all policy can satisfy all sides."

Penn professor Jonathan Zimmerman scorned critics of Thomas for transphobia, but also insisted that a complicated problem like this required reasonable conversation.

"Let’s be clear: Calling Lia Thomas a liar is transphobic. Transgender people face enormous prejudice and discrimination in our society. Why would they choose to subject themselves to such abuse unless they knew — in their bones, and in their hearts — that their gender did not accord with the sex assigned to them at birth? To suggest that they are pretending is itself a lie, and a terrible slur as well," Zimmerman said. "But it’s also unfair to call everyone who questions Thomas’ athletic achievements a 'transphobe.'

"The most cited study — showing that trans women runners were no more competitive running against women than against men — examined only eight runners," Zimmerman said. "There simply aren’t enough athletes who have come out as trans for researchers to know what kind of advantage it confers. But it is reasonable to ask whether Lia Thomas is getting one. She didn’t simply set new records at the recent meet; in the freestyle final, she finished 38 seconds ahead of the next-fastest swimmer. As sports journalist Joe Kinsey observed, this wasn’t just a victory; it was an annihilation."

What the right is saying.

  • The right says Thomas competing is unfair to other women she competes against.
  • They call for more stringent regulations for trans women competing in the women's division.
  • Some suggest the Penn swimmers should boycott races until the school takes action.

In Deseret News, Valerie Hudson said inclusivity cannot become a cover for discrimination against women.

"These teammates, who should have been protected by Title IX, were reduced to the status of what one writer called 'third class citizens.' The letter to UPenn from Thomas’ teammates speaks volumes," Hudson wrote. "'We have dedicated our lives to swimming. Most of us started the same time Lia did, as pre-teens. We have trained up to 20 hours a week, swimming miles, running and lifting weights. To be sidelined or beaten by someone competing with the strength, height, and lung capacity advantages that can only come with male puberty has been exceedingly difficult.'

"There are other issues with Thomas’ inclusion on the women’s team that should not go unremarked," Hudson added. "Teammates have felt uncomfortable viewing Thomas undressed in the locker room, especially as Thomas has maintained an attraction to women. While this is only tangential to the issue of fairness in competition, it is nevertheless a very real issue for the 25% of women who have been sexually abused in their youth by males. It’s also an issue for women who come from religious, or secular, backgrounds where such a situation is considered immoral or simply unwanted."

In The New York Post, Piers Morgan said trans athletes like Thomas are "destroying" women's sports.

"I want nothing but tolerance, fairness and equality for all transgender people. Nobody would go through such lengthy physical and emotional turmoil if they didn’t genuinely feel they were trapped in the wrong body and sexuality, so members of the trans community have my full support in their struggle both to be accepted and have equal rights to the rest of us," Morgan wrote. But, he said, "that shouldn’t entitle those born with male biological bodies to create a new unfairness and inequality by competing in sport against women born female.

"The competitive advantage that trans swimmers like Lia Thomas have due to their biology is as unfair as cheating with performance-enhancing drugs," he added. "That doesn’t mean she’s a cheat. I don’t blame Thomas for this situation, and she should be able to compete as a swimmer. In my view, either against biological men as she did before, or in a new category against other trans women. But as [Michael] Phelps rightly said, three times, sport HAS to be on a level playing field and currently, in the sport he loves, it’s not. We all know this, yet the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) continues to tiptoe around the issue, just announcing that trans athletes can carry on competing in women’s sport and will only have to document testosterone levels required by their relevant discipline."

In The Washington Examiner, Kaylee McGhee White said Penn's swimmers should boycott competitions that include Thomas.

"Of course, this would require courage — and lots of it. The school could retaliate and revoke athletic scholarships, and individual swimmers might lose opportunities to swim professionally if they don’t compete. There would also be immense backlash from the Left, which seeks to punish anyone who challenges transgender orthodoxy.

"But what’s the alternative?" she asked. "If women don’t begin to stand up to this radicalism now, while it’s still in its infancy, women’s sports as we know them will be gone for good. There will be a Thomas on every single high school and college and professional female sports team in the country — and think of how many girls will have lost athletic opportunities as a result. This isn’t just about Penn’s swim team or its records. This is about equality and the female identity, and whether we’ll let both be trampled just because a militant sect believes 'progress' demands it."

My take.

Let me just start by saying that nobody’s going to find a satisfying solution in the following paragraphs. I know that — for some people — this topic is as simple as, "Lia Thomas should not be allowed to compete in the women's division" or "Lia Thomas should be allowed to compete wherever she wants," but it's not that simple to me. And, frankly, it doesn't seem that simple even to the people who are closest to this issue.

Even Thomas's own teammates clearly don't agree on what should happen here. Look no further than the volley of anonymous letters to understand the divide on the Penn swimming team and the third rail nature of this topic (hence none of the athletes feeling comfortable putting their names on their position). Andie Taylor, a trans woman and competitive long-distance runner, has spoken openly in The New York Times about her fears that she has an unfair advantage over her competition, and how difficult it is to know what's right with so few trans athletes to study.

Thomas herself hasn't even told her "side" of the story yet, refusing nearly all interview requests and pledging to tell her story only to one outlet: Sports Illustrated. Not having the main character's point of view in a piece like this makes it exceedingly difficult to view it holistically.

Even more interesting is that the left has, in many ways, created a vacuum of commentary on Thomas's story. The writers at Outsports.com panned this reality, calling the LGBTQ community "largely silent" on the issue, instead leaving it to right-wing firebrands like Clay Travis to dominate the conversation. The sports writer Ethan Strauss thoroughly documented how ESPN and left-leaning outlets have studiously avoided the story, and I too found it much easier to come across right-wing commentary than left-wing commentary on Thomas during my research for this piece.

While many people presume the competition side of this is simple — “men are bigger and stronger than women” — it's really not as black and white as it seems in sports. Perhaps the best anecdote for how complex the competition question actually is came in the pool, quietly, in a race Thomas swam in early January.

Thomas raced against Iszac Henig, a trans male swimmer at Yale competing on the women's team, and lost. Henig, assigned female at birth, has decided to continue competing in the women's division despite transitioning socially to a man, and in order to do so has chosen not to receive gender-affirming hormones (i.e. testosterone). So the assigned-female-at-birth and taking no testosterone trans male swimmer beat the assigned-male-at-birth and taking estrogen and testosterone blockers trans female swimmer in a historic 100-meter race that pitted two collegiate trans swimmers against each other.

How's that for nuance?

Other things are simpler, though. Lia Thomas is not a cheater. She is competing completely within the bounds of the NCAA rules, and your gripe with her career — if you have one — should be with the NCAA and USA Swimming, not with her. It's also absurd to suggest Thomas transitioned in order to dominate in women's sports, as some people have. No trans person is inviting the social, physical and emotional tolls of gender transitioning just to win an Ivy League swimming championship. Full stop. Suggesting otherwise makes you look ignorant and invites the obvious observation that you’ve probably never met a trans person.

With all this being said, I actually give the NCAA kudos for its latest policy. Leaving the issue up to the governing bodies of individual sports is smart — akin to the federal government not trying to impose a single rule for every state when the defining characteristics of how to address the issue vary widely across those states. The World Rugby sports association has banned trans women from elite women's competition as a safety measure — an effort to avoid catastrophic injury for its assigned female at birth competitors. I think there are better policy options than an outright ban, but I think it is perfectly logical that the requirements to compete as a trans woman in a contact sport like rugby probably shouldn't be the same as those to compete in, say, swimming.

Given that every sport is different, we will also run into trans men who may have an upper hand due to the biological advantages of going through puberty as a female (something like increased flexibility comes to mind). As the trans writer Karleigh Webb pointed out, the most prolific trans athlete on the planet is still Chris Mosier, a triathlete and trans man who became the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic trials in any sport in a category different than their sex assigned at birth.

The NCAA's new policy allows USA Swimming policy to include baseline science (testosterone levels) and some level of science-based subjectivity (a panel of medical experts to evaluate individual athletes). Some have criticized the policy because the allowable testosterone levels are still twice as high as the high end for typical females, which opponents have argued could encourage female athletes to start doping. Even so, the new rules seem to allow sport-by-sport criteria, embrace scientific guardrails, and also invite panels of experts to help flesh out the gray area. That's a win in my book.

As for Thomas, I truly feel torn about what should happen. My social inclination is one of unabashed trans inclusivity, and I've been outspoken about anti-trans legislation across the country. But in the arena of sports, and specifically this situation, it's hard to ignore the plain concerns from the other women on the Penn Swimming team and the unambiguous performance gaps. I know what it’s like to train as an athlete for years on end all for fleeting moments of glory, and I sympathize with the unfairness of this situation for the Ivy League swimmers working just as hard as Thomas but feeling like they are up against an insurmountable challenge.

Some opponents of total trans inclusivity have suggested a separate category exclusively preserved for assigned female at birth athletes, and an "open" category for men, women and trans athletes. Others have floated the ideas of athletes like Thomas competing with certain handicaps (like a late jump out of the blocks). These, like the system we have now, feel close-to-fair but also incomplete.

What I want, as many people do, is a policy that allows Thomas to compete in a gender affirming division without the hatred and scores of protesters showing up for her meets, that also provides a fair set of competitive standards to the other women in the division. It's possible that the USA Swimming’s new guidance will do that, but now the sport is left figuring out what to do before that guidance snaps into place. It's also possible — perhaps even likely — that there isn't a clean solution that both provides Thomas the space to compete as she wants to and gives her teammates the sense that they are being treated fairly.

That reality, however uncomfortable, is one we’re going to have to navigate going forward. And we’ll do ourselves a favor if we navigate it with grace, empathy and open ears.

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Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question to give our main story some extra space. Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

Americans are still woefully divided on Covid-19, though the split is now breaking in new ways. According to a new Axios-Ipsos poll, one in three Americans is expecting to catch Covid in the next month, and only one in 10 think it will be eradicated by this time next year. The country is split in almost precise quarters on how to proceed: 21% suggest "open up and get back to life as usual with no mandates or requirements." 29% suggest "move towards opening up, with precautions." 23% suggest "mostly keep precautions and requirements in place." 21% suggest "increase mask mandates and vaccine requirements." As Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson put it, "There's nothing approaching a consensus on what we should be doing to move forward, which underlies the difficulty for policymakers." Axios has the story.


  • 66%. The percentage of Americans who favor allowing openly transgender men and women to serve in the U.S. military.
  • 62%. The percentage of Americans who say trans athletes should only be allowed to play on sports teams that correspond to their birth gender.
  • 34%. The percentage of Americans who say trans athletes should be allowed to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity.
  • 55%. The percentage of Democrats who say trans athletes should be allowed to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity.
  • 10%. The percentage of Republicans who say trans athletes should be allowed to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity.
  • 33%. The percentage of independents who say trans athletes should be allowed to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity.

Have a nice day.

Swiss researchers have successfully enabled a man with a severed spinal cord to walk freely after giving him an implant. It is the first time someone who completely severed their spinal cord has been able to walk again. Michael Roccati was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident five years ago that left him with no feeling in his legs. But now, with the electrical implant surgically attached to his spine, he is walking again. Researchers cautioned that this isn't a "cure for spinal injury" and it is too complicated of a technology to be used in everyday life (yet), but it is a major step toward improving quality of life for some people with spinal cord injuries. BBC has the story.

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