Why can’t we tell the truth about Lia Thomas?

Every linguistic concession we make to the trans movement, the harder it gets to defend women’s rights.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Feminism Identity Politics Sport

Lia Thomas, the swimmer who won a US women’s national college championship event last week, is a man. It is because he is a man – with a body that is taller, broader and stronger than his female competitors – that he won the NCAA competition. When swimming alongside other men, which Thomas used to do, he ranked an unremarkable 554th in the college league tables.

Without knowing that Thomas is a man, it is hard to understand why his victory has been so controversial and sparked headlines all around the world. It is impossible to comprehend the anger of champion swimmer Reka Gyorgy, denied a place in the freestyle final thanks to Thomas’s inclusion. A man prevented women competitors, including an Olympic medalist, from receiving the titles they had earned. His presence made the competition fundamentally unjust.

Yet the language used to describe Thomas’s victory makes it difficult to grasp the reality of what happened last week at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Everywhere, in almost every print and online publication, Thomas is referred to as ‘she’. We are told that ‘she’ stood on the podium to receive ‘her’ medal. The US National Women’s Law Center, tweeted in support of Thomas and branded critics ‘misogynists’. To the Guardian, Thomas is a ‘transgender woman’, while the BBC suggests Thomas is the ‘first known transgender athlete to win [the] NCAA swimming title’ (the implication being there may have been plenty of other transgender swimming champions, but we’ve just never heard of them).

This use of language is not just confusing – it is deliberately misleading. ‘She’ and ‘her’ are pronouns that are supposed to denote women. Statements like ‘she swam for the Pennsylvanian men’s team’, which appears in the BBC’s report, are illogical. Yet even most of those criticising Thomas, or the NCAA for allowing him to compete, use the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’. At best, clumsy labels refer to Thomas as ‘male-bodied’ and criticise the fact ‘she’ was allowed to compete alongside ‘female-bodied’ people, or ‘biological women’. But this suggests clarification is necessary, that the labels ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are no longer good enough descriptors on their own. Even the phrase ‘transgender woman’ is deceptive. When used in conjunction with ‘she’ and pitched against ‘cis’ women, it suggests there are two different but equivalent categories of womanhood – trans women and ‘biological’ women.

Playing fast and loose with language in this way, making it bend to match political objectives and social niceties, ends up distorting our perception of reality. If ‘she’ takes first place in a women’s event, nothing remarkable has occurred. Our capacity to push back and challenge the reality before our eyes – a man beating women – is then seriously thwarted.

It is for this reason that transgender activists are so obsessed with pronouns. It’s not just that transgender individuals want the recognition and positive affirmation that comes with being referred to as ‘she’ or ‘her’ (or ‘he’ or ‘him’). Far more importantly, campaigners recognise the role pronouns play in our language and broader culture: these tiny words convey a host of social expectations wrapped up in statements of biological fact. The practice of declaring pronouns is a way of getting everyone to acquiesce to the idea that biology is irrelevant and that it is our identity – what goes on in our heads – that is all important. Announcing pronouns warns us to assume nothing from the reality staring us in the face and instead to pay utmost respect to a person’s stated notion of who they are. No wonder activists are determined to normalise pronoun badges and email signatures.

Transgender activists have been successful in getting even many defenders of women’s sex-based rights to play along with the idea that we should call people by their preferred pronouns. Doing otherwise seems deliberately rude and unkind. We all want to be thought of as nice and polite, and no one wants to be labelled transphobic. Ironically, it is women – those who have most to lose from giving up single-sex spaces and sex-based rights – who are more likely to have been socialised into the importance of being ‘nice’ and who tend to pay a higher price for not conforming.

But acquiescing linguistically makes it more difficult for women to defend their rights. Once it is sown into our language that identity is more important than biology, it is hard to insist upon single-sex spaces. When we use ‘she’ and ‘her’ to refer to men, we are saying something that is linguistically nonsensical and scientifically untrue. We are lying to ourselves and others. This act of deception may seem kind, but it makes it far more difficult to challenge transgender ideology in practice – and so the erosion of women’s single-sex spaces and of women’s sports, and the treatment of children who are questioning their gender identity, continues.

It is wrong to describe Lia Thomas as ‘she’ and ‘her’. It makes it harder to name the injustice we see when he takes the top spot on the podium. It makes it harder to argue against male inclusion in female sports. Lia Thomas is a man. Pretending otherwise, even if just out of courtesy, makes it harder to say that this man should not be competing alongside women.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and the director of Cieo.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Feminism Identity Politics Sport


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