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.