Donna de Varona: Transgender Swimming Dialogue Must Continue – ‘It’s Complicated and People Don’t Like Complicated’

Donna de Varona
Photo Courtesy: YouTube/USOC

Donna de Varona: Transgender Swimming Dialogue Must Continue – ‘It’s Complicated and People Don’t Like Complicated’

Donna de Varona competed in the pool when gender equality was far from becoming a reality.

After years of advocating for women in sports and backing the landmark Title IX policy, the Olympic gold medalist continues her fight for women’s equality today.

The fight looks a little different this year and it involves transgender swimmer Lia Thomas at Penn. Thomas is a woman who has followed all of the NCAA rules and protocols with her transition, but it has left many wondering whether her competing with women a little more than a year after being part of the men’s team is fair to women’s sports.

That is especially true of the generations of swimmers who grew up fighting — and continue to fight — for gender equality within the sport and society, like de Varona.

“My personal feeling is that this isn’t about Lia as it is about not doing due diligence as to the impact any policy would have on this situation where biological males mitigate and want to enter the women’s sports category,” de Varona told Swimming World. “Those of us who fought for Title IX, it has been a war for a long time. We had to research and prove our point that we deserved to have an equal opportunity, not just to compete but to learn so many valuable tools from the foundation sports provides us. All of those role models have happened because of this law.”

That research and dialogue is what is needed to come up with solutions to this situation, de Varona said. The dialogues need to be led by groups like the NCAA, USA Swimming, the IOC and FINA.

“FINA has to look at this and deal with it now. We should all be working together. We are the pioneers of the sport and we have worked on Title IX, SafeSport, Civil Rights. We have been very protective of young athletes because it is the adults in the room who have to make these decisions. You have to see how this will impact the sport from the grassroots to the Olympics. Our motivation as pioneering athletes who fought through Title IX and lived through drug-fused dominance, needed to step in and open up the dialogue. There wasn’t a dialogue. It has begun and that is the most important thing,” she said. “That is why it is unfortunate that those who push for the NCAA policy did not do their due diligence to protect Lia, who has followed the guidelines that the NCAA has provided and is now part of a controversy. The adults in the room making decisions had to do more.

“So what is the answer? It is complicated and people don’t want complicated.”

Complicated because the issue affects different sports in different ways. Complicated because every individual is different. Complicated because organizations want to be fair to all athletes.

“One rule doesn’t accommodate everybody. That is why the IOC punted on their ruling. The IOC realized one size doesn’t fit all,” de Varona said. “Testosterone can’t be the only measure. There are so many other things to consider.”

Donna de Varona joined the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, along with former swimmer Nancy Hogshead Makar  and athletes like tennis legend Martina Navratilova. The group was opposed to President Joe Biden’s executive order giving blanket inclusion for all transgender female athletes.

One thing de Varona wanted to make perfectly clear was that she and the group were not opposed to inclusion, just that any blanket policy would not end up being fair and inclusive to all parties. Just like she is not opposed to Thomas being transgender or even being a swimmer, especially since she has followed all of the rules. It is about working to find the correct rules, she said, which takes time.

“It depends on the sport,” de Varona said. “A sport like equestrian, it doesn’t matter the same way. Head to head competition (in swimming) with two years’ mitigation is not enough. It depends on when you started. If you competed as a male into your 20s, can you ever really mitigate your body? Two years is not enough. Has anyone asked those questions? Did anyone prepare (Thomas) for what was going to happen? What are the values you learn from sport? Fairness. Team play. Opportunity. I don’t think Lia has had a good experience. I think it has been a very difficult road. Have we been fair to her?”

Part of that was the quick reaction of people across social media.

“It became so politicized. What you saw was anti-transgender (accusations), which is not what we are saying … our group has been supported by transgender athletes Renee Richards and Caitlyn Jenner) … Lia happened to be the lighting rod for the issue (in swimming),” de Varona said. “We have to protect people like Lia. I am not for demonizing Lia or her coach. They abided by the rules. NCAA has to speak up. USA Swimming has to speak up. FINA has to speak up. We have seen track and field try to find a solution. The voices are going to get louder and we have to find solutions.

“Title IX says you can’t discriminate because of sex but it doesn’t say anything about gender identification. That doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to accommodate transgender student athletes. To see a swimming official resign after all of her hard work because she didn’t want to have the dialogue is sad. We need to wake up. It would be nice to see swimming as a leader in this issue. Some people want all or nothing and that is unfortunate for people looking for the middle way.”

54 comments

  1. avatar
    Fairness Must Matter

    It’s complicated only because people are scared to speak up, the trans lobby is somehow more powerful than women, and we can’t seem to get past men vs women. It really shouldn’t be complicated. Physical advantages aren’t the only thing to consider – they are THE most important thing for making actual competition fair – but we must ALSO consider access and representation. Women (females) participate and have access to far less than men (males) when it comes to sports as a whole and that includes sports like equestrian, etc. Are we as women really available to be carved and niched apart? Can we not just advocate for another group or on behalf of another group separate from ourselves? We had to fight and advocate at every single level for every single thing and so did other less represented groups like para. Why do women have to be the only ones sidelined? It’s exhausting to think of the battle ahead and to have to make the case that our sex actually has significant impact on our lives again, we still do not get equal shots in this world that we share equally, and, no, men and transwomen, cannot share that burden simply by saying they are one of us.

    • avatar
      Fairness Must Matter

      I meant to say that we don’t seem to be able to get past the fact that what exists is only men or women, not men vs women.. it used to be only men. Now it’s men, women and para. Can’t we be creative about another group too? Why is it that women are the only sacrificial sex? I hate that we are the only ones on the chopping block when it comes to trans inclusion. It speaks volumes to how much we matter and there are ways to celebrate and include people who are different. The whole point of women’s rights has been learning to celebrate something different than regular men and it’s helped countless other marginalized groups to learn that lesson.

      • avatar
        Curious

        I’m curious to see if/how nonbinary kids will factor into this discussion in the future. Will there eventually be a push for a third nonbinary category? Could the girls who were AMAB compete in such a category as they transition, unless and until they meet whatever regulations are set forth by FINA/NCAA/USA Swimming? Is that part of the conversation yet?

      • avatar
        Lee

        I agree. Lia is not a woman and should not be in women’s sports. He is not going to remove his Male genitals. Or do add breasts or do facial feminization but will participate in women’s sports win gold medals, receive endorsements and make millions and walk away rich and then move somewhere else out of the limelight, remain aman and get married to a woman and when someone finds him, years later he will admit it was a mistake and only did it for the money and will do interviews to salvage his reputation but it will be too late, the damage has been done. He is not really trans just looking for a major paycheck and he knew he would not be able to make the money as a man.

      • avatar
        Steph is dumb

        Trans is a mental disorder, not a gender. This isn’t complicated.

    • avatar
      D.B.

      For the love of God. Get that boy out of the pool with those girls. It’s not complicated at all. The NCAA has officially ruined a season for all the ladies.

      • avatar
        lily vk

        Yes, you are absolutely right, because in USA swimming -when swimmers have any kind of competitions, they have to show their birth certificates at registration desk before complete those races. In his case, he is still a man in his birth certificate!

  2. avatar
    Mom

    Males are males. Females are female. Lia is male.
    This is only complicated if you don’t believe biology matters.

    How should Lia have been prepared? Would sitting him down and saying, “Look, there are a lot of women -including your own teammates- that are going to be pissed when the top ranked NCAA women’s swimmer has a penis”, really have made a difference?

    And if Lia has been treated unfairly (I guess being ranked #1 in women’s swimming is unfair treatment), what about her teammates? Does anybody care about protecting them? Both Penn and the coach haven’t been acting in their interests.

    • avatar
      Angela Miller

      No transgender woman should be playing in a woman s sport period, it 100% not fair no matter how you cut the pie. It need to be stopped immediately.

    • avatar
      Andy

      Nailed it.

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      It’s the parents fault for raising Lia as a boy (male) for the simple fact he was born with a penis! What a shame

  3. avatar
    Steph

    It’s not that complicated. We just have to look at the data that already exists. 45 years of data from the US Open. 17 years of data from the Olympics. And 12 years of data from NCAA Division 1 competitions. Add those up? That’s 74 years of data and during that time zero championships by trans women. Transwomen are no threat to cisgender women in sports. At some point a trans woman should win a championship. When that actually happens, I imagine the sky will be falling for these people that keep complaining with no data to back them up. So let’s call this what it is …. attempts at discrimination.

    • avatar
      Veritas

      We discriminate all of the time. A common example is discriminating on the basis of age, not only for athletic competition, but also for deciding whether you are old enough, or too old, to drive, vote, buy property, join the military or work as a first responder. All of this discrimination is quite rational and therefore very common.

      You want to discriminate too, but you want to discriminate based upon how people feel rather than their innate biology. Discrimination by biological sex is rational.

      And this isn’t just about who wins. It’s extremely unusual that an athlete as good as Will Thomas transitions. The much bigger impact will be on teams that have to cut swimmers, either because of pool limitations or size limits for championship meets. Lia Thomas will be taking a spot from a real woman on Penn’s Ivy League championship team.

      And, finally, there is that little bit about whether we are going to have co-ed locker rooms and showers. High school girls and boys should not be changing and showering together. If you let boys claiming to be girls into the girls’ locker rooms, then you are going to lose a lot of high school and age group girls’ swimmers.

      • avatar
        Sit Down

        “Discrimination is a good thing, actually” is not the clever retort you think it is

      • avatar
        Mrs. T

        So define what a real woman is.

    • avatar
      Mom

      There’s no such thing as cisgender women. There are only women. “Transwomen” are not women. As such, they should not win competitions for women. No data analysis required.

      However, if you were to do a scientific data study based on years of transgender competition, I would expect something more rigorous than what you have presented. I would expect athlete names, age at transitioning, the years spent competing in both women’s and men’s categories, and the athlete’s actual performance in each category by year. Hormone levels year by year would be great, too.

      The only discrimination occurring here is by transgender individuals against women.

      • avatar
        Mrs. T

        Explain to me how you are different from me as a Transwoman. What makes you a woman vs me.

    • avatar
      Fairness to Women & Sports

      No attempt at discrimination whatsoever! Lia swam as a MAN on the men’s swim team for 3 years. Getting beaten by biological men while you are a BIOLOGICAL MAN happens all the time- look at those who swam against Caleb Dressler. However, it’s not fair for those SAME men to compete against women because their feelings are hurt and they need a participation trophy. The only way to solve this situation is to create a category for transgender. There would be no need to force hormonal ingestion or red-shirt for only a year. If they are proud to be a transgender and their intentions are honorable- CREATE A TRANSGENDER MALE AND FEMALE CATEGORY TO SAVE WOMEN’S SPORTS!!

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      You’re dimented

      • avatar
        MikeR

        And you can’t spell…

    • avatar
      Ann Hyatt

      Amen!!!!!

    • avatar
      Scott Treser

      What a ridiculous measure.
      It’s not about finishing 1st or 2nd it’s about competing fairly. That’s the whole beauty of fair sporting events… the battle between two sides that are equal. Transgender is not equal.

  4. avatar
    Veritas

    No, it’s not complicated at all. Women have XX chromosomes and ovaries, but men have XY chromosomes and testicles. So, two divisions based on biological sex. If a woman doesn’t want to compete with women and wants to compete with men, fine, let her. But, men don’t compete against women unless it’s an open competition like you might sometimes find in open water. And high school boys a girls definitely use separate locker rooms and showers based on biological sex.

    • avatar
      Mrs. T

      I always love it when someone brings up the Chromosome issue. It proves that they have zero idea what they are talking about.

      • avatar
        Marusha

        Please enlighten us on the “chromosome issue”.

      • avatar
        A Real Lesbian

        You mean like you, SIR??

  5. avatar
    David Abineri

    I put the blame for this problem on the governing bodies of swimming. FINA did little research or encouraged discussions on the ‘rubber’ suits. Now the NCAA seems to have made up a rule with little consideration for the sport that they govern. All these bodies seem to recommend inclusion in the sport so it seems to me that the only solution is to create TRANS events as has been done with PARA events.

  6. avatar
    Terry Watts

    There was a time when people worried about their favorite sport being corrupted. About the physical differences. About the unfairness. And about how separation should and must be allowed in order to protect the sanctity of the sport.

    Then Jackie Robinson changed everything.

    • avatar
      Reason

      Jackie Robinson wasn’t trying to play in the womens’ league.

  7. avatar
    Dan Slick

    I’m glad for Lia Thomas just for the debate she has started, though I wish more for a conversation. But I expect those are happening too, I just don’t see it much on forums like this.
    Tom Brady last week said the most valuable thing we get from our participation in sport are the friendships we form and develop. I expect Lia has gained and lost some. But it is hard to be lightning rod, you get used.

  8. avatar
    Carl Jung

    This is very simple really…just because someone purposely adjusts their hormone levels does not make you a male or female. Lia is clearly a man (albeit one with low testosterone) – he likely still has a penis and testicle. Although he may identify as a female and reach certain hormone levels that are more consistent with females. This does not make him an authentic female. Although it’s unfortunate- the ability to change one’s sex that you are born with is simply not possible. Lia can have her penis and testicle removed and have a vagina created. But she will still be a man. Nature has created males and females differently and that’s just reality.
    So to answer the question: should Lia be able to compete against females…unfortunately the answer is clearly “no” as she is in reality a man.

    • avatar
      Mrs. T

      So just what is an “authentic female”? Care to explain?

      • avatar
        J

        Yeah I like at explanation of that as well. Also I’d like to know what your medical expertise, hey how you should be able to determine who somebody sex is.

      • avatar
        A Real Lesbian

        Not you, see how simple that was?

      • avatar
        Steph is dumb

        You are not an authentic female. You are a guy.

  9. avatar
    douglas gray

    Lia Thomas is not a woman. He is a big strong guy who took some female hormones for a year. You don’t have to be a medical expert to tell a milk cow from a bull.

  10. avatar
    Nancy Fox

    Identities don’t play sports, bodies do. Any transwoman who has gone through puberty will have physical advantages that are not erased by hormone therapy or testosterone suppression. It’s not a level playing field. Even the required level of suppressed testosterone is still TWO to FIVE times the normal level of a biological female. Women fought hard for Title IX, which will be rendered useless if this is allowed to continue. Note that this will never affect men’s sports. Hmm. Why not set up a category for trans or an “open” category?

  11. avatar
    Minerva

    It’s not complicated. Lia is a man. Full stop. He can’t “become” a woman. That ship sailed when the sperm met the ova that grew into Lia (or Will as he was named). His DNA determined he would be male & there us no changing his sex. He can don & different sexist gender stereotypes as much as he pleases. Sports are categorized by SEX not the identity you choose this week.

    And do not doubt that men with this fetish will change “gender identities” as it benefits them. Eddie Izzard is one famous example – he switches to “boy mode” to earn money. Several former inmates, once released from Women’s prisons ** turn back into men. Funny how conveniently that works out for them?

    In the meantime they cheat women out of championships, jobs, safety. All to serve themselves at the expense if women & girls.

    No men in women’s sports!

  12. avatar
    Anonymous

    Where is the NCAA in all of this? Are leaders in the swim world like Donna and Nancy reaching out to the NCAA officials and it just isn’t being reported?

    This issue has been in the chatter for months, who is pressuring the NCAA to do something about the guidelines?

    • avatar
      Veritas

      Lia Thomas is following the NCAA guidelines by competing against women. So, basically, the NCAA is supporting this.

  13. avatar
    Joe

    Is Donna a tranny too??? Sure makes sense and she’s looking rather Caitlyn Jenner like… Eeeeeeeew.

  14. avatar
    Mrs. Fields

    Ya science is so like old news, who cares about reality Mrs. T

  15. avatar
    Paula

    As a transgender woman, and former pretty good male athlete, I can say that a total loss of testosterone really does take its toll on athletic performance. However, I find that I still retain many physical advantages. I am at a complete disadvantage competing against biological male athletes, and I still retain advantages in many sports over biologically female athletes. Perhaps the way forward is to develop a handicapping system? If I, or any other MTF athlete who has testosterone levels below a certain level want to compete in an individual woman’s sport, time would be added onto the recorded time for purposes of placement. Similar to a golfing handicap. Team sports like soccer are another matter, but at least it could fix a lot of the issues revolving around swimming, running, track field events, weight lifting, skiing, etc. What do you all think? Workable?

    • avatar
      Mike R.

      No. Not workable and not necessary.

    • avatar
      Devan

      Well said. From someone who is transgender to say this and speak truth is good to see. There are differences and male advantages no matter what is done to suppress testosterone. Bone structure and density as well as muscle strength doesn’t change because you grew out your hair and took medications to help transition. I respect anyone’s choice to do as they wish but it is unfair to the progress woman have made to now have them take 10 steps backwards in sports.

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      I kinda agree with you.

      There is already a Women’s Olympic category
      And a men’s Olympic category.

      All others fall under the special Olympic category

  16. avatar
    CR45H 0V3RR1D3

    There’s nothing complicated about it, there’s a reason sports are segregated. 🤦

  17. avatar
    Magnifico

    It’s really not complicated. There are two sexes and when it comes most athletic endeavors, including swimming, one of them enjoys distinct and unmistakable advantages. If you allow men to compete against women you will destroy everything pioneers like de Varona fought and sacrificed for. How did we become so screwed up?

  18. avatar
    Mike Ritchie

    Not the least bit complicated. Males are males. Females are females. There is, whether some choose to ignore it or not, a biological difference between the two which gives males a general and unfair advantage in virtually all sports. Arguably in swimming females have the innate advantage. Nonetheless, if I were a female, I would refuse to compete against males, whether the males pretend to be females or not.

  19. avatar
    John Gordon

    Transgenders should compete against transgenders, males against males and females against females

    • avatar
      Ty

      Spot on!!! Totally agree!

  20. avatar
    Ann Hyatt

    Amen!!!!! Transgender men are not and NEVER WILL BE WOMEN.

  21. avatar
    Ty

    It’s not complicated. A simple solution is to have a transgender team compete against other transgender teams. That way you have a woman’s team and a men’s team, and you will have true equality!

  22. avatar
    lily

    in USA swimming, when both gander swimmers have to complete any kind of competitions, both gander swimmers need to show their birth certificates at registration desks before they start swimming. In his case, he is still a man in his birth certificate! Why USA swimming organization does not follow as USA swimming standards?

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