What Lia Thomas Means

What Lia Thomas Means

Roughly three dozen bills that would ban trans women’s participation in women’s sports are currently wending their way through state legislatures. If they are passed, courts will almost certainly strike them down as unconstitutionally broad. These legal battles might eventually make their way to the Supreme Court, where their fate would be anyone’s guess.

If a single image could sum up Lia Thomas’s victory in the 500-yard freestyle event at the NCAA swimming championships last week, it would be that of Thomas and the runners-up taken right after they were awarded their medals. Behind a sign with the number “1” on it stands Thomas, who seems barely able to conceal embarrassment at what is undoubtedly an awkward situation. To the right, noticeably keeping their distance and a full head or two shorter, are the runners-up. Their smiles seem no less awkward.

The scene resembles an eerie propaganda video, in which a jubilant dictator can be seen waving at fawning crowds who know their lives depend on making it all look authentic. Thomas’s competitors will not face firing squads should they choose to complain, but they will almost certainly face a social media pile-on (assuming that Twitter doesn’t preemptively suspend them for suggesting that transgender women are not biological women). Their names and reputations will be dragged through the mud, their career prospects destroyed or severely curtailed, and their place on the college swim team—and, with it, their scholarships—jeopardized. A teammate of Thomas’s who criticized her participation in women’s sports told a U.K. newspaper that she would speak only on condition of anonymity, for she was concerned that future employers might Google her name and deem her “transphobic.” Meantime, those who support Thomas’s participation in women’s sports speak their minds freely and without fear of repercussions. What was that about transgender people being powerless?

Thomas, argue her defenders, is both a woman like any other but also a transgender trailblazer. Only in the minds of ideologues for whom reason and logic are oppressive social constructs can these two claims peacefully coexist. If gender identity alone is what makes one a woman, and Thomas has a female gender identity, then her transgender status is simply irrelevant to her achievement. Indeed, it doesn’t technically exist. Many transgender people prefer not to be recognized as trans at all, as this qualifies their self-identification as “real” men or women. “They hate, and I mean hate, the word trans,” reports trans activist and child psychologist Diane Ehrensaft. And how could it be otherwise?

The Human Rights Campaign warns that “contrasting transgender people with ‘real’ or ‘biological’ men and women is a false comparison” that “can contribute to the inaccurate perception that transgender people are being deceptive or less than equal, when, in fact, they are being authentic and courageous.” This is a strawman wrapped in a non sequitur. Critics of gender self-identification do not argue that people like Thomas are “being deceptive,” but rather that they are themselves deceived. HRC’s use of “authentic” here really means “sincere”: transgender women are being sincere, not deceptive, when they say they have a strong inner sense of being a woman. But that sincerity is irrelevant unless one first assumes that what makes a belief true is the fact that it is sincerely held, rather than its correspondence to objective reality. Who, apart from academic postmodernists, believes such a thing? Surely not those who display signs insisting that “science is real” on their front lawns.

This question-begging contrast of biological reality with “authenticity” and “courage” appeals to the therapeutic ethos, that powerful current in American culture. Elite support for transgenderism was never rooted in philosophical arguments about human sex differences or new discoveries in the human sciences. It derives from a narrative that stresses the harm to a person’s mental health if that person’s gender self-identification is not “affirmed.” The claim that only affirming someone’s internal sense of gender can release her of her agony has been subjected to serious and sustained criticism, but activists continue to tout it as gospel, and America’s power brokers seem unable or unwilling to resist it.

The sudden prominence of transgenderism in the West owes in large part to compassion having become unmoored from reason, and to ethics having been reduced to compassion. The proliferation on college campuses of mental health bureaucracies is one the more visible aspects of the rise of the “therapeutic state.” When the parents of female University of Pennsylvania swimmers wrote a letter to the university complaining about Thomas being allowed to swim on the women’s team, the university responded with a brief note reiterating its commitment to “inclusion” and providing a link to campus mental health services.

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