Athlete Ally Responds to USA Swimming Trans Athlete Policy

February 5, 2022 (New York, NY) — Athlete Ally responded today to news that, on the eve of National Girls and Women in Sports Day, USA Swimming announced new rules for transgender women athletes participating in approved elite events. These events may include NCAA Division-I championships which are slated to start in just over a month on March 16th in Atlanta, Georgia, where a new bill banning transgender youth from playing sports was just introduced. 

Effective immediately, transgender women competing under USA Swimming are required to maintain a testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter (nm/L) continuously for at least 36 months before competition. They also must provide evidence that they do not have a competitive advantage from being assigned male at birth, though it is unclear what this evidence can and should look like. This update follows the updated NCAA policy from January 19 which dictates that transgender athlete participation will follow a sport-by-sport policy to be determined by each sport’s governing body. 

Though USA Swimming suggests their new policy underwent months of legal and medical review, the policy does not align with any previous national or international guidelines. USA Swimming’s new policy is more restrictive and severe than current and previous International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines, and does not offer any form of scientific evidence as a reference point for this drastic and immediate policy change. 

In November 2021, after a three year consultation and research process focused on scientific evidence, athlete health and safety, science and human rights, the International Olympic Committee adopted a new framework titled Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations which moves away from eligibility criteria for transgender athletes focused solely on testosterone levels. The IOC, and other international experts, agree there is simply not enough evidence to support determining eligibility in this way across all sports. Even in past versions of the IOC guidelines, testosterone criteria were never less than 10 nm/L and never entailed more than a 24-month period (compared to USA Swimming’s 36 months). Despite never having a policy around transgender athletes in the past, the newest USA Swimming policy offers no guidance on how transgender athletes who have previously competed consistent with their gender identity (a trans woman competing in the women’s category, for instance), will be retroactively considered for competition.

In recent months, Lia Thomas, a transgender woman swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania, has garnered attention in both the swimming community and in national sports media. Lia has complied with all previous NCAA guidelines. In light of the recently updated NCAA guidelines and given the stricter eligibility guidelines put forth by USA Swimming, Lia may or may not be able to compete in NCAA championships, though her eligibility will be decided by the NCAA. 

“These sweeping new restrictions appear to be a direct retaliation against Lia Thomas, a talented, hard-working athlete who has followed all guidelines, is supported by her team, and trains diligently,” said Anne Lieberman, Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally. “Lia, like all athletes, does not win every meet. And when she does, she deserves to be celebrated like any other athlete would be.

Every college athlete deserves to be safe, welcome and included in their sport, and it is the role of the NCAA to ensure that safety and protection. By defaulting to a sport-by-sport model and failing to safeguard athletes against discrimination, transgender athletes like Lia are forced to the sidelines simply because of who they are.”

“As a former NCAA D-1 swimmer, swim coach and current sport scholar who believes we all should be safe and included in sports, I’m appalled by the new USA Swimming policy,” said Ursinus College’s Dr. Johanna Mellis. “In U.S. society, we tell everyone the myth that sports are an equalizing and healthy force for everyone because anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. can participate, compete, achieve their dreams, and gain physical and mental health benefits. USA Swimming’s policy illustrates that this is indeed a myth, and illustrate how sport can and is used to exclude and harm certain groups of people; historically we’ve seen this with sport officials barring Black athletes, cisgender female athletes, and disabled athletes, and more from engaging equitably in sport. Here we see they are excluding and harming another group: trans athletes.

Anyone who has had their life changed for the better by sport knows how powerful access to sport can be, and how devastating it would be to lose that access. Lia, and all transgender women athletes, are not seeking to cheat or dominate women’s sports. They are participating in the sport they love as their full human selves, with teammates who love and support them. Sport is at its best when we champion inclusion, not when fear drives exclusion and forces athletes to drop out of the sports they love. This is discrimination clear and simple.”