Don’t call them transphobic.
An underground network of mothers of female athletes is marshaling forces after transgender swimmer Lia Thomas joined the women’s swim team at the University of Pennsylvania last fall and started beating her teammates. In March, Thomas became the first openly-transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship when she came first in the women’s 500-yard freestyle event.
The group doesn’t have a formal name yet but many members spoke to The Post about how angry and upset they are to see their daughters lose out to a person who was born male.
“My daughter swam against Lia at Yale this year and it was just a miserable experience all around,” one mother told The Post. “We are literally bending over for male privilege. It’s humiliating.”
Most of the mothers spoke on condition of anonymity because they say they’ve been accused of hate speech and transphobia — although many identify as liberal Democrats. They say it’s unfair to label them as bigots, insisting they’re focused on ensuring that their daughters compete on a level playing field as more transgender girls enter sports with what they say is an unfair physical advantage. Many have been inspired by an emotional video titled “Report from a mother of a swimmer” which has more than 32,000 views on Youtube.
The mother of a 20-year-old swimmer at Penn who swam with Lia called the season, which ended last month, a “disaster.”
She said her daughter has been swimming since she was 5, competitively since she was 7. She recalled years of waking up at 4:45am to drive her daughter 30 minutes to the pool and also flying across the country to competitions at a cost of about $15,000 a year.
Her daughter swam the same events as Lia and trained with her in the pool four hours a day, her mom said.
“She still believed she could still beat Lia. Then competition came and Lia turned her whole speed on. Lia’s tall but it’s not only height. Look at the length of her arms. They are almost a foot longer than the girls.” The single mom added that she wished she could go public but that her daughter, who has a year left before she graduates, is too afraid.
Lia Thomas, 22, swam as Will Thomas for her first three years at Penn but was not top-ranked. But when Lia entered the NCAA championships last month, she was ranked No. 1 among college women. She told Sports Illustrated in a recent cover story, “I am a woman.”
Scientists say that if a biological male goes through puberty, he has the physical benefits of testosterone even if he transitions to a female and does hormone suppression therapy. All that testosterone dramatically increases muscle mass and strength, and young men will start to outperform women in athletic activities, writes Harvard biologist Carole Hooven in her book “T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us.”
One mother in Boston told The Post that her daughter is going to lose her position in the “top boat” this rowing season at a top Boston-area private high school because a junior boy, who decided to identify as a girl this year, is expected to take her place. A mother in San Francisco said her high school-age daughter is competing in a region with two trans girls who are winning races. One of the trans girls won an athletic scholarship to compete in women’s sports at the college level, she said.
“Imagine being a biological female going up against Lia,” Martina Navratilova told The Post. “A top woman swimmer has to literally be unbelievable to beat an average male swimmer who identifies as female. The hormone suppression therapy doesn’t mitigate the advantage they have over biological women.”
The underground mothers communicate through clandestine email chains and phone calls organized in part by four-time Olympic medalist and longtime civil rights lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an icon in the swimming world. Hogshead-Makar runs Champion Women, a non-profit providing legal advocacy for women in sports.
Thomas’ supporters vehemently disagree with activists like Hogshead-Makar and Navratilova who they see as anti-trans or transphobic. Purdue University professor Cheryl Cooky compared Thomas to Jackie Robinson breaking the sports color barrier in an op-ed for NBC News and claimed that trans women do not have an unfair advantage over cisgender women.
“We are not anti-trans, we are certainly not anti-Lia,” a mother of a student who swam against Thomas this past season at Harvard told The Post. “We are for our girls having the right to compete under fair conditions. It is not fair for them to go up against a biological male, it just isn’t. We’ve been shamed into silence. Our daughters are told by their coaches and athletic directors to shut up and keep quiet. But we’re done being nice. Being nice has gotten us anywhere. We feel so helpless. Nobody hears us.”
Many mothers recounted how their daughters put in up to 15 years of hard work, sometimes spending four hours in a pool six days a week from the age of 5 in the hope of reaching elite athlete status.
“You sacrifice so much to get to that elite level,” said Jeri Shanteau, 37, of Austin, Texas, a three-time NCAA team champion and 11-time All American, and one of the few in the movement who will speak publicly . “You never go to parties. You don’t go to Homecoming. You have this internal drive to reach your goals and you’re motivated by having to hit all these milestones along the way.”
Shanteau said the confidence she gained from her swim career made all the difference when she went out into the world.
“We’re robbing girls of that confidence today,” Shanteau said. “We’re shamed into silence and (worrying) that when we speak up, we’ll get negative backlash. It is very undermining when the idea of a man competing against you is normalized. It’s so demoralizing that it’s hard to wrap your head around it. The swimmers at UPenn are so scared of all the attention that they are no long wearing their UPenn sweatshirts. They’re no longer allowed to be proud of themselves. Everything has become about Lia.”
In a December article for Swimmers World, Hogshead-Makar wrote that transgender women should be allowed in women’s sports, as long as they can “mitigate the athletic advantages that come with male puberty” — something she said is easier said than done.
Hogshead-Makar said she was “in the room” in 2010 when the NCAA introduced its first rules for transgender athletes that called for a year of hormone suppression therapy in order to compete. She said it made sense to her at the time. Now it doesn’t. Both she and Navratilova say recent scientific studies have shown that hormone therapy alone doesn’t reverse the effects of eight or so years of testosterone in trans female athletes.
“Post-puberty you cannot compete as a woman no matter what,” Navratilova said. “Pre-puberty okay, if they take hormones, but that’s not something we really want to advocate for.”
Finding a solution, both say, is difficult, but needs to happen in case the Equality Act, which has passed in the House, gets to a vote in the Senate. The Equality Act would prohibit sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination, removing many sex-based protections.
“If we recognize the Equality Act, then someone could self-identify as a woman right before Wimbledon, get the $4 million in prize money and then self ID back to a man the next day,” said Hogshead-Makar, 59, who won three golds and a silver at the 1984 Olympics. “It would be illegal to ask for proof of any kind.”
“The transgender movement got ahead of the women’s movement in insisting that trans women are women,” Hogshead-Makar said. “You think, of course, trans women are women — especially in the classroom and in employment. But nobody stopped to think what are you giving up for that ideology. What they are giving up are women’s sex-based rights.”
Biologically born females are facing a grim future in sports, said the mother whose daughter is an elite high school varsity rower.
“The moral is horribly low,” she said. “These girls work heir butts off and they should be standing tall, proud of what they’ve accomplished. But they’re resigned to it because they’re told they can’t say a word. How does it matter how hard they work because the 6-foot-3 person with long arms and big shoulders will always be stronger than them? You can see it. The girls walk down with their heads down now in a posture of submission, They are shadows of what they were.”
Only a few women are willing to speak out publicly. One is amateur powerlifter and mom Beth Stelzer, 37, the founder of Save Women’s Sports, a grassroots group that protests at sports competitions around the country where trans athletes are involved. Stelzer believes that the underground mothers will eventually persuade local and national sports officials to take a harder look at policies that favor trans women over biological women.
“The revolution is here,” said Stelzer of the brewing backlash. “It’s not just coming—it’s here.”