Rainbow Rant: Let trans people swim

Access to sports matters for both exceptional athletes like Lia Thomas and mediocre ones like me

Joy Ellison
Lia Thomas

About four years ago, a few dozen trans people descended on the Aquatic Center at Ohio State University for a pool party. The evening was unremarkable: We gossiped in the hot tub, giggled as we tried out the slide, and floated serenely in the water. The evening was delightfully forgettable; the kind of simple fun that slips through memory. Nonetheless, I remember the night in detail, because for us a peaceful hour at the pool is a rare, precious thing. 

Trans people are seldom allowed to feel safe swimming. At pools and beaches, where our bodies can so easily attract prying eyes, we face ridicule, embarrassment and even violence. Locker rooms, gyms and P.E. classes are hardly better. Sports, even the gentlest of athletic pursuits, don’t welcome us. But swimming? Swimming is something else. 

The response to trans swimmer Lia Thomas’ recent victory at the NCAA Division I championship proves little has changed in the last four years. Whenever we put on a bathing suit, trans people swim with sharks.

At a time when she should be celebrating her victory, Thomas has been forced to endure ridicule and controversy from online trolls and public officials who ought to have better things to do.

Florida Gov. Ron Deantis, the force behind the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, went so far as to declare runner-up Emma Weyant the rightful winner of Thomas’ race. I can only think that Desantis judged the race using the same metric that Trump used to decide the outcome of the 2020 election. 

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Critics claim that Thomas’ transgender body gives her an unfair advantage, but the numbers don’t substantiate their claims. Neither do NCAA and International Olympic Committee policies

I’m no swimming champion. I’m just a trans person who likes to splash about in the pool. I go to the gym begrudgingly, motivated by my desire to stay in good enough shape to outlive my enemies. At best, I am an exceedingly average athlete, but participating in sports has brought me great joy. That is reason enough to speak on this issue 

Against recent attempts to malign transgender athletes and prevent transgender kids from participating in school sports, I level the simplest argument: Everyone deserves to be able to play sports, to move our bodies purely for the pleasure of it, and to compete against other people. Athletics are a human impulse and everyone should be welcome, including transgender people. 

I was 18-years-old before I truly enjoyed athletics. Before that, I was chubby, dyslexic, queer and nonbinary, and as such, no fan of the gym or the playground. In middle school, I was the worst member of a championship soccer team. I took great pleasure in beating the team of a childhood bully, though I contributed little to our victory. Regardless, I quit anyway. 

I hated running. My hand-eye coordination was terrible. And locker rooms felt like a trap. Worst of all, sports were almost always gender segregated. I had to play with people of my assigned birth gender. A feeling of unease gnawed at me. I could play all I wanted, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong. 

It wasn’t swimming that allowed me to begin liking sports. For me, everything changed in college when my friends, an eclectic bunch of so-and-sos, introduced me to judo. Judo is a Japanese martial art based on the principle of “maximum efficiency, minimum effort.” That sounded promising to lazy me. I agreed to try it once.

I did not fall in love with judo immediately, but I liked it a lot, and that was more than I could say about any other sport. 

Our college judo club came with several advantages for a nonbinary person. I could dress in my dorm room rather than the locker room, for one. For another, judo was actually interesting, providing a mental challenge as much as a physical one. Further, the sport was all about turning one’s physicality into an advantage. For the first time ever, people spoke of my low center of gravity and stout build with respect. Best of all, judo was co-ed. During practice, my gender was immaterial. I loved that feeling right away. 

My first judo teacher was my friend, Danielle Tanimura, who taught us, her college classmates, with the same techniques she used to teach the children’s class at the dojo in which she grew up. For Danielle, judo was family, heritage and pride as much as sport. The techniques she taught us were the same ones her family used to defend their community from the racist, sexist white men who came to Japantown spoiling for a fight or looking for a woman or girl to harass. 

Some years later, both Danielle and I came out as trans. For her, telling her judo club about her transition was almost as important as telling her friends and family, which dramatically illustrates just how deeply sports touch our lives. Happily, Danielle found acceptance within judo and continues to work to insure that trans athletes can compete in the sport. 

The stakes for me were not nearly as high, but having access to sports made my life immeasurably better. I practiced judo on and off, as much as I could, for almost a decade. Judo gave me confidence. It made me strong. It allowed me to heal my relationship with my body. It gave me some of my closest friends. In other words, I got from sports exactly what we hope they will give us, all of the benefits that prove their importance. 

Because I am no great judoka, no one has ever opposed my participation in the sport. Trans people attract the most attention when we win too much, though trans women and girls are never safe from flapping gums and ready fists. But both exceptional trans athletes and we the mediocre deserve the right to play. In fact, it’s the fate of the unexceptional majority that is the most important. 

Let us swim in peace. That’s all we want.