Why Is Fox News Obsessing Over This Trans College Swimmer?

“It’s about creating an enemy and using transgender people, who are just trying to go about our lives, for political gain.”
Lia Thomas smiles after winning the 200 meter freestyle on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania on January 8, 2022 (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Lia Thomas smiles after winning the 200-meter freestyle on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania on January 8, 2022. (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

If you watch Fox News regularly, chances are you know the name Lia Thomas. 

Thomas is a swimmer on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swimming team, which is decidedly not a typical area of coverage for the network. But over the past few weeks, Fox News’ website has published no fewer than a dozen stories about Thomas, a transgender woman, ranging from hit pieces showcasing anonymous comments from her teammates and their parents, to reporting Thomas’s actual results in swim meets

Advertisement

Thomas, 22, transitioned in 2020 after spending three years on the Penn men’s swim team. The freestyle swimmer said in a podcast interview last month that she first realized she was transgender in 2018 and came out to her coaches in the fall of 2019. This is her first year on the women’s swim team.

Last week, the NCAA said it would allow the individual governing bodies of the sports it sanctions—in this case, USA Swimming—to set their own policies regarding eligibility for transgender athletes. For conservative media, the news has only provided more fuel for negative coverage. 

On Thursday, Caitlyn Jenner—an Olympic gold medal decathlete and one of the most high-profile transgender celebrities, as well as a conservative former California gubernatorial candidate—made an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show to say she was “disappointed” in the NCAA for not “protecting” women’s sports.

It was her second appearance on the network to talk about Thomas and the NCAA in a week, and she’s also made appearances on Newsmax to talk about the issue.

Advertisement

“[Thomas’s teammates] have to be so woke and say, ‘Oh, this is great,’ while down deep inside they're saying, ‘This is wrong,’” Jenner said on Thursday. 

The network also published an op-ed Thursday by Chelsea Mitchell, a track runner from Connecticut who, with help from the right-wing legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sued the state’s athletic association to prevent trans girls from competing against other women. The op-ed did not reference Thomas directly, but it criticized the NCAA and other sports-governing bodies for “passing the baton” by not barring trans women from competing in women’s sports. 

“If biological males move into women’s competition, they will dominate whatever contests they enter,” Mitchell wrote. “That’s just biological reality, and the leaders of sport are deliberately turning a blind eye to it.”

Fox News did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its coverage of Thomas. Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told VICE News that the coverage of Thomas “dehumanizes transgender people and tries to paint us as ‘other.’” 

“It’s about creating an enemy and using transgender people, who are just trying to go about our lives, for political gain,” Heng-Lehtinen said in an emailed statement. “Members of the transgender community face discrimination, harassment, and violence just for living our lives as our true selves. 

Advertisement

“Coverage like this gives permission to people to target their transgender neighbors,” he continued, “and it spreads misinformation about us, which can influence other people who might not know a transgender person or understand what it means to be trans.”

The Thomas story is part of a moral panic that the right has been cultivating for years about transgender people and their participation in society, especially sports. Though the economic backlash to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 in 2016 has discouraged many states from pursuing bans on public accommodations, several states have passed laws banning transgender women from participating in women’s sports. 

But the coverage has also turned bitterly personal.

Last month, former USA Swimming official Cynthia Millen appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to say that Thomas is “going to be destroying women’s swimming.” The Daily Mail published an account of an anonymous Penn swimmer Thursday alleging that Thomas makes other women feel uncomfortable in the locker room, and claiming that her teammates are frustrated by her participation on the team. “It just seems like the women who built this program and the people who were here before Lia don’t matter,” the anonymous swimmer said. 

Advertisement

Earlier this week, the Washington Examiner published its own interview with an anonymous swimmer who claimed that Thomas’s membership on the team meant women were “third-class citizens.” And another Penn swimmer’s father told Fox Thursday that while Thomas’s teammates believe she’s “a wonderful person and very nice,” his daughter “hates” Thomas being on the team and “doesn’t think it’s fair.” 

“What do you say to your daughter? You got Lia up on the blocks, taking a spot from a cisgender woman on the Olympic team,” the anonymous father said, predicting Thomas would make that team despite the governing bodies of world sport having a less-than-stellar track record on including gender nonconforming athletes. “How do I tell my daughter that could be you one day? You can’t. You can never be her.”

“A lot of trans people end up seeing these articles and the comments on posts like this, and it can have a real and very negative impact on mental health and well-being,” Heng-Lehtinen said. 

While Thomas has had a strong season and has broken several records this year, it has not been “dominant,” as some conservative outlets have said. During her last home meet earlier this month, for example, Thomas won two events but finished a distant fifth in another. (Thomas was even accused by an anonymous teammate of colluding with a transitioning Yale swim team member to lose that race—even though she also finished behind three cisgender swimmers.) 

Advertisement

Thomas had already been an accomplished swimmer for years before transitioning. She was one of the Ivy League’s top freestyle swimmers in men’s events, finishing second in three different events in the 2019 Ivy League championships. In accordance with previously existing NCAA policy, Thomas has been taking hormone suppressants since 2019. 

Not everyone is critical of Thomas. U.S. Olympic swimmer Brooke Forde, a Stanford swimmer who won a silver medal in Tokyo last year in the 200 freestyle relay, said in a statement Thursday that she has “great respect for Lia.”

“I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year,” Forde said in a statement made through her father, sportswriter Pat Forde

Thomas herself has been remarkably quiet about the criticism she’s received, though Sports Illustrated will interview her, the New York Times reported earlier this week

“The team has been unbelievably supportive since the beginning, teammates and coaches as well,” Thomas said in the podcast interview last month. Asked about the criticism she’s received, Thomas said: “I just don’t engage with it. It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all so I don’t.”

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.