The Very Bad Interview with the Very Unlikable Transgender Swimmer, and Why You Should Watch It Anyway
Lia Thomas was born male, but after hormone treatments he began breaking “women’s” swimming records at the University of Pennsylvania, and across the country. He’s slower and weaker than he was before hormone treatments, but he’s absolutely dominating every meet he swims in as a woman. Some of his own teammates are reportedly livid with him for unfairly destroying their ability to compete.
Coleman Hodges interviewed him in a December 9 SwimSwam podcast. I wish I’d been the one doing that interview instead. I’d have insisted on using his male pronoun, so I know right away I’d never have been given the chance. If I had, though, I’d have asked a whole lot of questions Hodges didn’t.
Somehow Hodges failed to notice half of what was going on at the time. If Thomas is supposed to be the face of trans athletics, he’s a bad one. It isn’t because he still looks and sounds very much like a man, though. It’s because (in this interview, at least), he looks and sounds very much like a self-centered louse.
The full force of it appears gradually, as the interview progresses. It begins early, though, as Thomas is explaining why he “transitioned.” It was because of:
- “The distress to me”
- “I was struggling”
- “My mental health”
- My “unease”
- “Feeling trapped in my body”
- “It didn’t align” for me
- “I wasn’t able to focus on swimming or school or friendships as much as I wanted to.”
I’ve got the benefit of hindsight now, so maybe I wouldn’t have thought to press him on this so early. But let hindsight be what it is: I can’t help wondering how Thomas would have answered if he’d been asked, “So, did your decision to ‘transition’ affect anyone else? How did they feel about it? Did it do them any good, or were you only thinking of yourself?”
Why Swim? For Me! (Does Anyone Else Matter?)
That sounds harsh, I’ll wager, but you haven’t heard the rest of it yet: The reason Thomas decided to compete on the women’s team, for example, which came next in the interview. He said, “I loved swimming and wanted to keep on swimming;” adding, “How important it is to me to compete and swim as my authentic self.”
Hodges’ answer was to agree with him: It feels great just to be wearing the swimsuit. I’ve swum enough miles myself to know that’s true. But if I’d been Hodges, I’d still have wondered whether any of Thomas’s reasons had anything to do with anyone other than Thomas.
Based on their interview here, the answer is decisively no. Not once does Thomas say he was motivated by anything other than what made him “comfortable,” what let him be his “authentic self,” to avoid being “awkward,” or the like. Nothing about the good of his team, nothing about the good of the sport, nothing about the good of anything whatsoever except for Thomas. Near the end he did mention hoping to help some other future trans athletes someday. But the future is hypothetical. What he’s doing now, by his own words, is for himself.
Bully in a Bathing Suit
If I’d been conducting that interview, I’d have followed up on his answer to how he’s feeling about his swimming times now. Thomas said he was “proud” of his times. “Proud? Really?” I’d have asked him. “What does it mean being ‘proud’ of times that have degraded significantly since you started your hormone treatments? And honestly, now, how proud can you be of winning a ‘competition’ where you had such a huge physical advantage you won by a full 38 seconds? What is it you’re really proud of anyway? Being formerly a man (in the eyes of the swimming officials)? Because you know that’s what won you that victory.”
If that didn’t get an honest answer, I’d have asked, “So how do you really feel about the way you’re treating the women in the pool with you? Doesn’t it seem a lot like bullying?”
What Do You Mean By Everyone Feeling Comfortable Competing?
Hodges made it too easy for him, even as the questions should have been growing more pointed than before. Thomas told at one point how the sport of swimming has implemented Olympic guidelines for trans athletes. He ended by concluding with great satisfaction, “Everyone is able to compete in the category they’re most comfortable with, unless there’s a proven unfair advantage that they have.”
The follow-up is obvious: “Everyone? Really?” Is every woman comfortable with the “women’s swimming” category, now that it’s been redefined to include people born as men, who’ve taken a year of hormone treatments so they can claim to be women? Haven’t a whole lot of female swimmers just lost the ability to compete in the category they’re most comfortable with? Do they all really “feel comfortable” swimming in a category where a guy can take some hormones for a year, and then totally and forever obliterate every hope they ever had of winning?
And then I’d have to ask him whether he was even being honest when he said it was about everyone “feeling comfortable.” Wasn’t he really talking about every trans person feeling comfortable, and who cares what happens to the rest of the athletes? Maybe Thomas would have had a good answer to the question. We can’t know, because Hodges didn’t ask it.
Is Your Mental Health More Important Than Everyone Else In the World?
USA Swimming official Cynthia Millen has just resigned in protest over men competing as women. That happened weeks after this podcast, but things had already “blown up” (Thomas’ own words) more than he’d expected. Hodges fed him a softball question about it; Thomas answered, “I just don’t engage with [the criticism]. It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t.”
No softballs allowed after an answer like that. I’d be asking, “How responsible of an answer is that?” I might even have asked him to consider an analogy, where “blowing up” was literal: “Suppose some guy tosses an actual live grenade in the pool during a swim meet, then walks away and says, ‘I’m not listening to criticism. It isn’t good for me.'” Sure, it’s just an analogy, and Thomas hasn’t hurt anyone quite that badly.
But the question still needs asking: “Is your mental health so important that nobody else even matters, not even enough to bother finding out what affect you’ve had on their lives? Is everything really only about you after all?”
The Interview I’d Really Like to Have: With Hodges
These are all important questions. Why didn’t Hodges ask them? How did he miss all that? I have some theories, but honestly, I’d be open to asking Hodges myself. I’m sending him an interview request as I finish this. Because in a very real way, it’s Hodges, not Thomas, who matters more to you and me here. For one thing, there could never be a Lia Thomas in the pool competing against women, if not for a world full of people like Coleman Hodges making room for him there.
And while neither you nor I could ever be a Lia Thomas, any one of us could be a Coleman Hodges, asking all the wrong questions, letting all the wrong assumptions fly as we talk with people, never noticing how the person we thought we were supporting might not be who we think he is. Hodges knows a thing or two about athletics, for sure. We could learn from him on that; maybe even some things about trans activism in athletics, and how it has such a hold on people who don’t seem to have thought it through.
More importantly, though, we might learn something about ourselves, and how not to have a conversation.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.