ATLANTA — Hours before transgender swimmer Penn Lia Thomas scored a historic win at the NCAA Women’s Swimming Championship, a raucous crowd gathered outside the aquatics facility — some in support of her and other trans athletes , and others to protest his participation.
Protesters from Concerned Women for America and Save Women’s Sports gathered on the lawn of the Georgia Tech McAuley Aquatic Center Thursday afternoon, holding up signs reading “#PennCheats” and “Save Women’s Sports” and loudly denouncing trans women in the sport.
Since breaking records at the Zippy Invitationals in December, Thomas has been at the center of a national debate over transgender athletes.
By midday, protesters had assembled a podium and microphone for a list of speakers – who championed transphobic rhetoric. Speaking to a small crowd of national and local media, speakers and other protesters on the sidelines alleged that transgender women participating in sports threaten women’s rights and invalidated Thomas’ gender identity by confusing it with sex and calling it death.
A group of Georgia Tech students – some of whom were affiliated with campus groups and some of whom arrived at the scene – said the protesters’ presence outside the NCAA site made them feel uncomfortable on a campus traditionally safe and inclusive. They also denounced the transphobia of the demonstrators.
“What I see [are] adult adults coming to a college campus and intimidating a woman trying to compete in the sport they have no association with,” Georgia Tech student Tan Mush told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “Why are these people who are not qualified to talk about it coming to our campus and disturbing our peace? »
Avery Quick, a Georgia Tech student, said she was walking to class when she encountered the protest. Her frustration with the situation motivated her to counter many of the protesters’ arguments – engaging in lengthy debates with them where she defended Thomas’s right to swim.
“It’s so boring,” Quick told the DP. “We’re proud to have the amazing center we have – we always have swimmers coming here for competitions. It’s a shame it’s not a safe place for her.”
Quick added that homophobic and transphobic legislation currently being drafted — such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would ban classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ issues, and the “Save Girls Sports Act” of Georgia that would ban transgender women from competing on women’s sports teams – also upset her.
The students added that while they were open to respectful speech on contentious topics, the behavior of some of the protesters and the way the protest was conducted made them feel unsafe.
“We don’t necessarily want to restrict their freedoms. We just want to provide a counter-narrative and let a lot of people know that real Georgia Tech students want to feel safe,” Naiki Kaffezakis, president of Georgia Tech’s Grad Pride organization, told DP.
Annabelle Rutledge, national director of Young Women for America, a sub-group of CWA, said she traveled to Atlanta from Washington, D.C. to protest Thomas’ participation in the championship. She added that some of the protesters with YWA came from Tennessee.
Just today, CWA – a socially conservative evangelical Christian organization – filed a formal Title IX lawsuit against Penn, alleging that it “refuses to protect the rights of female varsity athletes.”
As individual protesters cycled out, scattered members of Save Women’s Sports were still present at 6:30 p.m. – countered by a larger group of counter-protesters waving small blue, white and pink flags and playing Taylor Swift’s song, ” Mean”.
By then, Thomas had already become the first transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I championship title in the 500-yard freestyle event with her best time of the season.
“I just wish these people would leave our campus,” Quick said.
Sportswriter Esther Lim contributed reporting for this article.