Don’t discuss Lia Thomas without mentioning how Caster Semenya was treated

Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya
Photo: Getty Images

Labeling Lia Thomas as a lightning rod is an understatement.

In a social media era where everyone can voice their opinions, it’s clear that there are some very strong feelings — on both sides — about Thomas, the trans woman who completed her collegiate swimming career over the weekend by finishing eighth in the 100-yard freestyle, competing as a woman — who was born a male — against women that were born female.

Some think it’s unfair and an attack on female-born athletes. Others view it as progress and believe she should be celebrated like Jackie Robinson — leave Jackie out of this, please.

But, whatever your feelings may be concerning Thomas, I’m here to inform you that the way she’s being discussed has a lot to do with the privilege that comes along with her skin color. Because in case you forgot, just a few years ago sports was in a similar situation with Caster Semenya, and what she endured was inhumane.

In 2019, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) claimed that the South African Olympic champion distance runner was “biologically male.” Semenya was born female and is a woman. She isn’t a trans woman and she isn’t transitioning. She was just a wonderfully built muscular Black woman who dominated the frail and thin white women that consistently lost to her. But yet, a group of people told her that she wasn’t a woman. Something Semenya said was so insulting she was unable to correctly express it.

“It is out of our control and we rely on people at the top sorting it out,” said British runner Lynsey Sharp after she got roasted by Semenya in the 2016 Olympics, finishing sixth. “The public can see how difficult it is with the change of rule, but all we can do is give it our best.” After the race, Sharp hugged Melissa Bishop (Canada) and Joanna Jozwik (Poland) on the track as they shed their white girl tears enraged with jealousy and anger after losing to Semenya.

“We see each other week in and week out, so we know how each other feel,” Sharp explained.

The change of rule that Sharp mentioned was after Semenya was forced to take drugs that suppressed her hormones.

Yes, you read that last line correctly.

In a time in which cheaters are trying to take illegal drugs to make them bigger, faster, and stronger, the IAAF told Semenya that she was so naturally superior that she needed drugs to make her smaller, slower, and weaker. Back in 2009, Time Magazine did a story on Semenya titled “Could This Women’s World Champ Be a Man?” after she won the 800 meters at the World Championships in Berlin. She also wasn’t allowed to compete in the Tokyo Games.

“This fight is not just about me, it’s about taking a stand and fighting for dignity, equality and the human rights of women in sport,” she tweeted in February 2021. “All we ask is to be able to run free as the strong and fearless women we are!!”

The disregard for the Black woman and the Black female athlete isn’t a new thing. Don’t tell me Brittney Griner’s race and sexuality haven’t played a big role in her situation or why she might have even been targeted in the first place. Race is also why Naomi Osaka was recently booed, and why “white feminists” like Jane Campion chose to belittle the accomplishments of icons like Venus and Serena Williams to make her feel better about herself for working in a male-dominated industry.

And for those that think I’m making this about race, I’m not. I’m just pointing out how apparent it is. Because if you think what Thomas has endured is cruel and unfair, just imagine how much worse it would be if she were Black.

Whenever situations of inequality happen, people from minority groups often fall victim to the “Oppression Olympics,” which turns into them screaming about which group gets subjugated to more discrimination. That’s not my goal here, as I’m trying to show you that if society actually wants things to get better for women, then progress must include “all women,” not just the kind that have historically been put on pedestals and been given countless privileges and protections based on their skin color.

In this “era of equality” that society is claiming that it’s in, comes the responsibility of fulfilling the promises that have been made. I’m not convinced that many of those wishes will ever be granted, as we’re living in a post-2020 world where diversity, equity, and inclusions (DEI) became the hottest trend, only for there still to be a great lack in the DEI space. And when it comes to dealing with society’s view on the trans community, how trans athletes are handled will play a major part in that. This is why it’s no wonder why Lia Thomas’ situation has gotten so messy, given that Caster Semenya was treated as if she wasn’t a human — let alone a woman.

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