Lia Thomas Becomes GOP Scapegoat as Republicans Push Transgender Battle

Nearly a week since her NCAA victory, the GOP is still wielding University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas as a stick to beat its political rivals.

Thomas became the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history by winning the women's 500-yard freestyle. Her appearance at the event was met with protests and opposition from parents, fellow athletes and conservative personalities.

Days later, it appears Republicans have added the debate on transgender sportswomen to critical race theory on its list of hot-button issues for parents that may damage Democrats in the midterms, with Thomas the GOP's new target in the "culture wars."

On Tuesday, Mississippi GOP Senator Marsha Blackburn cited Thomas in her scrutiny of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is nominated to the Supreme Court.

After asking President Joe Biden's pick whether she can define what a woman is, Blackburn then asked Jackson "what message do you think this sends to girls" when they see "biological man to compete and beat a biological woman" in the NCAA swimming championships.

Possible Legal Issues

Jackson replied she was not sure what message it sends before asking if she would like an answer with regards to potential legal issues that a court may have to decide on.

Blackburn interrupted Jackson mid-speech to explain why she brought up a swimming competition in a hearing about a Supreme Court nominee.

"I think it tells our girls that their voices don't matter. I think it tells them that they're second-class citizens," Blackburn said. "And parents want to have a Supreme Court justice who is committed to preserving parental autonomy and protecting our nation's children."

The same day, Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a proclamation declaring that Emma Weyant, who finished in second place behind Thomas in the 500-yard freestyle on March 17, was the true winner of the race.

"By allowing men to compete in women's sports, the NCAA is destroying opportunities for women, making a mockery of its championships, and perpetuating a fraud," DeSantis tweeted. "In Florida, we reject these lies and recognize Sarasota's Emma Weyant as the best women's swimmer in the 500y freestyle."

The GOP has got involved in culture wars for some time, seeing an advantage over the Democrats in focusing on these issues.

During last year's Virginia gubernatorial election, for example, eventual winner Glenn Youngkin drummed up outrage over the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools, making it his key campaign issue.

Youngkin's Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe had dismissed the debate as a "racist dog whistle."

Seeing the U.S. as Weak

Just a few weeks ago, some on the GOP's hard-right were suggesting that Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine because America's focus on issues such as gender-neutral toilets led the Russian president to see the U.S. as weak.

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that there is "little doubt" that Republicans will continue to stoke the "culture wars" heading into the midterms.

"The agenda not only fires up the base in a way that other policy areas can't — it also carries relatively broad support from swing voters," Gift said, adding that Youngkin's gubernatorial victory showed that the "most extreme manifestations of 'woke' politics" do not play well among moderates in the suburbs.

"Agree or disagree with these positions, the reality is that America remains a center-right country on cultural issues — and Republicans have more to gain from keeping them in the headlines," Gift added.

Catherine Wineinger, an assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University, agreed that Republicans will use Thomas and other "anti-trans rhetoric and policies" for the foreseeable future as it helps pull support from one of their key demographics.

Trans Women in Sports

"The attempt to exclude trans women from women's sports is being framed as 'pro-woman.' We keep seeing rhetoric that paints anti-trans initiatives as 'protecting' women's sports, and Republican women are often the ones delivering that message," Wineinger told Newsweek.

"This, along with anti-CRT rhetoric, is a strategic messaging decision intended to target and mobilize white women voters."

The debate on whether transgender women should compete with females in competitive sports is complex, attracting strongly felt arguments on both sides. Indeed, even within the GOP, it appears not everyone is willing to discuss it with blanket outrage.

In the space of two days, two Republican governors vetoed bills that would have banned transgender females from taking part in girls' school sports, suggesting such legislation is unnecessary and that people's concerns have been blown out of proportion

In a letter explaining his decision, Utah Governor Spencer Cox admitted that he is not an expert on transgender issues, but will always try to err on the side of "kindness, mercy and compassion."

Cox also noted that within the entire state of Utah, there are just four transgender students currently playing high school sports, only one of whom is participating in girls' sports.

"Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That's what all of this is about," Cox said. "Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few."

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb also vetoed a similar bill on Monday, pointing out there have been no recorded cases of transgender students trying to join girls' teams in the state.

Newsweek has tried to reach Thomas for comment.

lia thomas swimmer
Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, finishes the 200 yard freestyle for the University of Pennsylvania at an Ivy League swim meet against Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 22, 2022. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images