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World Unites at ICONS Summit To Defend the Future of Women’s Sports

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One year ago, the Independent Council on Women’s Sports (ICONS) was founded as an organic uprising against the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) rostering Lia (formerly Will) Thomas on the women’s swimming team.  One of its founders had a daughter swimmer in the NCAA Ivy League Conference who was forced to compete against Thomas. Thomas broke many school, pool, and conference records on the way to stealing a Division I NCAA national championship in the women’s 500-yard freestyle in March 2022. The NCAA sanctioned this intrusion in women’s sports and forced female swimmers to confront Thomas’s nudity in the locker room changing in and out of swimwear.  UPenn had the audacity to nominate male Thomas as its “Female Athlete of the Year.” 

ICONS network for female athletes kicked off with an impressive, quickly organized inaugural conference in June 2022. The event convened front-liners in the fight covering the scientific, legal, and policy landscape in women’s sports and showcased the real impact on female athletes losing their rightful places in competition.  Selina Soule, Chelsea Mitchell (track), Taylor Silverman (skateboarding), and Riley Gaines (swimming) all directly impacted, participated as champions of courage, willing to speak publicly to oppose policies enabling trans-identifying males to compete in women’s sports.  

Fast forward one year and ICONS went international, convening the International Women’s Sports Summit in Denver, July 21-23, 2023. The gathering united attendees from at least eight countries, including notable pioneers in women’s sports and Olympic champions, sports governing body officials, scientists, scholars, grassroots organizers, legal advocates, policy experts, and athletes, for a three-day in-depth discussion of the status of trans-identifying males in women’s sports at every level of competition and the path to reclaiming women’s sports for female athletes. 

Participants from the United Kingdom, Spain, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and the United States reviewed the biological facts of the sex binary and the scientific evidence of male advantage sport pre- and post-puberty, examined historic parallels with the commodification of women in culture, considered the impact of United Nations declarations, surveyed country laws redefining sex as “gender identity” as an obstacle to women sports, discussed legal cases and emerging sports governing body policies, reviewed the state of play under the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and outlined expected changes to Title IX and action in the U.S. Congress and states. 

Concerned Women for America (CWA) has been an enthusiastic supporter of ICONS in its founding and development. CWA’s Senior Advisor, Doreen Denny, was in attendance again this year to discuss the Title IX rulemaking and state of play in the states where 22 states in the U.S. have enacted laws to protect women’s sports.     

Critically and for the first time, the psychological war on women athletes was examined.  Dr. Dina McMillan discussed how coercing female athletes to accept males in their sex-separated spaces and the emotional blackmail of forcing a false consent resembles the manipulation tactics of domestic abusers. Riley Gaines (University of Kentucky), Kylee Alons (North Carolina State University), and Paula Scanlan (University of Pennsylvania), all NCAA swimmers who were forced to share women’s locker rooms with male Lia Thomas, described their personal experiences.  They shared how the NCAA and universities manipulated athletes through emails and meetings designed to silence them and by requiring that Thomas be allowed in women’s locker rooms. The number of college women swimmers caught in this wake of sexual harassment and psychological warfare in order to accommodate one male athlete claiming identity as a woman numbered in the hundreds.   

Scanlan addressed how UPenn influenced female swimmers to cause them to question themselves, not the harassment they experienced:   

“They just told us we needed therapy to get over that. And to this this day, it’s still something that in the moment, I just told myself that I had to get through it, and now being removed from it, it’s still so challenging for me to talk about the fact that they subjected us to that – the fact that they subjected 40 girls to being sexually harassed.”

Alons shared how she came to realize it was time to speak out:  

“But ultimately, I decided it is compassionate to tell the truth, it is kind. All of those terms that we were having thrown at our face on the back of these shirts that they passed out celebrating Title IX, including inclusion and welcoming and acceptance, and all these things. Telling the truth is all those things. Lying? That’s the exact opposite.”

Beyond the speakers and panelists, every person introducing the sessions had a personal story and perspective to share that amplified the importance of this battle to retain the women’s category of sport for female athletes.  Among these were Raime Jones, former Yale swimmer who competed against Lia Thomas; Payton McNabb, a North Carolina high school volleyball player who suffered a serious concussion facing a trans-identifying male on the court; and Corinna Cohn whose experience with the deception of transitioning which led to castration at age 19 has inspired a winsome resolve to stand for the rights of female athletes and protection of children.

Every Summit session was packed with informative content and relevant experience that can no longer be ignored by institutions and sport governing bodies pushing “inclusion” while erasing the fundamental sex-based eligibility requirement of being a woman to participate in the women’s category of sport.  

The positive impact of international partnership and advocacy challenging policymakers with scientific evidence and confronting their discrimination against women is producing notable results. British Rowing recently announced the most decisive and favorable policy to date declaring only female born rowers are eligible for the women’s category. All other athletes (including men) will compete in an Open category. United Cycling International, World Athletics (track and field), and FINA (swimming) which govern international competition have taken major steps by banning trans-identifying males who did not “transition” before puberty in women’s events.

In the U.S. the picture is not so rosy. “Public accommodations” laws prioritizing gender identity are being exploited by males self-identifying as women. With help from the ACLU, they are filing aggressive lawsuits allowing them to compete and forcing female competitors to lose prize money and their place on the podium.  Professional Disc Golf and USA Powerlifting are trying to win back their sports for women and being sued. USA Cycling had been failing women for so long that 25-year-old champion cyclist, Hannah Arensmen, announced in March she was retiring. That tragedy will only be multiplied if the Biden Administration has its way with rewriting Title IX.          

The 2024 Paris Olympics could be a flash point for the future of women’s sports. The IOC has moved away from a uniform testosterone-based eligibility standard and taken a sport-by-sport approach that still, in principle, favors including trans-identifying males in women’s sports. Depending on where each sport organization lands, we could witness vastly different eligibility standards across countries and sporting events setting up a clash in competition that could dominate the world stage.