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Protestors against Penn senior Lia Thomas competing in the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships were met by counter-protestors who came out in support of Thomas on March 17, 2022.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

ATLANTA — Hours before transgender Penn swimmer Lia Thomas earned a historic victory at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships, a vocal crowd gathered outside the aquatic facility — some in support of her and other trans athletes, and some to protest her participation.

Protestors 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 sports.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

A protest sign with the words #PennCheats outside the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center on March 17, 2022, as Lia Thomas competed inside.

Ever since breaking records at the Zippy Invitational in December, Thomas has been at the center of a national debate surrounding transgender athletes.

By 12 p.m., protestors had assembled a podium and microphone for a roster of speakers — who proceeded to champion transphobic rhetoric. Speaking in front of a small crowd of national and local media, the speakers and additional protestors on the sidelines alleged that transgender women participating in sports threaten women's rights, and invalidated Thomas' gender identity by misgendering and deadnaming her.

A group of Georgia Tech students — some of whom were affiliated with campus groups, and some of whom happened upon the scene — said that the presence of the protestors in front of the NCAA venue made them feel uncomfortable on a traditionally safe and inclusive campus. They also denounced the transphobia of the protestors.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Supporters of Lia Thomas outside of the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center on March 17, 2022.

“What I see [are] grown adults coming to a college campus and bullying a woman who's trying to compete in the sport which 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 this coming to our campus and disturbing our peace?”

Avery Quick, a Georgia Tech student, said that she was just walking to class when she encountered the protest. Her frustration at the situation motivated her to counter several of the protestors' arguments — engaging in lengthy debates with them where she defended Thomas' right to swim.

"It's so f***ing annoying," Quick told the DP. "We're proud to have the amazing center that we do — we always have swimmers come here for competitions. It sucks that it is not a safe place for her."

Quick added that homophobic and transphobic legislation currently in development — such as Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill that would ban classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ issues, and Georgia's “Save Girls Sports Act” which would ban transgender women from competing on women's sports teams — also upset her. 

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Supporters of Lia Thomas outside of the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center on March 17, 2022.

Students added that while they were open to respectful discourse on contentious topics, the behavior of some of the protestors and the manner in which the protest was conducted made them feel unsafe.

“We don't want to like necessarily curtail their freedoms. We just want to provide a counter-narrative and like make a lot of people to know that real Georgia Tech students want to feel safe," Naiki Kaffezakis, the president of the Grad Pride organization at Georgia Tech, told the DP.

Annabelle Rutledge, the national director of Young Women for America, a CWA subgroup, said she flew into Atlanta from Washington, D.C. to protest Thomas’ participation in the championship. She added that some of the protestors with YWA came in from Tennessee.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Annabelle Rutledge, the national director of Young Women for America, flew into Atlanta from Washington, D.C. to protest Lia Thomas' participation in the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships.

Just today, Concerned Women for America — a socially conservative, evangelical Christian organization — filed an official complaint against Penn under Title IX, alleging that it is “refusing to protect the rights of college female athletes.”

While individual protestors cycled out, scattered Save Women's Sports members 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 fastest time of the season.

"I just wish these people would leave our campus," Quick said.

Sports Editor Esther Lim contributed reporting to this article.