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Riley Gaines Comes to Harvard: 'Not Anti-Trans, but Pro-Woman'
By Sarah Steele
Conservative activist Riley Gaines arrived on campus last Thursday to speak to an audience of around 100 students. Gaines, an accomplished former member of the University of Kentucky’s Division I women’s swim team, spoke about her experiences competing against transgender athletes and subsequently advocating for the protection of women’s sports as a female-only activity.
Outside Boylston Hall, members of the student organization TransHarvard flew baby pink and blue trans flags and gathered under tents to enjoy cupcakes and pizza for a “Big Trans Party” to protest the event. Protestors also had signs with slogans like “Protect Trans Kids,” “When you ignore existance, [sic] expect resistance”, and “Riley’s ‘Evil’ = Our Joy,” and handed attendees one-pagers offering counterpoints to Gaines’ expected remarks.
In introducing Gaines, the event’s hosts discussed the importance of allowing a wide variety of viewpoints on campus, noting that Harvard policy allows audience members to protest a speaker for 10 minutes before being removed by campus security. In the end, no one attempted to disrupt the event.
Gaines herself began by mentioning the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression’s recent free speech rankings, which listed Harvard dead last. She also reminded the audience of the meaning of the school’s motto, “Veritas,” which Gaines translated as both “truth” and “reality.”
Much of Gaines’ talk involved her experience competing against transgender athlete Lia Thomas. According to Gaines, Thomas’ sudden emergence at the top levels of the sport was unusual. In addition to winning the 500-yard freestyle at the 2022 NCAA Championship, Thomas beat the closest competitor in the 1,650-yard freestyle by 38 seconds at the 2021 Zippy Invitational. Gaines clarified: “That’s like saying your best sprinter is your best marathon runner. It doesn’t happen.” Gaines also claimed that Thomas’s performances were largely unremarkable when competing against male athletes.
She described her teammates’ dismay at the unfairness of the competition, sharing how one athlete said resignedly, “I just got beat by someone that didn’t have to try.” When Gaines and Thomas tied in a championship race, NCAA officials denied Gaines the trophy because they were “advised” to place Thomas in the limelight.
While Gaines balked at the unfairness of the competition, she seemed even more disturbed by the lack of protection for her teammates in the locker room. When the NCAA unceremoniously declared the locker rooms “unisex” to accommodate Thomas, Gaines said she felt “betrayed and violated.” She wondered, “Whose dad is going to take this person out of the women’s locker room?” and “What happened to Title IX?”
Publicly, the majority of Gaines’ peers have been silent on the issue. According to Gaines, this is in part because of advice from coaches and administrative staff: an email apparently circulated to the Harvard women’s swim team encouraged team members not to comment on Thomas’ participation. Gaines’ “translation” of the email on X (formerly Twitter) said that it attempted to “emotionally blackmail [athletes] into accepting mistreatment.”
Nevertheless, Gaines says that athletes, parents, coaches, and even the former head of the NCAA have all encouraged her privately to “keep pushing” for what’s “right.”
“I’m not anti-trans, I’m pro-woman,” Gaines explained; when critics call her a “transphobe,” she shoots back “misogynist!” Gaines insisted there must be a way to allow transgender athletes to participate in competitive sports without depriving female athletes of fair competition and private locker rooms. Per a Gallup poll from this June, sixty-nine percent of Americans believe that transgender athletes should compete on teams corresponding to their biological sex.
Gaines has also taken her cause to state legislatures. Her advocacy has led to several states passing a Women’s Bill of Rights with language mirroring the following from Oklahoma’s statute:
“The state…shall not be prohibited from establishing distinctions between sexes when such distinctions are substantially related to an important government objective including but not limited to biology, privacy, safety, or fairness in locations and circumstances such as prisons or other detention facilities, domestic violence shelters, rape crises centers, athletics and locker rooms, and restrooms.”
According to Gaines, 23 states have also passed “Fairness in Women’s Sports” acts which restrict the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports.
Still, Gaines says her work is not yet done: the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) “Framework on Fairness” states that “athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status.”
Watch Gaines’ full talk here.