Riley Gaines brings her ‘Speak Louder’ campus tour to Hannibal LaGrange University

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Riley Gaines, 23, on stage Wednesday night at the Roland Fine Arts Center at HLGU. She sat down for an audience Q&A after speaking to the crowd about her stance on preserving women's sports for biological women. Photo by Megan Duncan

HANNIBAL, Mo. — Riley Gaines spoke to a local crowd at Hannibal LaGrange University on Wednesday night after spending the afternoon getting to know some HLGU students.

Gaines, the director of The Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute, has become a leading national voice in preserving women’s sports for biological females. She has been around the country with her ‘Speak Louder’ campus tour, which is sponsored by the Leadership Institute.

Gaines’ speaking career began after she tied with transgender swimmer Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania in the NCAA 200-yard freestyle event. When Thomas was decided as the winner of their tie, Gaines said the official stammered with his answers before finally leveling with her.

“He looked at me and I could tell he didn’t even believe what he was about to say. His eyes changed. His voice changed. He said, ‘Riley, I am so sorry, but we have been advised that when photos are being taken, it’s crucial that the trophy is in his hands,’” Gaines said. 

Gaines, who was an All-SEC swimmer at the University of Kentucky, said it was the race her teammates had worked all their lives to compete in, and when Thomas was announced as a competitor, the swimmers were not given an option to protest.

“About three weeks before national championships in March of 2022, they announced that Thomas’s participation in the women’s category was non-negotiable (as they are now someone who identifies as a female). There was nothing that we could do. There were no questions that we could ask or concerns that we could raise. We were told that we had to accept this with smiles on our faces,” she said. “And so I got to personally witness and really feel the effect of this infringement–or how I would describe it, how this injustice–affected myself, my teammates, and my competitors.”

During the transition from men’s sports to women’s sports, Thomas’s rank went from 65th on the men’s team to 1st on the women’s team in the 500-yard freestyle, and 554th on the men’s team to 5th on the women’s team in the 200-yard freestyle.

Gaines said the obvious advantage and preferential treatment Thomas received from the NCAA motivated her to speak out for women in sports. Gaines is also speaking out for single sex spaces for women’s sports, which includes locker rooms.

Thomas is 6’1 and, while identifying as a female, has male genitalia, which was often exposed in the locker room to Thomas’s teammates and competing teams. Gaines reported 38 of her 40 teammates told her they were uncomfortable with changing in the locker with Thomas for the week of competition. 

Gaines said 16 of Thomas’s teammates, plus their parents, signed an email expressing their discomfort–this is half of Thomas’s teammates. Thomas’s teammates undressed together 18 times every week of the season.

Gaines said the University of Pennsylvania responded to the email with a no.

“I have a screenshot of the response, which said ‘If you feel uncomfortable seeing male genitalia, here’s some counseling resources that you should seek in an attempt to re-educate yourselves.’ 

“They even went as far as to tell these girls that if you do speak out, and any harm whatsoever comes towards Thomas’s way–whatever that harm may be–then you’re solely responsible and that will make you responsible for potential death. ‘And you don’t want to be a murderer, do you?’

“I mean, think about that. They equate advocating for fair play and privacy in areas of undressing to being a murderer, and all these girls that would have blood on their hands if they spoke out. Believe it or not, that’s effective in keeping 20 year old girls quiet,” Gaines said.

Gaines spoke of Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title IX applies to schools, local and state educational agencies, and other institutions that receive federal financial assistance.

These recipients include approximately 17,600 local school districts, over 5,000 postsecondary institutions, and charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries, and museums.

Gaines is fighting against the Biden administration, which she said is pursuing “an illegal administrative rewrite of Title IX.” If passed, it will no longer prevent discrimination on the basis of gender, but will instead prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity. 

“It’s a lot broader than just women’s sports. Men can take academic and athletic scholarships from a woman. They would have full access to women’s dorms and changing spaces on campuses. Men could join sororities, which is already happening. 

“These girls in the sisterhood got the brother they never wanted,” Gaines joked. 

“Under this new rewrite, if a 17-year-old girl was housed with a male on her college campus and goes to administration and complain, she is guilty and can be charged with sexual harassment. Not the man who has paraded around in the locker room–that’s brave and stunning and inspiring and whatever other virtuous word they want to use. 

“But calling a spade a spade is grounds for sexual harassment. Actually, by the time April comes–if the Biden administration follows through with this–then I’m guilty of sexual harassment right now for standing here calling Thomas a male and not using his preferred pronouns,” Gaines continued. 

Gaines’ appreciated the warm reception from HLGU and the Hannibal community. She spent the day with HLGU athletes, and acknowledged one of the student’s birthday while on stage.

In other places she has spoken, people have protested her arrival, spit on her, thrown glass bottles at her, and poured drinks on her. She said drones have flown over her home and people have shown up at her front door.

On April 6, Gaines was held hostage in a small room at San Francisco State University by protesters. After speaking, Gaines said, in an obviously coordinated effort, the lights went off protesters stormed in. People began hitting, punching and pushing her.

“They barricaded me in this room for hours on end where they demanded that if I wanted to make it home to see my family safely and I had to pay them money,” Gaines said. 

Gaines said the San Francisco police were held with her. 

“I’m looking at the officers and I’m pretty sure we’re being held against our will. I am pretty sure we call that kidnapping,” she said. 

She asked the police why they weren’t doing anything about the situation.

“‘They responded with, ‘No, actually we can’t do anything. They told me, ‘We’re not allowed to be seen as anything other than an ally to this community. We will lose our jobs. So we’ll just wait it out.’”

The Dean of Students negotiated with the students that Gaines would pay each of them $10 for her release.

“Which makes me kind of mad because I think I’m worth more than $10. But there was a ton of protesters so it really ended up at a fair price,” she said with a laugh.

Gaines later discovered the Vice President of Student Affairs sent a university-wide email the next morning.

“The email said, ‘We are so proud of our brave students for handling Riley Gaines in the manner that they did. We know how deeply traumatic her presence is on our campus. So here are some counseling resources for you guys. Please take the day off of school. Know that we love you. We see you, we hear you and we stand with you,’” Gaines said. “Yeah, it is pretty appalling.”

Gaines said this type of push back often prevents others from speaking out on the topic.

Gaines said she harbors no hate toward Lia Thomas. She also said her motivation was not due to losing a trophy, because as an All-American swimmer, she has plenty of trophies.  

She said it’s much bigger than that. Truth and love go hand-in-hand.

“I think the premise is that we’re denying objective truth, we are denying a biblical truth in the way that God created man and woman. When we deny that, it’s as if we’re denying that the sky is blue; it’s as if we’re saying two-plus-two is five,” she said. “We live in a time where the world tells you to live your truth. No, it is to obey the Lord your God and not to follow your heart. Your heart needs to be renewed by Jesus Christ. We need to obey the word.”

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