HENDERSONVILLE, Tennessee – Riley Gaines, a 12-time All-American swimmer for the University of Kentucky turned women’s sports advocate, told a group in her native Sumner County that the issue is not just a matter of fairness in sports but one of freedom of speech and denying objective truths.

Gaines spoke at the monthly meeting of the Sumner County Constitutional Republicans (SCCR), which moved across the road to the Beech Cumberland Church from its usual meeting location at the Shackle Island Fire Rescue building, due to the crowd size numbering well over 100.

Gaines famously swam against transgender swimmer Lia Thomas – formerly known as Will – who spent three years on the University of Pennsylvania men’s swim team before entering the final year as a female swimmer.

In March 2022, Gaines and Thomas tied in a 200 freestyle race. With only one trophy, an NCAA official gave it to Thomas and told Gaines, when she questioned the official’s thought process, that Thomas had to have the trophy for pictures.

“When the official reduced everything I had worked for to a photo op to validate the feelings and the identity of a biological male, that’s when I was done,” Gaines told the SCCR attendees.

Gaines shared that turning point in her life after she explained to the group the long road in her record-breaking, highly-decorated career, which began at just at four years of age.

In her fast-paced, engaging manner, Gaines talked about her grueling schedules, missing proms, family vacations and sleepovers and swimming in Old Hickory Lake when pools and gyms were shut down during COVID. She, as well as her teammates, had worked their whole lives to get to that moment of the national championship.

That’s when Gaines said she realized she was done waiting for someone else to stick up for them.

“I thought someone was supposed to be protecting us. These people were supposed to be there to ensure that everything was fair, ensure everything is safe, ensure that we’re being protected.”

“But then it kind of hit me that we, as female athletes, if we’re not willing to stick up for ourselves, how can we expect someone else to stick up for us,” Gaines said.

Gaines went on to set the scene in the locker room, where Thomas – an over six-foot tall man – walked in and dropped his clothes and exposed his male genitalia to 18 to 22 year old girls.

This is important to share, Gaines said, “because when people hear a transwoman or transgender athlete competing as a woman, they think of someone who is fully committed to transitioning, has had the transgender surgery, has testosterone levels that are computable, but that is so far from what we experienced.” Gaines also said that Thomas was still active with women at the time, to groans from the crowd.

Later, Gaines was nominated by her school as NCAA Woman of the Year, which is very prestigious for its recognition of achievements in athletics, academics and community service. Thomas was also nominated by University of Pennsylvania, making Gaines realize that what happened with the swimming competition was not a one-off.

“Clearly, they’re encouraging this. They’re celebrating it. They’re celebrating a man taking scholarship spots and opportunities away from women,” Gaines recognized.

Gaines got a coalition of groups together from all over the political spectrum and started a petition which garnered nearly 10,000 signatures in just a few days. The petition and a demand letter threatening legal action if discrimination on the basis of sex was not stopped were taken to the conference and handed directly to the NCAA.

At the convention, athletic directors and even then-NCAA president Mark Emmert quietly told Gaines that they supported what she was doing and to keep up the fight. The athletic directors also confided that they could not publicly state their support for fear of retaliation and that they feel like they’re being silenced.

Female athletes like Thomas’s teammates are also being silenced, relayed Gaines. They were forced to go to anti-LGBTQ meetings on a weekly basis, told that Thomas is oppressed because of them, and that if they spoke out and any physical, mental, emotional harm came to Thomas, they would be solely responsible.

“Truthfully, it’s not just an issue of fairness in sports. This is an issue of freedom of speech. There’s a whole lot more at stake when we don’t have the right to the freedom of our speech, which is something that our country was founded on. That’s what makes America so great, all the freedoms we have – our religion, of course, our speech. But, they’re trying to suppress that,” said Gaines.

Sitting back from her current position, Gaines realizes, too, “We’re changing our language.” Gaines called out that it is now offensive to use the words mom, mother and motherhood and changing of the word breastfeeding to chest feeder.

She questioned why it’s happening only to women, and pointed out that the definition of man or male or terms that apply directly to men are not being changed.

“What’s happening in our society, and COVID expedited this,” Gaines also said, “but denying objective truths. We are denying what it is to be a man and woman. That’s like denying that the sky is blue, saying the grass is not green. It’s almost as if we’re living in this George Orwell dystopian novel where they’re trying to make us say two plus two is five, but we know two plus two is not five. We know what a woman is. It’s really no longer a battle of good, bad, right, wrong. This is about moral versus evil. More than anything this is a spiritual warfare. This past year, I have seen so blatantly how God works, but I’ve also seen how the devil is present and how the devil works.”

Gaines said she felt like she was talking about the issue and shedding light, but not making changes, so that’s when she started getting involved on the legislative side. Totally out of pocket and putting her plans to go to dental school on hold, Gaines has travelled to various states to share her testimony and help them to create policies and pass bills. There have now been 19 states that have passed some sort of fairness in women’s sports bill with more in process, reported Gaines to loud applause.

Meanwhile, Gaines said, the Biden administration is working to rewrite the Title IX civil rights law that prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating on the basis of sex, even though that’s what she and the other women athletes had been dealing with.

The 700-page rewrite, among other things, would change Title IX to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, which means that men could live in dorm rooms with women, use locker rooms, bathrooms, changing rooms, join sororities and take athletic and academic scholarships away from women, explained Gaines.

Gaines said another important piece she sometimes forgets to mention because she didn’t have to deal with it in swimming, a non-contact sport, is injury.

“Girls genuinely have to worry about their safety when playing a sport where you’re striking something at one another, when you’re running at one another at full speed, when you’re hitting each other whatever that might look like,” said Gaines.

Prize money in certain sports, like disc golf, is another concern for Gaines.

“Just this year alone, there’s a male competing against the women who’s taken $47,000 in prize money from female winners who rightfully earned that money and a lot of these women rely on that money. That’s their income, how they are able to feed their children and get by,” said Gaines.

County Commissioner Jeremy Mansfield said a prayer as attendees laid their hands on Riley Gaines.

Gaines doesn’t think trans individuals should be banned from playing sports, but wants a way to ensure fairness. The state bills are often touted as banning trans athletes, said Gaines, although no one is banning trans athletes.

They should be able to play, but play so it’s “fair and safe,” said Gaines, “and ensures everyone a chance at success.”

Historically, Gaines said, women are a marginalized and oppressed group and are in jeopardy. While Gaines had numerous short story examples to demonstrate the severity and impact of the trans gender issue both within and outside of sports, she said she could go on to tell stories for hours.

She did say that the side that is relentless in their attacks claims to be tolerant, accepting, inclusive, loving, and welcoming. “But I have not experienced that,” Gaines said.

Gaines also encouraged, “It’s so important to stand firm and stand firm in truth. Be bold. Use your voice. Don’t be scared, because I promise you, there is so much more sanity, so much more support and overwhelming majority on this side than there is the opposing.”

As one who was there and experienced the disrespect and immaturity, Gaines briefly addressed the incident at the Hendersonville Public Library during the Kirk Cameron story time event on February 25.

“The video,” which Gaines said was out, deleted and is back out, “highlights exactly how the librarians acted towards us. Us being people who were just there trying to spread the good Lord’s word, trying to teach children values and morals that our country was founded on. But that being said, I do want to say that I hate that it resulted in termination someone’s livelihood.”

Once Gaines had completed her remarks and a question-and-answer period that went about an hour and 15 minutes in total, SCCR leader Kurt Riley joined her at the podium to give her the group’s Patriot Award.

“Because I think you embody everything that this award is,” Riley said, “I want to read it to you.”

“In the face of tyranny, you stood for righteousness and truth. Your courage and bravery put others above yourself, and your willingness to stand boldly in the face of tyrants makes you an ultimate American patriot.”

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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter with The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Tennessee Star.