Former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines spoke at the UC Davis Conference Center Friday night about women’s rights and the threat of trans women athletes in sports. Each seat in the half-empty room was prepared with a hot pink poster that read “Real Women Stand With Riley” and a bright pink rubber Livestrong bracelet.
The event, co-hosted by the Davis College Republicans and the conservative Leadership Institute, was removed from Eventbrite a week earlier for violating the platform’s Community Guidelines and Terms of Service.
“We do not allow content or events that — through on-or off-platform activity — discriminate against, harass, disparage, threaten, incite violence against, or otherwise target individuals or groups based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, veteran status, age, or disability,” the company’s Trust and Safety team wrote in a letter.
“I started going through the the groups of people who are protected under this policy,” Gaines told the crowd. “Of course, gender identity, sexual orientation, disabled veterans ... Nowhere in there does it mention it’s protected on the basis of sex, which is exactly how we got into this mess.”
Gaines entered to a standing ovation from around 150 attendees — mostly Davis community members, local school board members, and parents’ rights activists. She stood on the small stage wearing a shirt with a bright white “XX =/= XY” printed on the front, and
The event was met with a small protest and counter-protest outside of the Conference Center. Davis police reported no arrests, but two incidents of vandalism and two assaults, for which no one requested medical attention.
Gaines rose to prominence in the Republican Party and conservative media last year when she tied with trans athlete Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer who transitioned her senior year, for 5th place in the 200-yard NCAA freestyle championship.
“I got to personally witness and really feel the effect that this infringement that this injustice had on myself and my teammates and my competitors,” Gaines said, upon the NCAA’s decision to allow Thomas and trans women athletes to compete on women’s teams.
“I don’t claim to speak for every single female athlete on that pool deck. But I do claim to speak for the overwhelming majority of us because I can wholeheartedly attest to the tears that I saw from the girls who ... missed out on being named All-American (athletes) by one place.
And of course, the tears from the moms in the stands watching as their daughters were being obliterated in the sport that they once loved. And I can wholeheartedly attest to the extreme discomfort in the locker room when you turn around and there’s a 6’4, 22-year-old man fully intact exposing male genitalia inches away from where you were simultaneously undressing.”
‘I entirely see this as spiritual warfare’
Like many who oppose trans rights, Gaines repeatedly described her calling is a Biblical one.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention as a Christian myself, I entirely see this as spiritual warfare,” she said, echoing many other conservative Christian activists who oppose trans-inclusive policies, like Chino Valley School Board president Sonja Shaw, who last summer made similar comments outside the Capitol.
“I believe it’s not longer a battle of good versus bad, right versus wrong. I really do believe it’s a battle of moral versus evil.”
Gaines said she previously planned on becoming a dentist after college.
“But I realized pretty quickly that those were not the plans that God had for me,” she said.
“I realized that if He calls us, He equips us, just as he did with Esther before she was brought to the king, and Moses when he led the Israelites” to the Promised Land.
‘If that makes me a transphobe, so be it’
In Gaines’ talk, and her 15-minute Q&A session, she repeatedly dead-named and misgendered trans athletes and people. Using a trans person’s former name prior to their transition, or intentionally misgendering them as their biological sex, is considered harmful among medical professionals at the Cleveland Clinic, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But in Gaines’ world, and the world that gave her a standing ovation, this is ludicrous.
“It just cracks me up. To anyone who calls me a ‘transphobe’ — that word has literally no weight, no meaning, when you throw it around for my message here. There’s man, there’s woman, you can’t change your sex. If that makes me a transphobe, so be it,” she said, to cheers from the audience.
Those who toss that word around are simply misogynists who have “an utter disdain for women.”
Trans rights in Davis, the ‘epicenter of darkness’
The event drew more community members and political organizers than it did Davis students. In attendance were Moms for Liberty activists like Beth Bourne, who recently received a restraining order for allegedly harassing Davis public school teachers, local parents’ rights school board members like Roseville’s Jonathan Zachreson and Jean Pagnone, and Sophia Lorey, a former college athlete whose own effort to speak against trans athletes sparked friction between the LGBTQ community and anti-trans activists in the leafy college town over the summer.
Lorey sought to give a presentation against trans athletes in women’s sports at a public library in Davis last August; she was removed for referring to trans women athletes as “biological men.” In the months following, the library and public schools in Davis received six bomb threats.
Gaines called Lorey “a fantastic advocate.”
During the Q&A session, a Davis community member said that California “is a dark place on this issue,” with Davis serving as “the epicenter of darkness.” What words of encouragement, the young woman wondered, does Gaines have for the “warriors” on the front line?
“From what I’ve seen,” Gaines said, “I agree with you, it is an epicenter of darkness.”
Her advice: “stay aware, stay educated.”
“Have people around you who keep you grounded and unapologetic, who remind you that it’s okay to feel how you feel, and it’s okay to say what you say, and think how you think.”