‘Spiritual warfare’: Riley Gaines speaks against trans women in women’s sports at on-campus event


Ethan Shulman | Senior Staff Photographer

Riley Gaines speaks in the O’Hara Ballroom on Monday evening.

By Alexandra Ross, Assistant News Editor

To Riley Gaines, the fight to exclude transgender women from women’s sports is more than a political issue — it’s “spiritual warfare.”

“What we’re being asked to do is to deny objective truth. It’s to deny the sky is blue, is to say that men and women are the same,” Gaines said. “We’re equal, but we’re not the same … I feel like we’re in this battle of really spiritual warfare. It’s no longer good or bad or right or wrong. This is like moral versus evil.” 

Moments later, Gaines clarified that she was not calling all trans individuals “evil.”

Gaines, a former collegiate swimmer, spoke in front of roughly 70 people in the O’Hara ballroom Monday night about her experiences competing and advocating against transgender women in women’s athletics. Pitt’s Turning Point USA chapter hosted the event, which was open to Pitt affiliates and community members. After her speech, Gaines took audience questions — TPUSA’s president, Liliana Orozco, specifically requested to first hear from opposing viewpoints during the Q&A portion of the event. 

Gaines rose to national fame last year after tying with transgender athlete Lia Thomas for fifth place in the 200-meter freestyle race of the 2022 NCAA championships. At Pitt, she told the story of her journey in collegiate swimming, including her NCAA championship appearance against Thomas and her experiences in political activism since graduating from the University of Kentucky last year. 

Gaines said the silencing of her opinions on transgender athletes is “much scarier” than the unfairness caused by the athletes participating in womens’ sports. She cited Pennsylvania Rep. La’Tasha Mayes’ speech on campus Friday night, in which the lawmaker called on the University to cancel Gaines’ appearance. 

“Someone who is supposed to uphold the law and the Constitution and what America was founded on — which is freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to protest, freedom to organize all of the amazing freedoms that we have in this country — someone who’s supposed to uphold those presented on why I should not be able to use my voice and why it’s so important that I use my voice,” Gaines said. “That’s terrifying.”

Though a large protest — which took over the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard for roughly an hour and a half — and many calls to cancel Gaines’ appearance preceded the event, her speech itself went on with relatively few interruptions. 

Farah Mili, a sophomore psychology major, interrupted Gaines twice. The first time, Mili asked about the four cisgender women who beat Gaines and Thomas at the NCAA championships. The second time, as Gaines spoke about seeing Thomas’ genitalia in a locker room at the NCAA championships, Mili called out, “Why were you looking?” Associate Dean of Students Steve Anderson walked over to Mili and spoke to her privately, after which she did not interrupt again. Prior to the event, audience members were informed that Pitt police could remove any attendees for excessive disruptions. 

For much of the remainder of the event, Mili silently held up a sign reading, in part, “Tied for 5th? Skill Issue.”

While most of her speech centered on athletics, Gaines also spoke out against the White House’s interpretation of Title IX to ban discrimination based on gender identity instead of solely sex. She also applauded laws which exclude transgender women from the definition of the word “woman” and warned about “men who [apply] to be women” in the prison system. 

“I’m not saying that every trans individual transitions to win trophies or to get in women’s bathrooms or to get in women’s prisons. I’m not saying that for every trans individual. But do we not see how the system we have in place, people will take advantage of that system?” Gaines said. “We know that we live in a country where there are very deluded people … People will take advantage of the system that we have in place, that the only requirement to be a woman is to say you are a woman.”

Stacy Cremer, a junior psychology and history and philosophy of science double major, asked Gaines if she would support transgender women participating in women’s sports if hormone replacement therapy could effectively mitigate testosterone-related physical advantages in trans female athletes. Gaines responded that because HRT can’t eliminate advantages such as lung size or limb size, she would still not support transgender women athletes in women’s athletics.

Gabby Yearwood, a senior lecturer of anthropology who teaches a course called Anthropology of Sport, asked Gaines multiple questions. One of Yearwood’s questions regarded the anatomical advantages of Michael Phelps. Phelps could have Marfan Syndrome, which causes an increased wingspan — a potentially significant advantage in swimming. Gaines said the advantages of this condition are “not equivalent by any means” to the physical advantages of being born male.

Gaines posed a question to Yearwood as an anthropologist — “If you were to dig up a human, two humans in 100 years from now, both men and women, could you tell the difference strictly off the bones?”

Yearwood started to say no, but was cut off by laughter and interjections from the room of attendees. 

“Have any of you studied biological anthropology?” Yearwood asked. “I’m just curious why I’m being laughed at when I’m the expert in the room.” 

“Believe it or not, I have put a lot of research into this,” Gaines replied, to which Yearwood said, “I have a Ph.D.”

After the event ended, Cremer said they were left with questions for Gaines and the event’s attendees. 

“I want to know why they think what they did, especially to the anthropology professor, didn’t count as silencing,” Cremer said.