Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning, former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines gave an emotion-filled testimony on what it was like to compete against a transgender athlete and what this means for other women and girls across the nation.
Gaines, who recently graduated from the University of Kentucky, said she "proudly" finished her swim career "as a 12-time NCAA All-American, a five-time SEC champion, the SEC record-holder in the 200 butterfly making me one of the fastest Americans of all time, a two-time Olympic trial qualifier, SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year, and SEC Community Service Leader of the Year, but all that to say that it’s a lifelong journey competing at that level and it’s impossible to put into words the amount of sacrifice and dedication that takes."
Gaines recalled that on March 17, 2022, she and her teammates, as well as female competitors from universities across the nation, were "forced to compete against biological male Lia Thomas."
"Thomas was allowed to compete in the women’s division after competing as a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s swim team for three years as Will Thomas."
"We watched on the side of the pool as Thomas swam to a national title in the 500 freestyle, beating out the most impressive and accomplished female swimmers in the country, including many Olympians and American record holders by body lengths." Gaines noted that Thomas had been ranked 462nd in the men’s division the previous year.
She recalled her race against Thomas, the 200 freestyle, in which she and Thomas ended up tied.
"We went the exact same time down to the hundredth of a second. Having only one trophy, the NCAA handed it to Thomas and told me I had to go home empty handed. And when I asked why, which was a question they were not prepared to be asked, I actually appreciate their honesty because they said Thomas, it was crucial Thomas had it for picture purposes."
"I felt betrayed. I felt belittled. I felt reduced to a photo op. But my feelings didn’t matter. What mattered to the NCAA were the feelings of a biological male."
Gaines recounted the enactment of Title IX in 1972 that prohibited sex discrimination in education, including athletics.
"By allowing Thomas to displace female athletes in the pool and on the podium, the NCAA intentionally and explicitly discriminated on the basis of sex. Although the NCAA claims it acted in the name of inclusion, its policies in fact excluded female athletes which are the very female athletes whom Title IX was passed to protect," said Gaines.
She said that in addition to "being forced to give up our awards and our titles and opportunities," the NCAA had "forced me and my female swimmers to share a locker room with Thomas, a six foot four, 22-year-old male equipped with and exposing male genitalia."
"Let me be clear about this: we were not forewarned we would be sharing the locker room. No one asked for our consent and we did not give our consent."
Recalling getting undressed in the presence of a male, Gaines said "If nothing else, I truly hope how you can see this as a violation of our right to privacy and how some of us have felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, and even traumatized by this experience."
Gaines said she spoke for many female athletes, saying she saw "the tears from ninth and 17th place finishers who missed out on being named an All American by one place," saw "extreme discomfort in the locker room" and heard "whispers and the grumbles of anger and frustration from these girls who just like myself had worked our entire lives to get to this meet."
Around the country, Gaines said, female athletes who oppose the inclusion of men in women’s sports have been threatened, intimidated, and "emotionally blackmailed into silence and submission."
"I hear these female athletes and their parents. I hear from these people who are seriously injured, one with permanent injuries that will plague the rest of her life because she was forced to compete against a much physically stronger man. This is unacceptable and the integrity of women's sports is lost. It's unfair. It's discriminatory, and it must stop.
"Women's rights to privacy single-sex spaces and opportunities are being encroached on. Sports, sororities, locker rooms, dorm rooms, shelters, prisons. Some have tried to tar those of us speaking up for women's safety, security and opportunities as transphobic or bigoted, and this is untrue," Gaines said, adding that she has heard from LGBTQ people across the nation who agree that males should be kept out of women’s sports.
"Defending women's rights is not anti-anyone, believing in biology is not bigoted, and following the science that there are only two sexes and that there are very real and important differences between the two sexes is not hateful, it’s fact."
During questioning, Gaines said that the issue was not one of politics, but rather a "real-life issue."
She said that "I don’t believe trans athletes should be banned from sports. That’s the rhetoric that’s being pushed from the opposition. Anti-trans bill bans trans athletes, trans athletes should not be banned from playing sports, of course not."
"I just want everyone to compete where it’s fair and where it’s safe. And I don’t understand how that’s overly controversial."
During a back-and-forth between Senator John Kennedy and President of the Human Rights Campaign & Human Rights Campaign Foundation Kelley Robinson over whether biological males have a physical advantage over females, the topic of the tennis stars the Williams sisters came up.
Gaines noted that Serena and Venus Williams "lost to the 203rd ranked male tennis player, which they’re phenoms for women."
"My experience, my husband, he swam at the University of Kentucky as well, in terms of accolades and in terms of national ranking, I was a much better swimmer than him."
"He could kick my but any day of the week without trying," Gaines said.
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