LARAMIE — Women's rights activist Riley Gaines was excited to speak at the University of Wyoming on Tuesday because she admires the sorority sisters on campus who are fighting a court battle to keep sororities all-female, Gaines told Cowboy State Daily ahead of the event.
"This is probably one of the ones I'm looking forward to most, for a couple reasons: one being the sorority case that's been going on here," said Gaines in her interview before her Tuesday "Speak Louder" presentation in front of hundreds at an auditorium on the UW campus, an event organized by Turning Point USA. "I've developed great friendships with those girls over the past year or so."
The sorority women keep Gaines updated on the progress of their case against their Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority headquarters, Gaines said.
"I reach out to them a lot too, just wanting to give them encouragement because I know for a college-age girl, dealing with the backlash they're seeing — I know all too well what that looks like and I know how disheartening, draining, time-consuming; the toll it can take on you mentally,” she said.
At 23, Gaines is not much older than the plaintiffs.
Surveying the massive crowd just before the event, one of those sorority sisters, Allie Coghan, characterized the turnout and energy as heartening.
"It just goes to show there's so much more support than people are willing to say," said Coghan. "It's so much bigger than just us."
Gaines herself has been subjected to actual violence, threats, name-calling and public vitriol over her past 18 months of activism challenging the growing movement of transgender women entering women's sports and spaces.
She said her rigorous 18 years of swimming, including about six months of swimming in a lake when the pools closed down because of COVID-19, to compete with the fastest women in the nation are now helping her compartmentalize all that hatred.
"Being an athlete, you have to deal with pressure. Putting yourself through misery and practices on days even when you don't want to, and I think a lot of that prepared me for the backlash I face," she said. "I have a support system around me. I have an amazing family and friends."
Gaines said her Christian faith also helps to keep her grounded.
It was a message Gaines carried to the stage at UW, where she quoted Bible verses, spoke in admiration of the Old Testament's Jewish heroine Esther, and said Christians should stop being complacent.
Gaines' speaking event attracted more than 600 attendees, according to a rough count by a Turning Point USA leader.
Among those were Republican state Reps. Jeanette Ward of Casper and Tamara Trujillo of Cheyenne; Wyoming Secretary of State Chuck Gray, members of the Moms For Liberty group, the Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Women's Network; and Todd Schmidt, a Laramie church elder who protested the inclusion of the transgender member in the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and filed a lawsuit for speech rights on campus.
'Love Your Neighbor'
A small, nonviolent protest arose about 10 minutes into Gaines' speech. About two rows of attendees stood and ripped up the event posters they'd found on their seats, which read "Cowgirls Stand With Riley." Then a few of them shouted "Love your neighbor!" and walked out.
"I certainly do, and I love you and I'll be praying for you," called out Gaines in response.
What Is A Woman?
Representative Ward rose to ask Gaines a question publicly after her speech and to rally for Gaines' support at the Wyoming Legislature.
Ward said she's sponsoring a bill titled "What Is A Woman?" that seeks to legally codify the definition of a woman as someone who produces ova. She asked if Gaines would testify before the Wyoming Legislature in favor of the bill.
"Girl, yes," answered Gaines.
Gaines went on to say that had there been a solid legal definition of the word "woman" in the state law, then U.S. District Court Judge Alan B. Johnson would not have ruled against the Kappa Kappa Gamma plaintiffs, driving them to appeal to the 10th Circuit.
This is uncertain, however.
Johnson ruled Aug. 25 that Kappa has a First Amendment right, established in case law, called the expressive association right, which means it can make and interpret its own rules of membership.
He declined to define the word "woman" on the sorority's behalf.
While the women's legal challenge is hinged upon the sorority's alleged bending of its own rules and warping of its voting systems to admit the transgender member, rather than upon any state law, the controlling case in Johnson's decision, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, did involve a private organization retaining its membership rights in the face of a contrary state law.
A Splash Of Politics
Gaines lamented that the transgender issue has become political at all.
She said of 40 women on her swimming team, 38 of them disagreed with having to compete against and/or change in the same room as NCAA transgender swimmer Lia Thomas.
She said she's been working with congressional delegates on defining the word "woman" in federal law as well, but that effort has stalled out in the U.S. Senate after clearing the House.
Gaines took a slight dig at Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, saying she's disheartened to see Republican women in leadership abandoning "family values."
She went on generally to bemoan when politicians "create illegitimate outrage for personal gain."
Gaines then encouraged people to adhere to their moral compasses, to "(be) proactive rather than reactive. Be unwavering," and said she hopes society can build a system "where things don't just collapse when we disagree with one another."
'Blood On Your Hands'
One of Gaines' most grave recollections was of what she called "silencing."
She said leaders in college athletics silenced her and her teammates by telling them that if they spoke out against Thomas' inclusion in their sport, and then if any harm came to Lia Thomas — whether by others' hands or by Thomas' own hand — then the women would have blood on their hands.
They'd also be unemployable and known as transphobes and awful people, Gaines recalled from those discussions.
She characterized this as manipulation and said everyone, men and women, has a duty to stand up to it by "standing in the truth."
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.