Riley Gaines, a swimmer who has advocated against the participation of transgender women in women’s sports, drew criticism from dozens of demonstrators during her speaker event on campus Thursday evening.
Gaines was invited to campus by Harvard’s Network of Enlightened Women, a conservative women’s club. But students demonstrated against the event — held in Boylston Hall — by throwing what they described as a “Big Trans Party” at its entrance.
Groups including TransHarvard, the Queer Students Association, and the Harvard Law School’s Women’s Law Association gathered an hour before the event began to create posters and listen to speeches by organizers who criticized Gaines.
But inside the auditorium, which saw a heavy security presence from Securitas and the Harvard University Police Department, more than 100 attendees applauded Gaines’ speech.
Gaines is a former collegiate swimmer for the University of Kentucky who has been a vocal critic of transgender female athletes in women’s sports. She began her advocacy work after tying for fifth place in an NCAA freestyle championship with University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia K. Thomas — the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming event.
As Gaines’ talk began, demonstrators outside began speeches of their own. Schuyler M. Bailar ’19, a former Harvard swimmer who was the first openly transgender man to compete in NCAA Division I athletics, gave a speech praising the growth of trans advocacy at Harvard since his time as an undergraduate.
“People like her are happening because we’re making progress, right? Because we’re more visible than we ever were before. Because we actually are striving for more than what the box is that they put us in,” he said.
Chastity Bowick, an ambassador for the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts, emphasized the importance of visibility for trans students.
“I want more and more trans people to have the opportunity to grace this campus, to play sports and to become the next dean or the next president of Harvard University,” she said. “Continue letting your voices be heard — your faces be seen — because that is the only way that we’re going to create concrete change for our trans youth.”
During the speaker event, Gaines repeatedly misgendered transgender athletes, including Thomas, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“Men are men, women are women. There are only two sexes. You can’t change your sex and each sex is deserving of equal opportunities,” she said.
Gaines touched on several policies from international sports governing bodies, criticizing those that permitted transgender athletes to compete with athletes of the same gender identity.
“The Olympics says there’s no difference whatsoever between men and women, which is lunacy. We all know there are differences between men and women,” she said.
Still, Gaines described her views as “pro-woman,” not “anti-trans.”
“I think if we’re labeling pro-woman as anti-trans, wouldn’t that inherently mean pro-trans is anti-woman? I’m most certainly pro-woman and I’m not advocating for the exclusion of trans athletes,” Gaines said. “You just compete where it is fair and where it’s safe.”
Gaines said being called transphobic carries “literally no meaning” for her.
“It’s almost — truthfully — as if it’s a term of endearment because of how often it’s thrown around,” she said.
Gaines said she believes productive discourse is “lacking in our society,” adding that she urges “everyone to think for themselves.”
“Other than the fact that we live in a godless society, I think the two scariest things about our society is the inability to think for oneself and the unwillingness to admit when we’re wrong,” Gaines said.
Oliver J. Slayton ’26, the deputy director of TransHarvard, said the demonstration outside the event aimed to show trans athletes that they are supported at Harvard.
“This is really just a visual manifestation and a physical manifestation of what that community really looks like when it’s powerful, in that we all get to be together,” Slayton said.
Corrections: October 27, 2023
A previous version of this article used the incorrect middle initial for Lia K. Thomas.
A previous version of this article incorrectly sated that Schuyler M. Bailar ’19 was the first openly transgender man to compete in NCAA athletics. In fact, Bailar was the first openly transgender man to compete in NCAA Division I athletics.