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‘She Represents Hate’: As Riley Gaines Prepares to Take the Adrian College Commencement Stage, Trans Alumni Question the School’s Decision

Gaines invitation seen as a slap in the face by one trans alumnus

Sarah Bricker Hunt

Riley Gaines, a former competitive swimmer and internet influencer who has garnered fame from an unapologetic anti-trans platform that likens transgenderism to “spiritual warfare,” will take the stage May 5 as the 2024 Adrian College commencement speaker despite backlash from current students, alumni and parents. 

Gaines was motivated to become an anti-trans crusader after she tied for fifth place with University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, who is a transgender woman, in the 200-meter freestyle competition at the 2022 NCAA National Championships.

Gaines’ visit to Adrian will be one of many college stops on the anti-trans crusader’s speaking tour. She made headlines in October after speaking to Harvard’s Network of Enlightened Women, a conservative women’s club. Nearby, a large group of students demonstrated against the event by holding what they called the “Big Trans Party.” That same month, while speaking at a fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Gaines likened transgender identities to “spiritual warfare.” “As a Christian myself, I entirely see this as spiritual warfare," she said at the event. “It’s no longer about right versus wrong or good versus bad. This really is about moral versus evil.”

Spoiler alert, commencement attendees — Gaines seems to use this framing frequently. Just this month at a University of Buffalo event she said, “We’re denying objective truth when we deny what a woman is. This is spiritual warfare. The whole movement is moral versus evil, light versus dark.”



In March, Adrian College and President Jeffrey Docking released a statement amid the overwhelmingly negative public response to the school’s decision to invite Gaines. “Adrian College has never shied away from presenting and debating substantive disagreements on campus. In fact, this is precisely the purpose of universities — to engage in civil discourse of controversial issues,” Docking was quoted in the release.

Alumnus Cole Bouck is skeptical about the claim that Gaines’ inclusion will foster discussion — after all, a commencement address does not offer opportunities for exchanging ideas. Gaines will have the microphone, and the audience will be expected to quietly listen with no opportunity for rebuttal. The college does not appear to be holding any other events featuring Gaines where the community could engage with her.

Leeann McKee, an Adrian College alumna who has competed as a trans athlete, is similarly skeptical. “[Gaines] is only notable in that she actively works to suppress trans people and turn sentiment against them,” she tells Pride Source. “I’m not sure how that message of hate is appropriate for a commencement speaker. If [Docking] wishes to have a robust debate of trans people and even trans athletes, he should arrange such with Riley Gaines and a trans advocate. Giving one side a prominent platform like a commencement speech is nothing less than promoting such a viewpoint.”

Leeann Mc Kee
Leeann McKee. Courtesy photo

Bouck attended the small Methodist university located about an hour southwest of Ann Arbor in the early ’80s at a pivotal time in his life — a time that influenced his decision to launch The R Cole Bouck LGBT and Ally Pride Scholarship at the school in 2017. “I came out as a sophomore there,” he explains. “We had a little support group.” While he would transfer to Michigan State the next year and eventually graduate from there, Bouck considers Adrian as the place that holds his college heart. “All my fun college memories, the meaningful relationships that I had, really came from Adrian.” 

By his estimation, Adrian College has nurtured and supported LGBTQ+ students for decades. He’s left puzzled by Docking’s decision to invite Gaines, who he says “represents hate,” to speak to a graduating class that will include queer and trans students.

R Cole Bouck. Courtesy photo
R Cole Bouck. Courtesy photo

Bouck described a pleasant, supportive process from Adrian’s Office of Development as he worked to set up and fund the scholarship. He even encouraged the school to check with the United Methodist Church to ensure the organization wouldn’t throw up roadblocks to establishing a fund specifically supporting LGBTQ+ students. “And there was no pushback,” he recalls. “It was quite a contrast to what we’re seeing now.”

Bouck says that for more than 25 years after he graduated from MSU with a degree in psychology, he returned to Adrian as a guest speaker for a human sexuality class, discussing his experiences living as an out gay man. “That would be the first time many of them would meet someone who was openly gay, and I also talked about my experience coming out at Adrian College,” he remembers. “Everything was on the table.”

Bouck isn’t sure the college would welcome that kind of engagement now, though students do have access to an LGBTQ+ support group called Safe Place (the group’s student advisor did not respond to a request for comment). 

Safe Place created an online petition that reads:

We, as a club dedicated to LGBTQIA+ rights and the prevention of injustices on campus, are deeply concerned about the decision of Adrian College in Michigan to invite Riley Gaines as a speaker for this year's commencement ceremony. This decision is not only inappropriate but also discredits the graduates who may be in alliance with or a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Riley Gaines has been known for her controversial stands that are far from inclusive. Her presence at such an important event could potentially harm those who support or belong to our community. We must create an environment where everyone feels respected and valued, especially during such significant moments as graduation.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 4 out of 10 LGBT students report being bullied at school (Human Rights Campaign). By inviting someone with controversial views on inclusivity, we risk further alienating these students and creating an environment that doesn't respect their identities.

We urge Adrian College administration to reconsider their choice of speaker for this year's commencement ceremony. Let us ensure our graduation is a celebration that respects all students' identities and values inclusivity above all else.

The petition has received more than 1,600 signatures, a number close to the college’s entire student enrollment of around 1,800.

Brodie Lobb, a trans alumnus who came out and transitioned while a student at Adrian College a few years ago, told Pride Source he is “outrageously disappointed” by the decision.

“I feel abandoned and discarded by my alma mater,” he says. “In my opinion, human rights are not ever debatable, and acting like they are trivializes and threatens human rights across all groups.” 

Brodie Lobb. Courtesy photo
Brodie Lobb. Courtesy photo

Lobb says he is unaware of Adrian College inviting an equally controversial speaker with a more progressive-leaning profile. “I imagine it has something to do with donors and trustees and their political leanings,” he says. “All this decision does is reinforce inaccurate and harmful misinformation about hormone therapy for transgender people and reinforce arguments about where transgender people can exist in public spaces and lead typical, fulfilling lives under the guise of ‘protecting women’s rights and Title IX.’” 

After hearing about Gaines’ invitation from Adrian College and reading the administration’s justification, Bouck considered pulling his scholarship. Ultimately, he decided to continue on with plans to fund the scholarship until it becomes self-sustaining through fundraising. "No, I've decided not to pull it,” he says. “I'll see how it goes next year. If it continues to be supported as it has been, then I feel obligated to try to keep that presence and have a part in the dialogue."

Pride Source contacted several departments at Adrian College, including the president’s office, but received no response — a surprising outcome given the school’s stated desire to engage in civil discourse with the community.  



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