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College invited hate purveyor Riley Gaines to give commencement address. Students are furious.

Riley Gaines
Riley Gaines Photo: Screenshot

Students and alumni of Adrian College, a private liberal arts school near Ann Arbor, Michigan, are outraged that anti-trans activist Riley Gaines will be delivering the school’s commencement address this weekend. They say the decision to invite Gaines runs counter to the school’s mission statement of being “committed to the pursuit of truth and dignity of all people” and could endanger both the campus’s LGBTQ+ students and Gaines herself.

“Elevating this divisive and extremist symbol of hate with the largest megaphone and to the highest platform of an academic institution’s school year, their college graduation, as an alum, this is an embarrassing and hurtful decision. As a donor to the college, this is a bad investment decision,” R. Cole Bouck, creator of the Adrian College’s LGBT and Ally Pride scholarship told Michigan Advance earlier this week.

Gaines has been crusading against the rights of trans athletes since 2022, when she tied for fifth place with trans University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas in the women’s 200m freestyle final at the National Collegiate Athletics Association swimming and diving championships. Her argument that trans women uniformly possess unfair physical advantages over cisgender women has evolved over the past two years to include broader anti-trans claims, including that trans women pose a threat to cis women’s safety. She has become a darling of conservative media, which has allowed her to spew hateful misinformation.

“This is an important issue that should be discussed at colleges and universities throughout the United States,” Adrian College President Jeffrey Docking said in the school’s March 11 announcement that Gaines would address graduates at the spring commencement ceremony on May 5. “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. We welcome Riley Gaines to our beautiful campus, and we feel confident our students will be inspired by her commencement address.”

Notably, that announcement also misgendered Thomas and falsely called her “the first man who transitioned to win an NCAA Division I national championship.” The idea that people become transgender for the express purpose of winning at sports is a transphobic myth.

Safe Space, Adrian College’s LGBTQ+ student organization, launched a petition the same day, demanding the college disinvite Gaines. The petition now has over 1,600 signatures toward its 2,500 goal.

In a letter to Docking and the college’s board of trustees, Bouck wrote that Gaines’s “notoriety arises solely from her established record of intolerance and hate against trans persons and the LGBTQIA+ community more broadly – not just controversy, but HATE.”

He added that he would support having Gaines speak in a forum in which her anti-trans opinions and misinformation could be challenged. He takes issue with Adrian College forcing all students to listen to her uncontested. “This is, of course, an unkind thing to expect a graduating LGBTQIA+ or Ally senior and their family to have to consider for their college graduation ceremony,” he wrote.

Docking, meanwhile, is unmoved. He told Michigan Advance that the decision to invite Gaines to speak at the college’s commencement was entirely his own. He reiterated that he thinks the issue of trans women participating in women’s sports is worth addressing at the ceremony, though he would not say what his personal opinion on the subject was.

“First of all, this college is not endorsing her point of view,” Docking said. “Secondly, I think on college campuses sometimes people debate topics like this. Other times topics like this are presented.”

He’s also unconcerned by Bouck’s argument that the school’s graduation ceremony is the wrong place to have this “debate.”

“My feeling is with the amount of tuition that people pay to go to college, whether it’s here or somewhere else, that they should expect to be challenged, presented with thoughtful topics, things that need to be considered from the day they arrive until the day they leave,” Docking said, “and so I don’t think that a commencement address is necessarily a time that should be solely focused on just making everybody feel comfortable. I think that making people feel uncomfortable during a commencement address is very consistent with what colleges should be doing.”

In his letter to Docking, Bouck wrote that he worries Gaines’s speech will only further stoke animosity toward transgender people, and that backlash to her presence at the May 5 event could even endanger Gaines herself. “Extreme violence against trans people and incidents of mass violence have both skyrocketed over the past years and continue climbing. Why is Adrian College so interested and willing to stoke that fire so publicly?” Bouck wrote.

Docking told Michigan Advance that the college has gotten angry and even threatening phone calls since the announcement. Still, he said, no amount of negative feedback would make him disinvite Gaines.

Leann McKee, a 1984 Adrian College graduate who has since come out as trans, is one of the school’s alums who have spoken out in opposition to Gaines’s participation in the event. “She has no message to deliver other than she hates trans people. That’s her message,” McKee said. “Would she give an uplifting speech? Could she do all the things that you expect a commencement speaker to do? She could, but so could any member of the faculty that’s already there. They don’t need to bring in a controversial figure.”

“Her whole message is to minimize [trans people’s] experience, try to push them in the corner, and get public sentiment against them,” McKee added. “‘Let’s make laws to legislate trans people out of this. Let’s make up rules so that they can’t play sports. Let’s keep these people out of sight because ew, ick, we don’t like them.’”

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