Former 12-time All-American University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines has faced criticism for her recent advocacy for women in sports. In March of 2022, Gaines and her fellow female athletes were faced with the unthinkable: in order to compete in the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, they would need to share the pool, accolades, and changing spaces with a biological man. In this article, I hope to show why Riley Gaines’s protest was in fact loving—to her fellow teammates, to Thomas, and ultimately to God.
Co-Ed Swimming: A Man Among Women
By now, the story of Lia Thomas is well known. Lia Thomas (born William Thomas) is a biological male who competed on the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s swim team for three years until he began to identify as a woman and joined the women’s team. Thomas quickly made headlines, winning at least one race in every meet he competed. By the end of the 2021-2022 season, Thomas was the highest ranked women’s swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania and the Ivy League, en route to becoming the first person who identifies as transgender to win a NCAA Championship. He was celebrated for his “bravery” by mainstream media and was even nominated by the University of Pennsylvania for the NCAA’s 2022 “Woman of the Year” award.
1. Editor’s Note: for a rationale on why we publish the correct pronouns for those who identify as transgender, see Andrew Walker’s longform entitled, “The Moral Meaning of Loving One’s Neighbor.”
While ESPN, CNN, and the New York Times heralded Thomas’ season as historic, Thomas’s competitors (and even some of his teammates) had a different perspective. In an interview with EpochTV, Gaines spoke about the impact Thomas has had on women’s sports:
[Us] female athletes were robbed of opportunities . . . The female category was created to ensure fairness because men would win every time if it were the case. And so to now infiltrate that back in, I can’t believe I have to sit here and explain why this is wrong.
Women’s sports were created to give biological women access to fair competition. Putting a biological male who towers over the other swimmers and is genetically stronger and faster negates the opportunity for fair competition. Specifically, because of Thomas’s inclusion in the NCAA Swimming championship last season, female swimmers lost out on opportunities to compete for and win national titles and awards. But that’s not the most disturbing part of these female athletes’ experience. They were also forced to share a locker room with Thomas.
Speaking the Truth Out Loud and in Public
At an event sponsored by Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, Gaines shared about her experience in the locker room:
I feel like it’s really only happened in the last couple weeks where I get emotional talking about the locker room scene because it is just so wild that you can turn around and see a 6’4’’ biological man pull his pants down watching you undress. And no one is willing to stick up for you.
Gaines asked NCAA officials for an alternate changing location. They informed her that there were no protections in place for women to change in a space that Thomas did not have access to.
In an op-ed for Fox News, Gaines described an instance in which one Ivy league school sent an email to their swimmers telling them to seek counseling if they felt uncomfortable changing in front of a naked man.
The female athletes were pressured into silence, being told that speaking out would keep them from getting a job or getting into a graduate program.
Undaunted by the threat of retaliation, Gaines resolved to use her voice to advocate for the integrity of women’s sports:
I realized if I don’t use my platform . . . it would be a disservice to the future female athletes who have no voice and don’t quite know the implications this will have, the present female athletes who are emotionally blackmailed into silence and threatened and intimidated, and of course, the past female athletes who fought so hard and relentlessly for Title IX.
Supporters have commended Gaines on her willingness to speak up. But not all have responded favorably.
Slews of accusations and insults have been directed at Gaines for standing up for herself and other women. For example, one athlete, a biological woman who now competes on her school’s men’s team, defended Thomas and criticized female swimmers such as Gaines, calling their protest “unkind” and “life-threatening to trans people.”
Is Gaines’s pushback really “unkind” and “life-threatening”? In a world that idolizes “following your heart,” the truth—especially truth about basic biology—can be wrongfully misconstrued as unkind and life-threatening. But Scripture handles truth in a vastly different way than society does. According to the Bible, love rejoices in truth (1 Cor. 13:6). But what is the truth?
The Bible is Clear on Sexuality and Identity
The Bible is clear on issues of sexuality and identity.
Male and female are distinctly and wonderfully different. When God created humankind “male” and “female” he identified his creation of two distinct sexes as “very good” (Gen. 1:27, 31). A rejection of God-given biological differences is a rejection of God’s wisdom in making “very good” distinctions—distinctions which Jesus himself upheld (Matt. 19:4–6).
As one new study rightly argues:
If a person’s body says “male” while the brain says “female,” the brain is wrong. In a fallen world where sin corrupts our mind as well as our bodies, what we think about ourselves can be mistaken . . . A person’s maleness or femaleness isn’t socially constructed or self-constructed, but God-constructed. Sex is not something that is assigned at birth. It is something that is revealed by God in his special distinct design of male and female bodies. (p. 70)
The all-wise God makes no mistakes in his creation. What he has called “very good” is indeed very good. Hope and comfort shine out from that reality. Loving someone who struggles with gender dysphoria means pointing them to the truth—the truth that they are wonderfully created as male or female. They can have peace knowing that they aren’t “stuck in the wrong body.”
Love Rejoices in the Truth
Love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). In refusing to affirm Thomas in his attempt to be a woman, Gaines refused to rejoice in wrongdoing. Ironically, the very one slandered as “unkind” was the very one who displayed to Thomas the very thing that the Bible calls “love.”
Gaines displayed love to Thomas by acknowledging what is true—that Thomas is a biological male. The pronouns he chooses to use or the team on which he competes do not change this biological reality. Gaines refused to cause him further harm by affirming a false reality that would only send Thomas deeper into disorientation and confusion about his identity and his eternal state.
Every falsehood that one believes becomes another stumbling block to actually embracing the truth of the gospel. When becoming a Christian, a person’s entire worldview is revolutionized to acknowledge true reality: that they are creatures of a Holy God deserving of wrath, that Jesus died and was raised to forgive their sin, and that this salvation is received through faith and repentance—which entails a true affirmation of one’s own biological identity. If person who identifies as transgender becomes a Christian, they will ultimately embrace a worldview that acknowledges the unchangeability of their biological sex. By refusing to affirm Thomas’s false identity, Gaines was chipping away at a stumbling block that hinders Thomas from embracing the gospel message—and this is love.
Gaines also displayed love to the other female athletes. The inclusion of a biological male in women’s sports compromises the integrity of what was once a fair and equal playing field. Furthermore, they were subject to sharing a locker room. Biological women should never be forced to view male genitalia or to undress in front of a biological man in their private locker rooms. What was really unloving was not Gaines’s protest—it was the NCAA’s refusal to provide a safe space for women (not to mention also a clear violation of Title IX). Gaines, in speaking out about these injustices, displayed love to her fellow female athletes by calling for the integrity of their sport to be upheld and for privacy and safety in their changing spaces.
And finally, Gaines displayed love to God by refusing to reject God’s good design. Gaines honored the Lord by affirming what is true (John 4:24)—despite severe persecution. She placed her faith in what the Bible says about the distinctness of men and women and took a stand based on that truth.
In a personal conversation we had, Gaines shared how her Christian faith has impacted her stance:
Before anything else, I always want to live a Christ-like life. I struggled when I initially took a public stance in stating that men shouldn’t be competing and sharing a changing space with women. I was often told by others that God loves all, so I shouldn’t complain about being at an unfair advantage in my sport and for feeling uncomfortable undressing in front of a male identifying as a woman . . . [Here are] a few monumental things that made standing in truth easier for me.
Our God is a God of love, but he’s a God who hates sin. Our God made man and woman. Our God doesn’t make mistakes. This isn’t to deny transgender individuals and dysphoria existing, but it’s to acknowledge that the gender ideology propaganda being pushed in many realms of life does not respect the sanctity of human bodies as male or female.
We have all sinned and fallen short of the Lord’s glory. People struggling with gender identity deserve to be loved and invited to the table. However, the absence of any standards or boundaries and the refusal to recognize our differences as man and woman leads to a confusion that negatively affects our culture and morality as a whole.
Gaines refused to rejoice in the lies of transgender ideology or the activist lobby that aggressively pushes it. She loved God and the Bible’s testimony about sexuality over the media, woke sponsors, the NCAA, and the prevailing cultural zeitgeist.
True Love Suffers Harm in Order to Speak Truth to Others
Gaines’s stance is opposite of what our world calls “love.” Consequently, she has borne relentless attacks on her character. Yet true love suffers harm in order to speak truth to others. Christians will suffer for righteousness’ sake, and Jesus calls those who do “blessed” (Matt. 5:10). Christians can take comfort in this, knowing that earthly suffering and harm is temporary and that a far greater blessing awaits those who rejoice in righteousness. The apostle Paul’s words are apt:
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God. (2 Tim. 1:8-9)
As a former collegiate swimmer myself, I’m grateful for Riley Gaines, her fellow female swimmers, and for the parents, coaches, and others who have spoken truth to power when it comes to the integrity of women’s sports. My hope is that those suffering for their faith in any way find comfort in Paul’s words. The Lord has given you a spirit of power, love, and self-control. You have no need to fear or be ashamed. You know the truth. You know what love is. Our world is full of confused and hurting people who need the gospel. Continue to boldly speak the truth—truth about who people are as men or women, truth about their Maker, and truth about the good news. This is love: to share with people the only One who can provide comfort, healing, forgiveness, salvation from wrath, and reconciliation with God the Father—Jesus Christ.