‘Spiritual warfare’: Former Kentucky swimmer encourages Nebraska to restrict trans athletes

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth intends to prioritize K-12 sports restrictions next year and look at policies for collegiate athletics in 2025

By: - August 28, 2023 5:45 am

Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer turned national advocate, was the headlined speaker at a Nebraska event speaking against the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023, in La Vista, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LA VISTA, Neb. — Turmoil over transgender student-athletes came again to Nebraska with a headlined speech Sunday from Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer.

Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Gaines tied for fifth at the 2022 NCAA championship in the 200 freestyle with Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer who was the first openly transgender woman to compete in the women’s events. At that same meet, Thomas won the 500 freestyle race, the first openly trans woman to do so.

Since then, 23-year-old Gaines has spoken out nationally about the competition and sharing a locker room with Thomas. She’s testified before Congress and various state legislatures describing women’s sports as one issue in a fight against, as she said Sunday, “textbook Marxism” that also includes topics such as vaccines, guns, freedom of speech and the breakdown of the “nuclear family.”

“Me myself, as a Christian, what I see this as is entirely spiritual warfare,” Gaines said to a crowd of over 1,000 people Sunday. “This really is no longer right versus wrong or good versus bad. This is moral versus evil.”

Riley Gaines, at center, is joined by State Sens. Ben Hansen, Carolyn Bosn, Kathleen Kauth, Rob Clements, Tom Brewer, Loren Lippincott and Barry DeKay, from left to right. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Attendees included State Sens. Barry DeKay, Carolyn Bosn, Tom Brewer, Ben Hansen, Rob Clements, Loren Lippincott, Myron Dorn and Brad von Gillern; State Board of Education member Kirk Penner; former gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster; Luka Hein, who detransitioned and helped Kauth with LB 574; and multiple candidates for office next year.

Bill and Evonne Williams of the nonprofit Patriotic Productions, best known for organizing more than a dozen “honor flights” for veterans to visit Washington, D.C., hosted Sunday’s event at the Embassy Suites in La Vista, Nebraska. Evonne Williams said the night was “not about hating transgenders” but a “common sense” topic.

Gaines has been a high-profile speaker across the country, including at many politically conservative events on women’s sports.

K-12 proposal will return in 2024

Gaines’ story centers on collegiate athletics, but there is, at least for now, no collegiate legislation introduced in Nebraska, only Legislative Bill 575, which would define K-12 bathrooms, locker rooms and sporting teams as either male or female based on sex at birth.

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LB 575, introduced by State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, did not advance from the Education Committee this year but will come back in 2024. Kauth said Sunday she intends to make the bill her 2024 priority (State Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood prioritized it this year).

Kauth told the Nebraska Examiner she plans to address collegiate athletics in 2025.

“Simply, boys do not compete on girls teams and boys and girls do not share locker rooms and bathrooms,” Kauth said of LB 575’s purpose.

Some of Kauth’s colleagues have expressed some hesitation with LB 575 ahead of next year, with a few pointing to local control in school boards or the State Board of Education as a possibly more appropriate path to address concerns that Kauth, Gaines and others have raised.

Kearney Public Schools and Norfolk Public Schools passed policies this year limiting participation in athletics to sex at birth. Twenty-three states have sports bans at various education levels.

NSAA already addresses participation

Some state lawmakers also point out two complexities: the passage of LB 574 and the Nebraska School Activities Association having guidelines for high school athletes that prohibit transgender student-athletes from competing without prior approval.

Jordy Bahl, a Huskers softball player and Nebraska native. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The NSAA Gender Participation Policy is a step-by-step process where a student must apply to compete on a team different from their sex at birth. The NSAA said earlier this year that five students had used the policy and been approved between 2017 and January 2023.

There is an added requirement for transgender girls, who must complete one year of hormone replacement therapy and pass a physiological test stating there is no competitive advantage before they’re allowed to play on a team matching their gender identity.

LB 574, another bill introduced by Kauth this year, restricts gender-affirming care for minors. Its passage means the state chief medical officer must set rules and regulations for puberty blockers and hormone therapies before minors can access them. This sets up a scenario where hormones are more restricted or completely out of reach.

The bill takes effect Oct. 1 and, if there is no policy in place at that time, new patients cannot access the medications in the state.

U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Kauth’s second bill also bans gender transition surgeries, addressing locker room concerns as the NSAA policy prohibits transgender students from accessing spaces matching their gender identity unless they’ve gone through the surgery. The NSAA policy does not apply to general bathroom use as Kauth’s bill would.

LB 574 dominated the 2023 Legislature, bringing it to a crawl at times and garnering national attention as opponents decried the bill as “hateful” and “harmful,” coming at the expense of many other legislative proposals.

‘Decade of biology’

Some speakers Sunday, while not addressing the NSAA policy directly, said such hormone-based tests do not go far enough.

“Folks, I don’t believe that one year of hormone therapy can prevent over a decade of what biology designed,” U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., said Sunday.

Dr. Greg Brown, a professor of exercise science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Ricketts appointed Kauth to the Legislature last summer before she was elected in November. He is a co-sponsor of the “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act” in the U.S. Senate.

Greg Brown, who has a Ph.D. in the biological basis of health and human performance and is a professor of exercise science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said there are differences for boys and girls before puberty, and these physiological indicators, such as muscle mass or bone density, are magnified after puberty.

“Using puberty blockers, testosterone suppression and taking estrogen does not erase the differences between males and females anatomically, physiologically or in sports performance,” Brown said.

Dr. Alex Dworak of OneWorld Community Health Centers told the Examiner this summer that the hormones required in the NSAA policy could place athletes instead at a “competitive disadvantage,” and he emphasized the possible social and health benefits important to sports participation.

Queer field day

OutNebraska, a leading LGBTQ organization in the state, hosts a queer field day on Aug. 27, 2023, at Benson Park in Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Sunday also featured a separate event in Omaha organized by LGBTQ advocacy organization OutNebraska. About a dozen Nebraskans joined for the “queer field day” at Benson Park for what Abbi Swatsworth, OutNebraska’s executive director, said was designed to be a community space.

“There’s a place in sports for everyone,” Swatsworth said, denouncing measures such as LB 575 as “manufactured crisis.”

Jessie McGrath, a trans woman who is one of Kauth’s constituents, recently moved back to Nebraska after 38 years in California. She said it’s “mind boggling” there are “attacks on so many facets of trans life.”

“We’re the canaries in the coal mine and it’s time for people to start realizing that religious extremists are using the governmental process to attack a group of people who don’t deserve it,” McGrath said.

Executive order may be imminent

Gov. Jim Pillen, at right, with Riley Gaines. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Other speakers Sunday included Carol Frost, a pre-Title IX athlete and later coach of the Huskers women’s cross country and track and field teams who spoke about her athletic endeavors, and Jordy Bahl, a star softball pitcher who recently transferred from the national champion University of Oklahoma Sooners back to her home state. Bahl introduced Gaines, calling Gaines her “hero.”

Gaines suggested that Gov. Jim Pillen take a page from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and sign an executive order directing state agencies to use narrow definitions of “female” and “male” in their authority.

Pillen announced at the end of Sunday’s event that — with “lots of partners in the Legislature” — they have support to get a similar executive order “going tomorrow.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Nebraska School Activities Association.


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.