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Adrian College spring commencement continuing with anti-trans activist as keynote speaker

In World
May 04, 2024

ADRIANAdrian College’s annual spring commencement exercises are to take place this Sunday and will be held with all necessary security measures in place as the liberal arts college, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, welcomes in a rather high-profile commencement speaker.

Riley Gaines, who swam competitively for the University of Kentucky and was the 2022 Southeastern Conference women’s swimming and diving scholar-athlete of the year, will give the keynote address this weekend to the college’s graduating Class of 2024.

Now a former collegiate swimmer, Gaines has become one of the most prominent voices in opposition to transgender women in women’s sports.

Riley Gaines will be Adrian College's 2024 spring commencement speaker.

Riley Gaines will be Adrian College’s 2024 spring commencement speaker.

Her criticism of transgender women — someone assigned the male gender at birth who identifies on the female spectrum — being allowed to compete in women’s sports began in March 2022 after she tied for fifth place with University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas in the 200-yard NCAA freestyle championship. In those same championships, Thomas became the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I national championship when she won the 500-yard freestyle.

Nearly immediately upon the college’s announcement in March of Gaines being this year’s commencement speaker, backlash and public outcry hit the Adrian campus with opposition coming from some students and alumni as well as from nonprofit organizations within the Adrian and Lenawee County community.

More: Critic of transgender women in women’s sports to be Adrian College commencement speaker

The M Society, a Lenawee County nonprofit that seeks to improve the mental and physical well-being of members of the LGBTQIA+ community, said it is “disappointed” in the selection of Gaines as commencement speaker.

“Commencement should be a joyous and inclusive celebration of students’ accomplishments, not an occasion tainted by the presence of a speaker who actively promotes bigotry and intolerance,” the M Society’s open letter to Adrian College said.

Protest letters and a petition that was started on March 12 by Safe Place, Adrian College’s student organization advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community, urged the college to disinvite Gaines from speaking at the commencement ceremony. The petition has more than 1,600 signatures.

“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,” the online petition, which can be found at tinyurl.com/Safe-Place-Petition says. “This decision is not only inappropriate but also discredits the graduates who may be in alliance with or a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

As of this week, Adrian College officials said plans and security measures are in place for Sunday’s commencement ceremonies.

Adrian College graduates throw their caps at the end of the 2023 spring commencement ceremony. A large, temporary pavilion was erected on the college Mall to cover the students due to the chance of inclement weather.

Adrian College graduates throw their caps at the end of the 2023 spring commencement ceremony. A large, temporary pavilion was erected on the college Mall to cover the students due to the chance of inclement weather.

“Adrian College has appropriate security precautions in place for the upcoming spring commencement,” college officials said in an email to The Daily Telegram.

When visiting San Francisco State University last year to speak about her campaign against transgender athletes in women’s sports, demonstrators both inside and outside the room in which Gaines was speaking protested her message, Adrian College said. After she finished speaking, Gaines was escorted by law enforcement officials to shelter in a classroom where she stayed for hours while protesters continued to demonstrate.

When is Adrian College’s commencement?

The spring commencement will be on the college’s Mall, outdoors. The ceremony will start at 3 p.m., but the soon-to-be graduates will be busy nearly the entire day with rehearsal in the morning, a baccalaureate service at 10:30 a.m., a graduation brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and lastly the processional.

Guests may begin seating at 2 p.m., and tickets are not required. Because the ceremony is outdoors, people are being asked to prepare for the weather.

When the college made Gaines’ announcement as speaker, Adrian College President Jeffrey Docking said transgender college athletes and gender identity are important issues “that should be discussed at colleges and universities throughout the United States.”

“Adrian College has never shied away from presenting and debating substantive disagreements on campus,” Docking said in the March statement. “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.”

‘An exchange of ideas should be outside of the commencement arena’

R Cole Bouck, who attended Adrian College in the 1980s and came out as a gay male during his sophomore year at Adrian, is among the many people to denounce Gaines’ selection as commencement speaker.

While the college, he said, is describing its selection of Gaines as a nod to its history of engaging in discussions of controversial issues, a commencement speech should not be the time or place for such conversations..

“I would not oppose the college bringing Ms. Gaines to campus any other time for a truly open and honest dialogue and exchange of ideas where students could ask tough questions, share their own perspectives and disagreements with the speaker, and even decide not to attend,” he said.

R Cole Bouck, who attended Adrian College in the 1980s and came out as a gay male during his sophomore year at Adrian, is among the many people to denounce the college's selection of Riley Gaines as commencement speaker.

R Cole Bouck, who attended Adrian College in the 1980s and came out as a gay male during his sophomore year at Adrian, is among the many people to denounce the college’s selection of Riley Gaines as commencement speaker.

Bouck said he has been engaged with Adrian College on LGBT issues in a few ways since leaving campus but its decision to have Gaines speak during commencement is an example of the college’s “disconnect” from its students, its adopted Ribbons of Excellence and its Academic Freedom Resolution.

In 2017, he established an endowed LGBT and ally student scholarship with Adrian College that has been made available annually to an AC student each year since 2018, apart from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic year.

The scholarship, The R Cole Bouck LGBT and Ally Pride Scholarship, is to recognize Adrian College students who have demonstrated support, advocacy and leadership for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community — either on Adrian College’s campus, apart from it in the community, or both.

Bouck said he established the scholarship with the hope it will support opportunities for motivated students in addressing issues of social justice affecting the LGBT community. Five students have received the scholarship.

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As an Adrian College alumnus and donor, Bouck said the decision to have Gaines speak on Sunday is both an “embarrassing and hurtful” decision and a “bad investment” decision.

“As a college, this is a disingenuous, unsafe and unnecessary gamble with the lives of anyone in attendance, and with the college’s standing and future,” he said.

Admitting that nobody has a clean slate, Bouck said Sunday’s commencement ceremony will happen, and Gaines will still be the speaker. It’s his hope that safety goes both ways, he said.

— Contact reporter Brad Heineman at bheineman@lenconnect.com or follow him on X, formerly Twitter: www.twitter.com/LenaweeHeineman.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: Adrian College commencement continuing with anti-trans activist as speaker

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