At the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in March 2022, Riley Gaines tied with Lia Thomas for fifth place in the 200 freestyle. Amid hateful media scrutiny of Thomas, who is transgender, and the existing right-wing panic over trans inclusion in women’s athletics, Gaines has used her experience to advance the argument that trans women cannot compete fairly against cis women.
Gaines’ appearances on Fox News in the subsequent year have consistently embellished this argument with trans-exclusionary talking points that extend beyond the realm of athletics. Her media career — from her race against Thomas to her recent public endorsement of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign — reflects the increasing politicization of trans identity in the lead up to the 2024 election.
Gaines has appeared with increased frequency on Fox News, beginning just after the end of her swimming career
Gaines has appeared on Fox News 29 times for a total time of more than two hours and 38 minutes between April 2022 and the end of May 2023. Over 50% of these appearances took place in the last two months — a year after her race against Thomas on March 18, 2022. Gaines named Thomas in only 34% of all her interviews and not at all in the last month, demonstrating a general thematic expansion beyond the event that initially provided her with a platform.
Gaines primarily claims that trans women possess an unfair advantage over cis women in athletic competition
Gaines' most frequent claim, in 79% of her interviews, is that trans women possess an unfair advantage over cis women in athletics, either directly in competition or by winning athletic scholarships.
Despite the fact that only a small fraction of the population is transgender and transgender athletes have fairly competed at elite levels in their lived gender for decades, claims that trans inclusion in athletics will disadvantage cis women and girls have recently provided fuel for discriminatory legislative measures in dozens of states and at the federal level.
Gaines has increasingly claimed that trans women pose a sexual and physical threat to cis women
In over a quarter of interviews and with increased frequency, Gaines claimed that cis women were at risk of sexual trauma by sharing a locker room with trans women. She made this claim in 28% of her interviews (8), with 5 of those 8 interviews taking place in the last two months. Gaines also claimed that trans people posed a physical danger, in or outside of the athletic context, in 17% of the interviews — all of which also took place in the last two months.
Despite the fact that “transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime,” according to a study by the Williams Institute, claims that trans women pose a particular sexual threat have become pervasive on the right. While recycling anti-gay panic over lesbian athletes, claims that trans women are more likely to sexually assault their cis counterparts in locker rooms also overlaps with the anti-trans rhetoric motivating bathroom bans across the country in recent years.
Gaines’ stated concern over fairness was often embellished with other trans exclusionary arguments
As far back as June 2022 and in 45% of her interviews, Gaines made claims about the legitimacy of trans identity or trans inclusion in areas other than athletics. In 17% of her interviews, Gaines claimed that trans identity is illegitimate or otherwise questionable. In 41% of her interviews, Gaines argued against the social or political inclusion of trans people in areas outside athletics.
Gaines’ statements on Fox News also included anti-trans rhetoric consistent with recent right-wing talking points, including attacks on trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, Target, and inclusive language, and claims that trans identity is satanic, fetishistic, or pedophilic:
- While comparing Dylan Mulvaney’s transition to blackface: “This is a man, a man with a fetish, who is gleefully putting together all the stereotypes of women.” [Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, 10/25/22]
- “It's bigger than just sports, we are seeing it all over and we are changing the language we are using. We are no longer using terms like motherhood or breastfeeding because those are now deemed offensive. Notice how this is only always an attack on women." [The Ingraham Angle, Fox News, 3/23/23]
- “If you look at the children's clothes in Target, they are targeting children. It's sick, it's perverse, it's disgusting. And if you look up this person who they partnered with to do all the illustrations, this person is an open satanist. It's criminal what they're doing.” [Fox News at Night, Fox News, 5/24/23]
In March 2023, Gaines participated in a “Panel on Transgenderism” at the annual Conservative Political Action Coalition — the same conference at which Daily Wire host Michael Knowles urged that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” While sharing the stage with Terry Schilling and Chloe Cole, both vocal advocates against gender-affirming care, Gaines alleged that trans inclusion in women’s athletics is just one part of a widespread attempt to “eradicate women as a whole.”
The anti-trans rhetoric that accompanies Gaines’ claims of unfair competition — including arguments in favor of the exclusion of trans people from other areas of public life — and the anti-trans media figures that she aligns herself with, reveal the extent to which fairness in sports is a surrogate for more extensive anti-trans beliefs.
Gaines aligns herself with anti-trans rhetoric and politics
According to Media Matters’ internal database of all original, weekday programming on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC (shows airing from 6 a.m. through midnight), Gaines is Fox's third most popular guest brought in to discuss trans inclusion in women’s sports. Gaines has also given interviews with the Daily Wire’s Crain & Co., Newsmax, and TPUSA Faith.
Reflecting this right-wing media discourse, Republicans across the country continue to politicize trans inclusion in women’s sports, proposing legislation that bans trans athletes from competing in their lived gender at all levels. In addition to her media engagements, Gaines has spoken in favor of these legislative measures.
“First, from my experience, I saw it in sports, but now that I am in the position I am in I realize it is so much bigger than sports."
America Reports With John Roberts & Sandra Smith, Fox News, 3/9/23
Republican candidate Nikki Haley recently claimed that trans inclusion in women’s sports was “the women’s issue of our time,” also unfoundedly alleging that the high rate of suicidal ideation in teen girls was due to their sharing locker rooms with “biological boys.” As in Gaines’ interviews, trans inclusion in women’s athletics provided Haley with fertile ground for hateful anti-trans rhetoric that extended well beyond the stated topic.
Gaines' interviews on Fox News, though only a part of her media presence this past year and only one voice in the right-wing media discourse on trans athletics, signals how stated concerns over fairness are typically a stand-in for extreme and wide-ranging anti-trans sentiment.
Media Matters searched our internal database of all original, weekday programming on Fox News Channel (shows airing from 6 a.m. through midnight) for segments that analysts determined to include Gaines as a guest from April 6, 2022, when American swimmer Riley Gaines first appeared on the network, through May 31, 2023.
We also searched transcripts in the SnapStream and Kinetiq video databases for all original programming on Fox News Channel for the term “Gaines” within close proximity of any of the terms “phone,” “guest,” “interview,” “in studio,” “with us,” “with me,” “bring in,” “to discuss,” “to talk,” or “calling in” or any variation of any of the terms “speak,” “react,” or “join” from April 6, 2022, through May 31, 2023.
We identified and timed all segments where Gaines appeared as a guest and reviewed them for whether they mentioned that trans athletes should not be included in women’s sports due to their possessing an unfair advantage; mentioned that trans athletes pose a danger to women by using the same locker room facilities; mentioned that trans athletes pose a danger to women by competing in the same divisions; mentioned Lia Thomas by name; said that trans people do not exist, are mentally ill, or that being trans is not a valid, protected characteristic; or promoted measures that would exclude trans people from areas of life other than athletics.