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State Freedom Caucus holds presser, blasts YMCA over transgender policy

 State Rep. Chris Miller (R-Charleston) speaking in park at the Illinois Freedom Caucus press conference on Thursday, June 13.
Tom Wray
State Rep. Chris Miller (R-Charleston) speaking at the Illinois Freedom Caucus press conference on Thursday, June 13.

The right-wing caucus was supporting a teen who complained about the presence of trans
people in the women’s locker room.

The Illinois Freedom Caucus, a group of far-right Illinois state representatives, held a press conference Thursday over the YMCA of Springfield’s policy on locker room use.

The caucus held the conference at Rotary Park in Springfield, across the street from the Y’s Kerasotes facility. The presser was in support of Abbigail Wheeler, a 16-year-old who complained about seeing “biological males” in the women’s locker room.

At least 300 people came to the press conference, often cheering in support of Wheeler and her family. Many carried professionally printed signs that read “Keep Women’s Sports FEMALE.” Others held homemade signs that read “Abbigail’s Army” and one that read “Y Men’s Groomer Association.”

There were also a few members of the LGBTQ community and their allies in attendance, some holding small Pride flags or signs that read “Trans Rights are Human Rights.” But the vast majority of those present were in support of Wheeler.

Wheeler was one of the speakers as well as her sister Kaitlynn Wheeler and father Dan Wheeler. All three said that the presence of trans women was a threat. Dan Wheeler said that the actions of YMCA staff forced Abigail and her teammate off the swim team, the Springfield Typhoons, and caused the family to end their Y membership.

“Rather, we stand here today in unity to advocate for all the families that drop their children off at the YMCA in Springfield, by bringing awareness to a flawed policy based on, my opinion, of improper interpretation of current state statute that allows children to be potentially exposed to individuals of the opposite biological sex in the girls’ locker rooms,” Dan Wheeler said.

 protestor with sign
Tom Wray
One of the anti-LGBTQ signs held at the Illinois Freedom Caucus press conference on Thursday, July 13

State Rep. Chris Miller (R-Charleston) said this was a “wake-up call,” and said that YMCA staff were “paralyzed by political correctness.” He claimed the staff were aligned with a “radical left” agenda. Miller is the chair of the Illinois Freedom Caucus.

“The adults, and those involved at the YMCA, should be ashamed of their spineless, spinless behavior,” he said.

Miller also took aim at HB 2789, a recently signed law that requires libraries to adopt the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights to be eligible for state grants. He said the bill forces schools to allow “pornography” or lose state funding.

State Rep. David Friess (R-Red Bud) said that the Illinois Human Rights Act does not require the YMCA to allow trans people into locker rooms. He said the law allows an exception for facilities that are “distinctly private,” such as restrooms, shower rooms, and health clubs. He blamed “radical” court decisions that were in favor of trans people who were discriminated against by schools and companies.

“The source of confusion comes from the recent bastardization of definitions of sex and gender,” Friess said. He said he and his colleagues would pursue legislation to define gender as biological sex.

When asked about emails released by the YMCA withdrawing Abigail Wheeler from the swim team and canceling the family’s membership, Dan Wheeler said the YMCA made it “impossible” for her to return to the team without a meeting about the signs she posted.

When asked if the trans woman made any threatening moves or actions, the crowd started yelling “It shouldn’t matter.”

“It’s not whether a biological male is naked, whether a biological male is leering, whether a biological male has a camera out.” Dan Wheeler said. “It’s the fact there’s a biological male in the girls’ locker room.”

Wheeler said he wasn’t planning any legal action.

Elizabeth Canas came to the event to support the trans community, holding a sign that said “Trans Rights are Human Rights.”

“I care about the trans community and I feel like their human rights are being hurt,” she said. She is concerned about the impact the controversy was having on the local community. She was even harassed during the press conference, even though she spent most of it sitting on the grass holding her sign.

“I was told I wasn’t supposed to be here and to get out of the way,” Canas said.

Nicole Brechbuhl, a trans woman from Springfield, came because she felt she was being attacked and wanted to stand up for her community.

“This is the first time in my memory for this,” she said. There have been few open signs of transphobia or anti-LGBTQ attitudes in Springfield.

Initial complaints back in May and early June claimed that a transgender woman exposed themselves to a child. Wheeler did correct that original statement saying the trans women in the locker room were in swimsuits. Wheeler and a teammate complained to the YMCA about it. When they were told that the organization’s policy did allow trans people to use the locker rooms of their gender identity, they later put up signs that read “Women’s Rights,” “Biological Women Only,” and “Safe Sport.”

When the signs were found, YMCA staff asked who had put them up and said they could qualify as hate speech, as they were meant to intimidate trans members of the Y. Wheeler “proudly” admitted that she and a teammate put up the signs. She was told that she shouldn’t participate in practice until a meeting with the YMCA, but she was not kicked off.

That’s when the family withdrew from the YMCA, documented in emails released by the YMCA. A couple of days later, the first accusations came from Rev. Eric Hansen of Destiny Church Springfield. That first accusation didn’t go too far thanks to support from local LGBTQ organizations, open and affirming congregations, and YMCA members.

The Illinois Eagle is a community e-newspaper covering the LGBTQ communities of Illinois, plus news of fandom and politics. The mission of the Eagle is to serve as a forum and voice for these communities at the local level and to inform the community of events and issues across the state.

NPR Illinois continues to seek out credible community journalists, media partners, and volunteers to amplify the voices of our central Illinois communities to inform you.

Tom Wray is the publisher of the Illinois Eagle.
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