The Kerasotes branch of the Springfield, Illinois YMCA was the target of an anti-trans rally on July 13, after a family complained about a transgender woman using the women's locker room.
The rally was held at Rotary Park, across the street from the YMCA, and was led by the six far-right Illinois House Freedom Caucus GOP members, in partnership with the Independent Women's Forum, along with featured speakers 16-year-old Abbigail Wheeler; her father Dan, who is an Illinois Department of Natural Resources employee and elected GOP Maxwell Township supervisor; and sister Kaitlynn. The Wheelers and Illinois House Freedom Caucus members are demanding that the Springfield YMCA bar trans women from using the women's locker rooms, which would violate the Illinois Human Rights Act.
The July 13 speakers were cheered on by about 300 supporters. A handful of trans people and their supporters were there with one person holding a sign that said, "Trans People Belong."
The Illinois Freedom Caucus was founded in 2022 as an offshoot of the far-right wing Congressional Freedom Caucus. Current members include GOP Illinois state Reps. Chris Miller (chair), Blaine Wilhour (vice-chair), Dan Caulkins (secretary and treasurer), Brad Halbrook, Adam Niemerg and David Friess as well as GOP U.S. Rep. Mary Miller.
Abiggail, a former member of YMCA's SPY Typhoons Swim Team, alleges that she saw a transgender woman in the women's locker room on April 27 during a swim practice and felt uncomfortable. Her story has changed several times since the alleged incident.
At the rally, Abbiggail cried and said that she became "scared and upset" that day, and added that, "That is when I realized this was not my first time seeing this man in the women's locker room. About roughly four months earlier, I was again in the locker room, changing with a group of girls out of our swimsuits. When I looked across the locker room, I saw what I thought was a very manly looking woman sitting on a chair in the corner, wearing a women's swimsuit. … At this time, I had no reason to believe men were changing in the women's locker room at the YMCA."
Abiggail also said at the rally that she immediately told her swim coach Alex Totura about the alleged incident, and he told her he was aware of it and that, "There was nothing he could do." Totura told Wheeler if she felt uncomfortable, she could use the family changing rooms that are available at the facility or not change at the facility at all.
Prior to the rally on July 9, cisgender former competitive swimmer for the University of Kentucky Riley Gaines shared this alleged incident on her Twitter page with information about the upcoming rally. Two days later the Wheeler sisters and Gaines were featured in the first of three FOX News interviews.
Gaines has been speaking out against trans women's inclusion in sports since she tied for fifth place with trans swimmer Lia Thomas during a 200-yard NCAA freestyle championship race in 2022. One of Gaines' teammates at the University of Kentucky was Wheeler's older sister Kaitlynn.
During three interviews with FOX News on July 11 and 12, Wheeler hesitated at times while telling her story. She said she saw the person naked, which she denied and called a "miscommunication" at the rally, "To be clear, I did not see the man naked, and no male genitalia was exposed. However, I did see the man changing in the women's locker room."
Additionally, Wheeler said on two FOX News interviews that she was kicked off of the swim team and banned from the YMCA after she and her teammate Lucy put up signs and notes at the YMCA in late May that read, "Women's Rights," "Biological Women Only" and "SafeSport."
Wheeler failed to mention in the July 11 FOX News interview the other signs and notes that she and the other teammate posted, according to Lou Bart, Springfield YMCA's marketing and communications director. Those additional notes said, "Men are not welcome here," "Make this a safe space for women," "Is the YMCA moving farther from their values? Let your voice be heard," "Women Need Rights, Men Already Have Them," "In case anyone is unawar [sic], I feel as a concerned member to share this shocking news. Transgenders [sic] are now using the womens [sic] locker room. They have been for a while now. Please feel free to share/spead [sic] the world [sic]," "Girls Rule, Boys Drool" and "Women Deserve to be Safe Here," among others.
The day after the signs were put up, the Kerasotes Branch Manager Kenzi Primus told Abiggail and Lucy that their actions "were hateful to other members and violated the YMCA code of conduct."
After Totura's remarks, Wheeler and the other girl admitted they put the signs up, and that is when he and the branch manager told them they would not be allowed to participate in the swim practice that day and were sent home. Abiggail was also told that she would not be able to participate in any practices or meets until she and her parents had a meeting with the Springfield YMCA leadership and her coach. The Wheelers refused to comply with that request.
Wheeler's father admitted that his daughter lied during the FOX News interview about being kicked off the team during the rally and that he and his wife Julie Wheeler voluntarily removed her from the team and canceled their membership.
In an email dated May 29 at 10:50 a.m. from Julie to Totura that the Springfield YMCA that the organization provided to Windy City Times, she said "Alex, we have decided to remove Abbigail from the SPY swim team. We feel with this Y's stand on men being allowed in the women's locker room, it is putting unknowing women and young girls at risk. My hope is Abbigail can make this transition smoothly without hatefulness from the SPY staff and swimmers. Please remove our Discover card from our account. There is one pending charge of $45 for the Edwardsville meet. Please make that transaction tomorrow. Dan said he will cancel the reoccurring charge on Wednesday. Thank you."
Totura complied with Julie's request.
At 11:02 a.m. that same day, Julie followed up with an email to Springfield YMCA Chief Human Resources Officer Jill Steiner. That email was also provided to Windy City Times and in it Julie said "TOGETHER you all lack in discernment, which is undoubtedly exposing young girls to grooming, bullying and real danger. In fact, your reaction to the girls positive, empowering signs made for women was far worse than your concern for the biological men watching little girls undress in YOUR women's locker rooms. In my opinion, this is sexual exploitation of women and children. Please remove Christian from your name! This far from [sic] Christ's morals and values. What does Christ say about someone who harms one of his little ones!??"
The Springfield YMCA leadership said in an email statement to Windy City Times that, "In response to [the] rally by a group including the Illinois Freedom Caucus, the YMCA of Springfield maintains that it is following the law and its long-time practice of inclusion for all in its policies. This is not a new story. There have been a variety of false statements circulated by these same individuals since May. They have continued to shift and change this story to sensationalize it beyond the facts.
"The accusation that a swimmer was removed from the Y and prevented from participating on the Y swim team is false. The swimmer's family informed the YMCA through email that they would be leaving the YMCA and their swimmer would no longer participate on the swim team. We have reiterated this statement since May, and we find it disturbing that certain Illinois State legislators would use our YMCA building as a backdrop and demand that we violate law.
"The YMCA of Springfield has been serving children and families in this community for the past 150 years. We are now, as we have always been, a powerful advocate for those we serve. Our responsibility is to keep our members in our facilities safe."
Springfield YMCA CEO Angie Sowle told the Illinois Times publication that, since the Wheelers made this alleged incident public, her facility's membership list impact has been "negligible," adding that "We don't have people left and right canceling memberships and pulling donations from our organization. We have felt supported and encouraged to keep being who we are and taking care of the rights of every individual."
Sowle added that she and her leadership team have received death threats, threats of violence and profanity-laced emails and voicemails from people outside of the Springfield area "who have been stirred up by the national media by versions of the story that have changed multiple times and are as false as they could be."
A joint press release by Democratic Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Democratic Illinois state Sen. Mike Simmons issues to the media following the rally stated, "As the only openly queer members of our respective chambers, Senator Mike Simmons and Rep. Kelly Cassidy stand firm in our defense of our transgender siblings across the state. The recent irresponsible incitement of violence against possible transgender members of the Springfield YMCA by six House members of the so-called 'Freedom Caucus,' is the latest in the national trend of attacks on trans people that too often lead to violence and genuine harm.
Springfield Alderwoman Jennifer Notariano said in an email statement to Windy City Times that, "Springfield's YMCA strives to offer a welcoming space to all, so I choose to highlight the staff, the administration, and the members who make it that wayrather than the extremists who traveled more than 100 miles out of their way to use it as a backdrop to promote their exclusionary agenda. Too often, we see how the compassionate places we share are deliberately targeted by those whose relevance depends on callous division, so I choose to celebrate everyone who makes the Y a place for individual growth and health.
"In Springfield, we are heirs to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and a history that has taught us through struggle and pain that we are so much bigger when we choose to be united by compassion, so I choose to lift up everyone who recognizes that our unique identities, experiences, challenges and beliefs are not what divides usthey are what makes our community vibrant."
In addition to speaking against Illinois' trans-inclusive laws at the rally, Wheeler's father has also appeared on Jeanne Ives' podcast to talk about this alleged incident. He also indicated at the rally that he was not looking to pursue any legal action against the Springfield YMCA.
Springfield YMCA leadership told Windy City Times in a follow-up email statement that, "The YMCA would not rule out legal action against those spreading false information."