A 16-year-old Springfield area swimmer spoke out at a rally against the local YMCA on Thursday after being accused of hate speech for protesting against the sharing of a women’s locker room with a biological male.

Abbigail Wheeler of Loami said she was kicked off of the YMCA'S swim team and allegedly banned from the club after hanging signs in the women's locker room to warn teammates that biological men were present in their private changing space.

"On April 27th while attending swim practice at the YMCA I went into the women's locker room to use the restroom. As I was headed to the stalls, I witnessed a man sitting next to two other adults who were sitting on the changing benches,” Wheeler said at the rally hosted in partnership by the Illinois Freedom Caucus and Independent Women’s Forum.

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“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. After seeing the man, I was scared and upset. I decided to leave immediately because I was alone with them and felt very uncomfortable.”

Wheeler said after leaving the locker room she brought the matter to her coach, Alex Totura’s, attention to which he responded that he was already aware but there was nothing he could do about it.

Wheeler went on to say that Totura told her if she was uncomfortable changing in the women's locker room she could use the family changing areas or not use the facilities at all.

Shortly after her conversation with Tortura, Wheeler and a teammate decided to hang the signs of protest in the locker room to “let people know that biological men were changing in the women’s locker room while parents and families were completely unaware and young girls were present,” Wheeler said.

The signs said "Biological Women Only," "Women's Rights" and "SafeSport."

A meeting with the swim team was called by YMCA administrators the next day and the girls were informed that the signs were considered hate speech, discriminatory and disrespectful.

Wheeler and her teammate approached Totura after the meeting to inform him that they were responsible for the signs, in which Totura responded that it would no longer be appropriate for the girls to practice with the team and that the YMCA would be in contact with their families as they were sent home.

“In that moment I knew that my efforts in bringing awareness to the fact that biological men were using the women's changing spaces in the YMCA wasn’t going to be enough," Wheeler said. "I did all the right things. I saw something that was obviously wrong, and I told someone, I told my coach, someone I was supposed to trust and be able to come to when I feel unsafe or scared. Not only were my feelings discredited but I was also removed from my swim team and banned from the YMCA." 

Jodi Perko, right, Shay Beaverson, center, Nicole Edwardson, were some of the counterprotestors that showed up to the rally held at Rotary Park Thursday, July 13, 2023.

Kaitlynn Wheeler, Abbigail's sister and a former NCAA Division I swimmer from the University of Kentucky who experienced changing in the women’s locker room alongside Lia Thomas, a transgender female, at the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships, said she was infuriated that her sister is now going through the same experience.

“It is crazy to me that we are having this conversation,” Kaitlynn Wheeler said.” The safety and security of females in women-only spaces should be protected — otherwise it is false advertising to have sex-specific spaces and opportunities. Forcing any woman — especially minor girls — to share a locker room and undress before a male is irresponsible and inappropriate and undermines a woman’s human rights, respect, and dignity.”

Despite claims of being kicked off of the team by the Wheeler family, emails provided by the YMCA to the State Journal Register show that Wheeler’s parents voluntarily removed her from the swim team and canceled their membership with the organization.

“We feel with this Y’s stance on men being allowed in the women’s locker room, it is putting unknowing women and young girls at risk,” Abbigail’s mother, Julie Wheeler, said in the first email.

The second email accused the organization of grooming, bullying and sexual exploitation of women and children. Wheeler concluded the email stating the family would not meet with the Y. 

“We are also canceling our membership and Abbigail will not return to the swim team” the email read.

In a statement responding to Thursday’s rally, YMCA administration maintained that the club is following the law and its long-time practice of inclusion for all.

“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 statement went on to say that the organization finds it disturbing that certain Illinois State legislators would use its building as a backdrop and demand that it violates the 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. Any incidents of abuse or inappropriate behavior is documented and reported to authorities.”

Bob Booker of Springfield came out to the rally with his wife, Sharon, in support of the Wheeler family. The rally was attended by more than 300 people. 

Supporters hold up signs during a protest rally at Rotary Park Thursday, July 13, 2023.

"We know the Wheeler family well," Bob Booker said. "Our grandson swam with (Kaitlynn and Abbigail). I believe their story. (The YMCA) is just trying to cover its rear end. There's more to that story than they're even telling. Right is right and wrong is wrong and if you can't tell the difference, something is wrong with your leadership."

Sharon Booker pointed out that Abbigail Wheeler was the best swimmer on the team "so she would not quit on her own volition. (The YMCA) has forced her out and I'm pretty upset about it.”

The Bookers are members of the YMCA "up to this point," Bob Booker said. The couple hasn't canceled its membership "but we haven't renewed it yet (either)."

Elizabeth Canas of Springfield came out in support of the trans community. Canas held a sign that read, "The world does not just have two sex categories, male or female."

"I was scared and I'm shaking. My adrenaline is going, but I had to come out," Canas said. "I have to come out for these people. No one else is doing it for them, so that's why I'm supporting them."

Rep. Chris Miller R-Oakland speaks during a rally at Rotary Park Thursday, July 13, 2023.

State Rep. Chris Miller (R-Charleston) also attended the rally and spoke out in support of Wheeler and her family, pointing out that the YMCA has gender neutral restrooms that could be used.

“If biological males don’t want to change in front of other biological males – then let them change by themselves in a gender-neutral bathroom. If it is wrong to require biological males to change in front of other biological males because they are uncomfortable then why is it OK to disregard the feelings and concerns of biological women who don’t want to share their private spaces with naked men?” Miller said. “Of course, the only solution the radical left will allow is the one that forces young women to share their locker rooms with men. They do not care what their policies are doing to young women. All they care about is advancing the trans ideology.

State Rep. David Friess (R-Red Bud) said the idea that the YMCA is powerless to act is a misnomer and that the Illinois Human Rights act being used as a defense has is commonly misquoted.

“The Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, ‘sexual orientation, and ‘gender identity’ states the following: ‘Nothing in this Article shall apply to … Facilities Distinctly Private. Any facility, as to discrimination based on sex, which is distinctly private in nature such as restrooms, shower rooms, bath houses, health clubs (775 ILCS 5/5-103) (from Ch. 68, par. 5-103) Sec. 5-103).’ Clearly, there is no requirement to allow biological males in the women’s locker room,” Freiss said.

The Illinois Freedom Caucus members vowed to continue fighting for young women like Wheeler. The caucus is comprised of state representatives Chris Miller (R-Oakland); Blaine Wilhour (R-Beecher City); Adam Niemerg (R-Dieterich); Brad Halbrook (R-Shelbyville); Dan Caulkins (R-Decatur); Jed Davis (R-Newark) and David Friess (R-Red Bud).

“Female locker rooms should be for biological females,” said State Rep. Brad Halbrook (R-Shelbyville). “If you have male anatomy, you do not belong in the female locker room, and frankly, you do not belong in a women’s sport either. If those statements sound controversial or offensive to you, the reality is that the truth does not yield to hurt feelings.”