Protesting anti-trans speakers, Pitt and CMU students unite

Last week, University of Pittsburgh sophomore Agate began mulling whether they should transfer schools. They enjoyed their majors, biological sciences and theater arts. They had found wonderful communities at Pitt, including within PRISM, an activism-focused LGBTQ club. Not even Pittsburgh’s perpetually overcast sky was a factor in this internal debate. Agate considered transferring when they learned about events planned on campus that threatened their identity. They wondered: Why pay tuition to an institution where they don’t feel safe?

“I kind of chose the worst possible time to come out as nonbinary,” Agate told The Tartan. “I came out last semester, so I haven’t really had the opportunity to experience a whole lot of trans joy on campus because I’ve been coming out in the midst of all this.”

“It’s been hard to think about anything else,” said Reign, a senior at Pitt who chose to use a pseudonym. “It’s hard to focus on classes and stuff when you just feel fundamentally unsafe at a place where you’ve been for years.”

In early March, Pitt seniors Nicholas Demjan and Kelisa Hysenbegasi drafted a petition protesting three speakers that conservative student groups invited to campus. The petition, which calls for Pitt to cancel the events, has garnered over 10,500 signatures.

The Events
March 24: “Everything the media won’t tell you,” with Cabot Phillips, hosted by Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA. Phillips is the senior editor at The Daily Wire, a conservative news site whose factual reporting is “mixed,” the fourth-lowest rank on RAND Corporation’s six-rung spectrum. Since last March, 93% of Daily Wire ads have targeted trans identities.

March 27: “Save women’s sports,” with Riley Gaines, hosted by Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA. At the 2022 NCAA Championships, she tied for fifth-place with transgender swimmer Lea Thomas. Gaines has since advocated for “a federal law entitled ‘TITLE XX’ (symbolizing female XX chromosomes) that would protect gender equity and honor biological females in athletic competition.” This event is being held on the first day of Pitt’s Pride Week.

April 18: “A debate on transgenderism and womanhood,” with Deirdre McCloskey and Michael Knowles, hosted by the Pitt College Republicans. McCloskey, a trans woman, is an economic historian and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Knowles is a political commentator at The Daily Wire. Earlier this month, he called on the government to “eradicate transgenderism from public life.”

Students Respond
In addition to the petition, an open letter is circulating on the campuses at both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. Hundreds have come together as a group to discuss the best way they should respond to the planned events.

Reign described the possible responses as a “lose-lose.” If Knowles comes to campus, he will disseminate “hate speech.” If the debate is canceled, Reign said Knowles would be martyred.

A Carnegie Mellon undergraduate student studying information systems and human computer interaction said the petition gives students power in numbers. They recognize that it likely won’t get the event canceled, but see it as an important indicator of how many people support their perspective.

The group of concerned Pitt and Carnegie Mellon students have planned a rally for March 24 outside the Cathedral of Learning. They intend to protest the events and stand with trans, nonbinary, and gender diverse students. Carnegie Mellon's PRISM club plans to paint The Fence at midnight preceding the rally.

On Wednesday, Pitt’s Turning Point and College Republicans clubs tabled for their respective events. Some of the students helping organize a response set up their own table, where they handed out flyers and did not engage with the other tables, according to the Carnegie Mellon student who has been kept in the loop. A man approached the students’ table, ostensibly to take a flyer, but instead filmed and publicly posted the students’ faces online.

On Thursday, Knowles tweeted a picture of a sign in Gates that described Knowles as “a genocidal transphobe.” Knowles noted that he was not slated to speak at Carnegie Mellon, to which Carnegie Mellon Republicans responded, “We would love to have you on our campus. Not the friendliest place for conservatives!”

The Tartan reached out to Carnegie Mellon Republicans, who did not answer questions about the tweet.

The Free Speech Debate
“We understand these events are toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community,” Pitt wrote in a press release. “Student organizations are permitted to invite speakers — including highly provocative ones — to campus without University administration deciding what is acceptable and what is not.”

Liliana Orozco, Pitt’s club president of Turning Point, told The Pitt News that “one of the best rights in the U.S. is the freedom of speech and our voices will not be silenced just because some students might not agree with us.”

Pitt’s College Republicans president Dylan Mitchell told The Pitt News, “The purpose of debating ‘transness’ is the same as debating any other topic — to encourage intellectual discourse and to pursue the truth.”

Many members of Pitt’s and Carnegie Mellon’s LGBTQIA+ communities see these arguments as logical fallacies that risk their safety.

Reign, who is majoring in neuroscience with minors in chemistry and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, said that framing trans identity as a debate is inherently harmful. “If you’re going to listen to both sides, that implies that both sides are equally worthy of respect and consideration. When one side is saying that a group of people just should not exist … that’s not really a viewpoint that should be considered in an intellectual debate.”

Tapping into their neuroscience and chemistry experience, Reign offered a parallel to the debate on trans identities. “It would be like if I went to my neuroanatomy class, and my professor was like, ‘Okay, here’s all the correct information. But now I’m going to teach you about phrenology as if it were legitimate science because we have to consider all sides.’”

Pitt isn’t the only school where Knowles has sparked controversy; he is traveling across the country to speak with college students. The University of St. Thomas, a private Catholic institution, recently declined the College Republicans’ attempts to invite Knowles, citing his public statements on trans identities. However most schools — including private ones like Boston University, Purdue University, and Yale University — have permitted the events alongside protests.

In a country where anti-trans legislation is on the rise, the rhetoric surrounding gender informs legal decisions. Eight states have banned gender-affirming youth care, and 23 other states are considering similar restrictions. Leading medical associations say people who seek this care need it.

On Thursday, Pitt’s faculty assembly discussed the upcoming events and generally affirmed the university’s position: while the speakers may be harmful for trans students, student groups are at liberty to host them.

The April 18 debate between McClosky and Knowles has made some students feel especially unsafe. “If you believe in the eradication of transgenderism and you come to a college campus where there are trans students, that’s putting them in danger,” the Carnegie Mellon student said.

Moving Forward
Lydia Caldwell, a Pitt sophomore majoring in gender, sexuality, and women’s studies and molecular biology, said that it is important for allies to step up. “I feel like a lot of the time people who aren’t part of the community just don’t really feel comfortable associating with the community,” she said. That isn’t the case for her, and she wishes it wasn’t the case for others. She added that the events being planned and groups associated with them are “scary for other reasons, too. They’re not just gonna stop at taking away the rights of trans people. They’re gonna target other marginalized groups.”

The Carnegie Mellon student we spoke with pointed out a silver lining in the controversy. Responding to the events offered Pitt and Carnegie Mellon students their first “major chance” to unite within the queer community, they said. “I have a whole new group of people I could rely on if anything does end up happening.”

Resources for trans, nonbinary, and gender diverse students on campus:
Non-binary process group with CaPS on Fridays, 11:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
LGBTQIA+ affinity group with CaPS on Tuesdays, 6:00 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.
Gender affirming care navigation appointments and hormone therapy with University Health Services
Transgender inclusive coverage, including gender confirmation surgery coverage, with the Student Health Insurance Plan
Student orgs, including PRISM and TINA.