Backlash Mounts at Pitt for Allowing Speakers Who Students Say Are Transphobic

Over 10,000 people have signed a petition to cancel three student-organized speaker events that many decry as transphobic, tying Pitt up in a free speech dilemma not unknown to the university or universities nationally.
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When Nicholas Demjan penned a petition calling the University of Pittsburgh to cancel several upcoming speaker events hosted by right-wing student organizations, he didn’t know he would receive more than 10,000 signatures and set off a wave of student backlash across the campus.

“I’m not calling for the destruction of property or anything — as no one would — but it’s important the university sees that the students, along with [over] 10,000 people now, are disappointed in their actions and they need to be held responsible for that.”

Calls for Pitt to cancel events held by conservative-leaning clubs Turning Point USA and Pitt’s College Republicans have been mounting. The clubs are independently holding three events over the next month, bringing in speakers many students consider transphobic, tying Pitt up in a free speech dilemma not unknown to the university.

Demjan, a senior political science and history major, says he started writing the petition with fellow senior Kelisa Hysenbegasi when Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that advocates conservative politics on school campuses nationally, announced a speaker event on March 27 featuring NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines.

Gaines took the national stage as a critic of trans women competing in women’s events when she tied for fifth place with Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, at the NCAA championship last year.

Turning Point USA’s announcement of the Gaines event came just days after they announced they will be hosting Cabot Phillips, a senior editor at the conservative website the Daily Wire on March 24. Additionally, Pitt’s College Republicans, in partnership with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, will be hosting a debate with Michael Knowles, a Daily Wire host and author on April 18. Knowles has previously said in a speech “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life.” 

Demjan says when he was made aware of the other two events, which he says “perpetuate a type of rhetoric that directly leads to violence against trans peoples, and queer people in general,” he expanded the scope of the petition to call upon Pitt to cancel all three. Additionally, he says members of the Pitt faculty — who wish to remain anonymous — helped draft the petition.

“It is unacceptable and against the values of this University to allow groups under its administration and on its behalf to host events featuring individuals who wish to advance a platform of hate and transphobia and make our beloved institution an accomplice to the trending attacks that place trans bodies and humanity in the middle of a culture war fabricated entirely for political gain,” reads the petition, which was published March 7.

Pitt’s Provost Ann Cudd said in a statement that though these events raise significant concerns about “equity” and “belongingness” — going as far as to call past statements by speaker Micahel Knowles “repugnant” — they will not be canceled.

“It is important to remember that registered independent student organizations are permitted to invite outside speakers of their choosing to campus if they follow University guidelines and the law,” Cudd said in the email sent to the Pitt Community on March 16.

“I want to emphatically state that hate-filled rhetoric is not what our community stands for. I stand for — and with — all Pitt community members, including our trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming community members. I affirm not only their right to exist and thrive, but also value their vibrant contributions to our academic community.”

In another statement, Pitt said peaceful protest of these events is allowed “as long as it does not interfere with university events or operations.” 

Laura Stravach, a senior at Pitt and president of Rainbow Alliance, an LGBTQ student organization, says their immediate reaction when hearing about these events was “frustration and anger that the university would let this happen,” though they urge any protests that may occur to remain peaceful. 

“As angry as I am, and I think as angry as other people are, I believe that we should do our best to peacefully protest,” Stravach says. “As much as I might not like Turning Point USA, they have not thrown any violence our way — any physical violence — so I really don’t think that we should retaliate with physical violence. I think that we should retaliate peacefully.”

This isn’t the first time Pitt has been met with opposition over student-organized speaker events. In 2018, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s appearance at the university drew protestors outside and prompted a teach-in later in the evening.

Events such as these across the state and country have been met with similar backlash. Penn State last year canceled a Proud Boys event , citing the threat of violent counter-protests erupting. Just last week, two students were arrested at UC Davis for protesting a conservative speaker who also happened to be hosted by the school’s chapter of Turning Point USA.

Demjan says counter-protests are to be expected. Flyers advertising a “rally for trans rights” are already appearing across Pitt’s campus calling for people to gather at 6 p.m. outside the Cathedral of Learning on the same day Cabot is set to speak. 

“There’s a bunch of different groups of people on campus and in the Greater Pittsburgh area that are organizing counter-protests at each of these events,” Demjan says. “More details are going to be posted about it, but there are going to be counter events at each one of these three events going on if the university doesn’t take the steps to cancel them.”

Categories: The 412