Talks by three conservative speakers creating conflict on campus


The debate over three upcoming student-sponsored events featuring conservative speakers — two of which are specifically discussing transgender issues — has split into three camps:

From a petition calling for the University to cancel the events: “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.”

From a University statement: “We understand these events are toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community. … These events are being organized by — and the speakers have been invited by — registered student organizations on campus. Student organizations are permitted to invite speakers — including highly provocative ones — to campus without University administration deciding what is acceptable and what is not.”

From Pitt College Republicans, sponsor of one of the events: “There will always be people who don’t believe in free speech that want to shut down their opposition, especially when they’re speaking such powerful and important truths. As college conservatives, we know there will always be backlash to our beliefs because we go against the tide of the majority, but that’s why it’s so important that we stand up for ourselves and refuse to back down.”

The events include two sponsored by Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a national group that promotes conservative politics on college and high school campuses. On March 24, Cabot Phillips, senior editor of the conservative website The Daily Wire, will speak on “Everything the Media Won’t Tell You,” at 7 p.m. at G24 Cathedral of Learning. Then on March 27, Turning Point will host Riley Gaines, at 5:45 p.m. in the O’Hara Ballroom. Gaines is a former college swimmer who has been outspoken about transgender women competing in women’s sports, after she tied for fifth place with transgender swimmer Lia Thomas in the women’s 200-meter NCAA championship last year.

Attempts to get comment on these events from Turning Point members at Pitt were unsuccessful. In addition, the advisor for the student organization Turning Point USA has notified the Student Organization Resource Center of their resignation, according to a Pitt spokesman. Registered student groups are required to have a faculty advisor. “We are in discussions with the student leaders of Turning Point USA,” the spokesman said.

The event sparking the most outcry is a debate about transgender rights on April 18 between transgender activist Deirdre McCloskey and Michael Knowles, a right-wing commentator who at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4, said “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” Some have said this was a call to violence against transgender people. During a speech at the University of Buffalo last week — titled "How Radical Feminism Destroys Women and Everything Else" — Knowles defended his comments as being against a system of beliefs and not a call to eradicate transgender people.

The event is sponsored by Pitt’s College Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which was founded in the 1950s by William F. Buckley Jr.

McCloskey, who made a gender transition in the 1990s, said on Twitter this week: “A thousand people have signed a petition against Michael Knowles ‘debating’ me on transgender matters on April 18 at Pittsburgh. They should be ashamed. True, Knowles is an anti-Jesus Catholic, a fascist advocating state power over ideas. But we live in a free country.” An email request for comment from McCloskey had not been returned by the UTimes’ publication time.

Conflicted feelings

Senate President Robin Kear summed up the conflict between condemning what many consider hate speech but still supporting free speech.

“My personal opinion is that the positions are appalling and hurtful,” Kear said at the March 15 Faculty Assembly meeting. “The type of views and the descriptions of the events are not values and positions that I hold. There are many in our community that are upset, and I can understand their outrage and concern. And yet we must keep in mind that there are students at this University that invited these speakers. …”

She asked those at the meeting if they would want any academic administration restricting who could be invited to speak on campus, even if all the protocols were followed. “I could easily imagine this entire issue being flipped 30 years ago. Someone could have invited a trans speaker and others would like to shut them down.”

Kear noted that this debate is another teaching moment and the community is responding by expressing their views, signing petitions, stating their values, planning counter-events and upholding the inclusion goals for all. “All of our community members have a right to do this,” she said. “I personally am heartened by this outpouring of support.”

Bridget Keown, a teaching assistant professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program, noted that according to Human Rights Campaign, at least 34 transgender and gender nonconforming people were killed in the past year. And the uptick in hateful rhetoric and misinformation about transgender and gender nonconforming people have also led to a more than 200 percent rise in hate crimes against those individuals. “And I am extremely uncomfortable with framing something as a debate when we have practical information that those words can translate into real-world violence and real-world harm for our community.”

Lisa S. Parker, director of the Center for Bioethics & Health Law, said, “I am aware that there are faculty, staff and students who are afraid to be on campus this month, and thereafter. I think we need to recognize that and take steps to protect their physical safety.”

The University’s position

Since Pitt released its first official statement on this matter on March 8 — which included an affirmation of the University’s “deep commitment to and support of all Pitt community members including our trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming community members” — other administrators and offices have spoken out.

The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion posted a letter from Vice Chancellor Clyde Wilson Pickett on March 10 titled “Our commitment to equality, inclusion, and civil rights remains steadfast.”

While the letter said “The University of Pittsburgh has encouraged free and open debate on controversial subjects for more than 200 years. The exchange of ideas and academic freedom are pillars of the academy and higher education,” it also emphasized that “it should be clear that the existence of marginalized and under-represented groups of people is self-evident and irrefutable. We remain committed to embracing the diversity of our community, including those members of our community who are transgender and gender queer. These are values for which we have never wavered from and remain firm.”

The letter goes on to list resources to report discrimination or to seek mental health help.

Provost Ann Cudd’s email to the Pitt community on March 16 reiterated that student groups “are permitted to invite outside speakers of their choosing to campus if they follow University guidelines and the law.”

She noted that the recent speech by Knowles “disrespected transgender individuals by suggesting that their identities are false. Such rhetoric is repugnant.”

“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.”

She also said a few academic areas have “proactively shared plans to engage in counter speech in response to the planned events. This is the type of intellectual exchange and peaceful dissent that will serve us best.”

Pitt’s administration stressed that while “peaceful protest is allowed, it cannot interfere with University events or operations. The University has well-established procedures to properly handle these situations, and we are committed to working with our community members to ensure they understand our policies and procedures.”

The opposition

Those opposed to the three speaker events are numerous. Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition on titled, “Hold the University Of Pittsburgh Accountable in Protecting LGBTQIA+ Individuals.”

The petition — created by Nicholas Demjan, a senior political science and history major, and Kelisa Hysenbegasi, a senior psychology major — calls on the University’s leaders to “uphold Pitt’s supposed values by speaking up in support of queer and trans people at Pitt, and to prevent these events from happening in buildings where we live, learn, and build community.”

It also argues that “This harassment and antagonism are not part of the exercise of free speech; they are intended to normalize the marginalization and incite action against trans individuals and would not be tolerated by the Pitt administration for other groups on campus. Debates about human rights and the validity of the existence of queer and trans individuals, and anyone within our community, are not debates; they are incendiary and hateful propaganda that destabilizes what we are all working for in building community at Pitt.”

Pitt Queer Professionals, an affinity group of LGBTQIA+ Pitt faculty and staff, also sent a letter to Pitt administrators saying it “firmly opposes the amplification of anti-trans hate speech at our place of work and study. We are angered and dismayed that the University of Pittsburgh is platforming three anti-trans speakers this spring, including an individual who expressly called for the eradication of trans people from all aspects of public life. These actions threaten the safety of our PQP membership and the Pitt community at large. … We call upon the University of Pittsburgh to shut down this anti-trans hate speech and issue a formal apology to the LGBTQIA+ community for creating a hostile workplace and learning environment.”

The group also used the opportunity to reiterate its request for an LGBTQIA+ Resource Center with multiple dedicated full-time staff members. 

Another group has been posting signs around campus, with a link to a letter opposing the speaking engagements with Gaines and Knowles, signed by “A group of concerned students on campus.”

This letter says: “When bigots are given a platform to speak, they will use that platform to actively hurt free speech by making sure that ideas that they find objectionable cannot be heard.

“If either of these individuals are allowed to hold their events, the education of transgender students will be disrupted, and our safety will be at risk. Their events will spread transphobic hate to campus, and could even embolden students to commit hate crimes against transgender students.  Free speech does not protect speech which endangers the livelihoods of innocent, vulnerable people.”

In addition, Pennsylvania House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus co-chairs state Reps. Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny, and Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, are calling for the events to be cancelled.

“I am shocked, appalled and outraged that an institution as prestigious as the University of Pittsburgh is allowing these events to occur on their property and bolstering these hateful individuals,” Benham said. “This is not a free speech issue. Hate speech is not protected speech. This is about the safety of transgender students and recognizing that transgender people exist.”

The Rainbow Alliance, an undergraduate student organization that hosts events for LGBTQIA+ students and allies, also condemned the events, saying the group takes issue with Pitt claiming it had a “deep commitment to and support of all Pitt community members including our trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming community members.” In a statement, the Rainbow Alliance said: “If the University had truly been committed to supporting the trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming community on campus, they would not allow these individuals to propagate their harmful ideas.”

The group made note that the two Turning Point events are happening at or near the same time as its annual Pride Week. The Pitt News reported this week that the Rainbow Alliance, in response to the conservative talks, requested and received $26,250 from the Student Government Board to host Dylan Mulvaney to kick off the organization’s Pride Week on March 22.

Mulvaney is a trans actress and content creator. She has 6 million followers on TikTok, where she highlights her transgender journey in a series titled “Days of Girlhood.” 

The organizers

While Turning Point members did not respond to a request for comments on the Phillips and Gainey events, Dylan Mitchell, president of College Republicans at Pitt and a sophomore economics, history and philosophy major, said his group was “greatly excited and happy” to organize the Knowles-McCloskey debate.

“We were hoping to begin hosting some sort of high-profile event every semester, so when we had the opportunity to work with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to host a great debate on an important topic, we were greatly excited and happy to organize the event,” he said in an email response to questions from the UTimes.

“My answer to those people who are against Michael Knowles coming to campus would be to cordially invite them to come to the debate or watch it live-streamed and hear what he has to say, instead of basing their opinions off of sensationalized headlines,” Mitchell said.

He said that Knowles’ comments at CPAC were taken out of context, and “what he actually said, in full context, was in no way whatsoever a call to violence. He was discussing an idea, not a person or a group of people, and any accusation that he called for violence of any sort is blatantly dishonest.”

Mitchell said anyone attending the April 18 debate in the O’Hara Ballroom will have to register in advance, and there will be plenty of security at the event.

“People certainly have the right to protest, just as we have the right to bring this debate to campus and hear what the speakers have to say; however, they don’t have the right to shut us down, and if they are disruptive to the point of making the debate impossible, that will be dealt with in an appropriate manner by the security and police,” Mitchell said. 

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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