The University of Pittsburgh is facing increasing criticism for allowing events by far-right provocateurs to proceed on campus. Pitt administration has welcomed speakers sponsored by Turning Point USA, a conservative group known for attempting to influence campus politics, and other reactionary elements on campus. The events are ostensibly to promote conversation about gender ideology, but it is clear that this is a thinly veiled attempt to push a transphobic line onto students. By allowing bad faith actors to spread their outdated, deeply harmful ideology, the University is tacitly supporting transphobia at a time when transgender people in the United States are being stripped of their fundamental rights.
We should be clear in labeling these events as what they are: anti-trans rallies featuring speakers with histories of spouting transphobic rhetoric. Attempts to frame the issue as a “debate” misrepresent the organizers’ arguments as provocative and contrary to the status quo; in fact, their demands to exclude transgender and gender-nonconforming people from professional sports bolster the system of violence and intolerance.
The first event will host Riley Gaines, a professional swimmer at the University of Kentucky who claims to be on a holy crusade to “save women’s sports”; an article written by her goes into a personal attack on a transgender swimmer to whom she lost in a championship race. Gaines’s entire ideology seems to be based on bitterness from this loss and a subsequent hatred of gender minorities. Her event will be held at the O’Hara Student Center on Monday, March 27 at 5:45 PM. TPUSA also plans to host an event by right-wing journalist Cabot Phillips on March 24; this will be held at 7 PM at the Cathedral of Learning. Even more of an unsavory figure is Michael Knowles, a notable bourgeois economist who recently delivered a virulently hateful speech on “How Feminism Destroys Women (And Everything Else)” at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Knowles showed his true colors by denouncing feminism and gay marriage, and calling for the “eradication of transgenderism.” His event, a debate on “transgenderism and womanhood” against transgender swimmer Deirdre McCloskey, is sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (a conservative front group) and the College Republicans. It will be held on Tuesday, April 18, 7:30 PM at the O’Hara Student Center.
The existence and rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people is not up for debate. Transgender people deserve to be respected and accepted in society, and this extends to full participation in sport and recreation. Attempting to lay a case for the exclusion of trans women from sporting events is another insult in a society in which transgender people are commonly discriminated against, harassed, attacked, and even killed for their gender identity or expression. The argument that transgender women have an inherent advantage in women’s sports is meritless. The literature on the topic indicates that many sports policies excluding transgender women is based on “indirect, inconsistent and unambiguous evidence,” and that compelling transgender women to participate in men’s sports can result in poorer health outcomes (Jones et al. 2017). Conservatives are targeting transgender people, using them as scapegoats to divide the larger working class and push for legislation that disproportionately targets working people.
Provost Ann Cudd sent an email to all Pitt students on Thursday, calling for students to “uphold the principles of protected speech and expression” and (paradoxically) claiming to support transgender and gender diverse individuals on campus. Her actions in justifying these events speaks louder than her words. Cudd claims that the University “will steadfastly support those in our community who may be affected by the upcoming events – now or in the days ahead.” This seems to be an admission of the knowledge that this event has the possibility of negatively impacting trans and queer students, but this hasn’t stopped her or anyone else from canceling these events. Cudd then goes on to reference the Pitt Promise – but surely this is not contributing to “the development of a caring community where compassion for others and freedom of thought and expression are valued.”
Students have not taken kindly to the events. A petition with over nine thousand signatures calls for Pitt administration to cancel the events and demonstrate care for the LGBTQ+ population on campus. Additionally, a Rally for Trans Rights has been organized by PRISM. It is scheduled for Friday, March 24 at 6 PM. The news has also traveled outside of Pittsburgh; several state representatives have denounced the events.
We echo the calls of student leaders to cancel these abhorrent rallies. The University of Pittsburgh is providing a platform for hateful ideology to be spread in the name of free speech. Freedom of speech must not include that which directly targets members of a disadvantaged group. A tolerant society cannot let such reprehensible conduct occur. We stand with the transgender, gender non-conforming, and queer population at Pitt and urge Provost Cudd and others to deeply consider their commitment to civility and tolerance. Additionally, we ask the University and Pitt Police to use maximum restraint in responding to protests and demonstrations.
Trans rights are human rights!