Pastor speaks about gender, students protest


Scott Stiegemeyer spoke in the O’Hara Student Center Friday evening. Will Miller | Staff Photographer

Scott Stiegemeyer wants churches to welcome and support transgender individuals — but he also thinks gender reassignment surgery is a sin.

Stiegemeyer has written multiple books about theological perspectives of being transgender and intersex. His lecture, which began at 7 p.m. in the O’Hara Student Center Ballroom Friday, attracted about 150 students, including about 100 people protesting Stiegemeyer’s beliefs on sex reassignment surgery.

The Lutheran pastor and assistant professor of theology and bioethics at Concordia University Irvine acknowledges the condition of gender dysphoria and that people do suffer from disconnection with their bodies, but doesn’t support surgery that could alter what he says are God’s gender assignments.

Pitt’s Lutheran Student Fellowship and the Catholic Newman Club hosted the talk, which was funded by the Lutheran Student Fellowship and local chaplaincies St. Luke Church, Concordia Lutheran Ministries and Thrivent, among others. Pitt police monitored the event, in which Stiegemeyer said God intended for a strict gender binary to remain in place forever.

“It’s quite possible that I will say things tonight that will astound and offend everyone,” Stiegemeyer said. “But that is not my intention.”

Even though he doesn’t support gender reassignment surgery, Stiegemeyer said pastors and theologians should never diminish the pain of feeling out of sync with one’s gender.

“Don’t marginalize anyone, and be willing to be uncomfortable,” Stiegemeyer said. “Don’t surrender your religious convictions, but be gentle in maintaining them.”

The protests remained calm and mostly silent, with a small group of protesters shouting, “Your God can’t control my body” at one point in the speech. The protestors also displayed a flag with the phrase written in black marker, a transgender flag and a genderqueer flag throughout the lecture.

Per encouragement from a Facebook protest event called “Transphobic Speaker at Pitt,” the protesters arrived an hour early wearing rainbow or black colors and helping each other put duct tape over their mouths.

Taylor Paglisotti, the creator of the Facebook protest event and a Pitt alum, said the protesters stood in solidarity with other transgender people who feared Stiegemeyer’s dismissive point of view.

Paglisotti said Stiegemeyer’s beliefs about gender reassignment surgery are ignorant of the necessity of sex reassignment surgery for some trans people.

“For some trans people, medical intervention is life-saving, so I can’t understand anyone discouraging it,” Paglisotti said.

Paglisotti, a research assistant for Pitt’s school of medicine, said they started the Facebook event after they and other protesters asked the event’s organizers and Pitt’s administration to cancel the speech via email.

Shawn Ahearn, spokesperson for Student Affairs, said the University decided not to cancel the event because the school must remain unbiased when student groups host speakers and events.

In response to the cancellation requests, Ahearn said Vice Chancellor Pamela Connelly sent the students written emails explaining why the event wasn’t canceled and attached a letter about free speech that Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner wrote after conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos came to Pitt in March.

“From time to time, people are invited to our campus to express their point of view which may or may not align with all of Pitt’s core values. Consistent with the University’s mission, and with the law, the University permits such speech,” Bonner wrote in the letter. “However, this should not be construed as an implicit or explicit endorsement of any viewpoint expressed. It also shall not negate our core institutional values.”

Paglisotti said they still think Stiegemeyer’s talk was hateful and discriminatory.

“[The University] said the club has a right to free speech,” Paglisotti said. “[But] Pitt’s students have a right to an environment without discrimination.”

For Autumn Detchon, a protester and staff member at Pitt’s School of Nursing, standing up against Stiegemeyer was more about solidarity than it was about silencing him or his followers.

“The reason I hope people come out is not to attack Scott Stiegemeyer but to be in support of trans people hurt by his words,” Detchon said before the event.

The room was largely silent, though divided — the protesters sat on the right, and the Lutheran Student Fellowship and Catholic Newman Club sat on the left.

Kristi Nowak, Pitt junior and president of the Lutheran Student Fellowship, said she knew protesters would attend the event she had planned.

She had also invited Rainbow Alliance to the talk via email and said she wanted to reach out to those who might disagree so that they could exchange viewpoints at the event.

According to Marcus Robinson, president of RA, some members of the club attended the event in protest.

Nowak said her club benefitted from hearing the challenges the protesters posed during the Q&A session.

“I really think it’s important to get to know other people’s views,” Nowak said.

“We can’t pretend the other person isn’t there.”

Protesters questioned Stiegemeyer’s knowledge of others’ views during the question-and-answer session, suggesting he research the subject more thoroughly before offering explanations and answers.

Stiegemeyer said his view of gender dysphoria is moderate in comparison with his church, and he tries to educate himself on how theologians can best discuss it.

“The church I belong to produced a document about gender dysphoria that I felt did injustice to the issue,” Stiegemeyer said. “I wanted to provoke conversation about it. I see myself as a learner in the area.”

He said it’s important for churches not to shy away from these conversations even though they might be tough and ever-changing.

“One of my main goals would be to push the church to think about the body in the midst of the confusions of the contemporary world,” Stiegemeyer said.

He said Christians should talk about gender and identity in order to realize the complexity of the issue at hand and that theologians should make more of an effort to reach those of their congregations suffering. He said those with gender dysphoria need to be prayed for and blessed.

“I think we have to talk about this,” Stiegemeyer said. “A lot of times, in conservative churches, these are issues that we just don’t want to talk about. But if we can do this with more light than heat, we’ll be better able to welcome and understand others.”