Student petition calls for the cancellation of upcoming ‘anti-trans’ events


TPN File Photo

The 2021 Pittsburgh Pride Parade in Downtown.

By Punya Bhasin, News Editor

More than 6,000 Pitt students have signed a petition to cancel three scheduled “anti-trans” events that will be held at Pitt, as some trans and queer students raise concerns about the “potential for violence” on campus.

“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,” the petition, which was created on March 7, said. 

On March 27 at 5:45 p.m. in the O’Hara Ballroom, Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA will host Riley Gaines, a 12-time NCAA All-American swimmer and vehement critic of transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. Gaines gained notoriety after tying for fifth place with transgender swimmer Lia Thomas in a race at the NCAA Championship.

Turning Point USA will also host Cabot Phillips, an editor at the right-wing website The Daily Wire, on March 24 at 7 p.m. in the Cathedral of Learning. Later, on April 18, Pitt’s College Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute invited Michael Knowles to debate “transgenderism and womanhood” in the O’Hara Ballroom. Knowles recently called for an eradication of “transgenderism.”  

Former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines speaks during a rally on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, outside of the NCAA Convention in San Antonio. (AP Photo | Darren Abate)

Nicholas Demjan, who created the petition along with Kelisa Hysenbegasi, a senior psychology major, said there should be no debate about the existence of the transgender community, and that it’s upsetting that the Gaines event coincides with the start of Pride Week.

“I created the petition because I feel like Pitt in the past has already continually failed many different marginalized groups, and I think their statements on diversity and inclusion are just kind of at face value,” Demjan, a senior political science and history major, said. “They do [the statements] for their own public image and to appear like they actually care about these groups, but when it comes down to it, they don’t take the necessary steps to protect these communities.” 

In a media statement released Friday, Pitt said it understands the events are “toxic and harmful” for people in the Pitt community, and is committed to “support” people who might be “negatively affected” by the upcoming events. 

University spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said registered student organizations have the right to invite “highly provocative” speakers on campus “without University administration deciding what is acceptable and what is not.”

“While peaceful protest is allowed, it cannot interfere with University events or operations,” Stonesifer said. “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.”

Liliana Orozco, president of Pitt’s Turning Point USA chapter and a junior law, criminal justice and society major, defended the chapter’s right to host their events, saying “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.” The group’s Instagram post advertising the event has been flooded with hundreds of negative comments.

Orozco said the University reached out to the club about the petition, but she did not disclose what they discussed. She didn’t respond to questions about how many people have registered for the event, or why they chose Gaines and Phillips as speakers. 

“All their accusations on what our events are about are completely wrong,” Orozco said via email. “I encourage them to come as well and listen to a different perspective because it can definitely be talked about in a civil manner! We have had meetings with Pitt, and we will not be canceling these events under any circumstance.”

Dylan Mitchell, the current president of College Republicans, said debating the topic of transgenderism is “reasonable.” The American Psychological Association reports that transgender people have been documented in numerous indigenous, Western and Eastern cultures and societies for thousands of years, and the ACLU and Human Rights Campaign also say transgender and nonbinary communities have always existed. 

“The purpose of debating ‘transness’ is the same as debating any other topic — to encourage intellectual discourse and to pursue the truth,” Mitchell, a sophomore law, criminal justice and society and politics and philosophy double major, said. “The idea that men and women are different and beautifully unique was generally accepted by all of human society until quite recently, and if there are those that want to change that perspective, they’re not going to do so without encountering reasonable discussion and debate.”

Mitchell said the group has no plans to cancel the Knowles event, and that “those who are shocked by the idea of their beliefs being challenged should get used to conservative voices.”  

“This petition and backlash are just such stark examples of why so many other conservatives are afraid to stand up for what they believe in on campuses today,” Mitchell said. “We are not afraid. On behalf of ourselves and all those who are afraid to speak up, we are not going to be intimidated into backing down from what we believe to be fundamental truths.”

Hysenbegasi said she worries that the speakers may incite violence against transgender students, and that Pitt’s decision to not cancel the events is “hypocritical” with their public statements committing to “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.” 

“I think it is one that shoves all of the work onto the students, and they take the blame off of themselves because they say there’s nothing they can do, when there is very clearly something they can do if it goes against Pitt policy,” she said.

Mitchell argued that the idea that Knowles’ debate is hate speech and might incite violence is “completely unfounded and unequivocally ridiculous.”

“The idea that a fundamental belief held by everyone in human history up until quite recently, and still held by a majority of Americans, is now suddenly hate speech is simply ridiculous,” Mitchell said. “It is just evidence that the definition of that phrase is an ever-changing cudgel used against anyone that disagrees with the prevailing left-wing narrative.”

However, Laura Stravach, the president of Rainbow Alliance and senior film and media studies major, said they’re concerned about non-Pitt affiliates attending the events, especially because the Gaines’ event will take place during Rainbow Alliance’s Pride Week and the day after their drag show. Stravach said they don’t know if the timing is a coincidence or not, but debate over “anti-trans issues does worry me when we have a Pride week.”

Stravach and Demjan said there has been some conversation among Rainbow Alliance and the people who created the petition about protesting the events, but nothing is decided yet. 

“The kind of people that they can invite on campus definitely makes me fearful for not only myself, but my friends and the whole LGBT community about what kind of interactions we may have on campus during these times,” Stravach said.