PA House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus condemns Pitt for ‘transphobic’ events


John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

Attendees march Downtown during the Pittsburgh Pride Revolution March & Parade on Saturday, June 4.

By Alexandra Ross, Assistant News Editor

A wave of backlash against two upcoming “anti-trans” events at Pitt has reached beyond Pittsburgh city limits all the way to Harrisburg. Jessica Benham and Malcolm Kenyatta, co-chairs of the Pennsylvania House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, put out a press release Wednesday afternoon condemning Pitt and calling for the events to be canceled. 

 “Transgender individuals at Pitt are not feeling supported – they are feeling endangered,” Benham, D-Allegheny, said in the release. “I am urging the university to step in and cancel the events in the interest of protecting the LGBTQ+ community at Pitt.”

The controversy surrounds two separate events hosted by right-wing student organizations. Pitt’s Turning Point USA chapter is set to host former collegiate swimmer Riley Gaines on March 27 to speak against transgender women’s participation in women’s sports. College Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute will host political commentator Michael Knowles and transgender scholar Deirdre McCloskey to debate the concept of “transgenderism and womanhood” on April 18. 

According to the press release, Benham has reached out to the University regarding the events but has yet to receive a response. 

In media statements responding to the backlash, a University spokesperson said Pitt understands the events are “toxic and hurtful,” and the speakers’ presence on campus “does not change the University’s unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

“As a public university, we also uphold the principles of protected speech and expression and acknowledge that legally protected speech and expression can at times offend and marginalize some members of our community and contradict unwavering university values,” the spokesperson said.

In the press release, Benham rejected the idea that these events are protected by free speech laws.

“This is not a free speech issue. Hate speech is not protected speech,” Benham said. “This is about the safety of transgender students and recognizing that transgender people exist.”

According to the American Library Association, hate speech is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, unless it “directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group.” 

Transgender students at Pitt have said they feel the event is “putting students in danger” by attracting “hateful people” to campus. A petition to cancel the events, which garnered over 9,400 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, said the “transphobia” of Gaines and Knowles “threatens [the] safety” of transgender women. 

Dylan Mitchell, president of College Republicans, said the idea that Knowles’ debate will incite violence is “completely unfounded and unequivocally ridiculous.” Liliana Orozco, president of Pitt’s Turning Point USA chapter, said the Gaines event will be conducted in a “civil manner.”

Benham said by allowing Gaines and Knowles to speak on campus, Pitt is “platforming” and “endorsing” their ideals, which “[helps] transphobes spread their message and grow their following.” 

“The university is essentially endorsing the idea that transgender people do not and should not exist,” Benham said. 

Kenyatta, D-Phila., added that it is “truly despicable and heartbreaking” that the University has no plans to cancel the events. 

“Colleges should be a safe place for students to learn, grow and prepare for their futures, not a place for bigotry and hate,” Kenyatta said. “I expect Pitt and all colleges across the commonwealth to do better by their trans students.”