‘Not going anywhere’: Pitt students protest ‘anti-trans’ event with Cabot Phillips


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

A protester speaks into a megaphone at a protest against the University for allowing Cabot Phillips and other “anti-trans” speakers to hold events on campus.

By Punya Bhasin, News Editor

About 300 students, faculty and community members protested outside the Cathedral of Learning Friday, chanting “Transphobes have got to go” before an event featuring conservative commentator Cabot Phillips started later that evening.  

Pip Mostern, a nonbinary student, said the University is sending a message that it won’t protect oppressed groups on campus, including trans people, by allowing “anti-trans” speakers on campus. 

“I am so mad at this University for what they’re doing to trans students, not only are these speakers actively spouting hate speech, they’re also spouting lies,” Mostern, a sophomore anthropology major, said. “What they are saying is actively hate speech and actively very harmful not just to the Pitt community, not even just to the trans community, but allowing these far-right speakers is sending a sense of fear to every oppressed community on campus.”

People also protested other “anti-trans” speakers that are scheduled to come to campus. Pitt’s Turning Point chapter will host Riley Gaines, a 12-time NCAA All-American swimmer and vehement critic of transgender athletes competing in women’s sports, on Monday. On April 18, Pitt’s College Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute invited Michael Knowles to debate “transgenderism and womanhood.” 

At the protest, organizers said they want the University to create a fully-staffed, in-person, LGBTQIA+ resource center, expand trans-inclusive health care and housing, decrease police presence during mental health crises and increase education for staff and faculty about the trans community.   

Iris Olson, one of the rally’s organizers, said it’s the University’s “duty” to better support the transgender community.

“Our demands clearly show that there’s a lack of resources that support the trans community, and the University is making this all about freedom of speech, when it’s not about that,” Olson said. “There is a continuous issue with lack of resources that help support trans people here, and it’s not just affecting students, but the lack of resources affects the students, staff and faculty as well.”

In a media statement released earlier this month, 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.” However, a University spokesperson 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.” 

In an email sent to students on Wednesday, Dean Carla Panzella said “this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that controversial speakers visit Pitt’s campus.” Panzella added that she understands Pitt’s policy to “uphold the principle of protected speech will not feel sufficient to some in our community.”

“If you disagree with these speakers and you choose to act, then you can participate in a peaceful counter demonstration or engage in productive dialogue with others, or an organization you are part of can host a counter speaker,” Panzella said. “Your voices are powerful.” 

More than 11,000 people have signed a petition urging the University to cancel these events, as transgender and queer students raised concerns about their safety on campus. The Pennsylvania House LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also condemned Pitt for hosting the events. 

Agate, one of the students who helped organize the protest, said they are “horrified” that the University is willing to endanger the lives of queer students on campus. Agate declined to provide their full name due to privacy concerns.

“These people want us dead, and they’re killing us with their hateful rhetoric and their anti-trans walls and propaganda across the country, and my University doesn’t just watch this happen and do nothing, our administration actively stands on the side of genocide,” Agate, a sophomore biological sciences and theater arts major, said.

While the protest on the Cathedral Lawn lasted for about an hour, about 20 students left to protest inside the Phillips event. Yosef Nelson, a junior history major, said they wanted to “overpower” Phillips’ rhetoric. Pitt police removed the group shortly after the event started when they continued talking as Phillips took the mic. Nelson said they all had tickets to the event.

“Our goal was just to get as many bodies in there that did not want to support his rhetoric so that the people who did support him could not be there,” Nelson said. “We also just wanted to be louder than him to overpower him and let him know that there are people here who first of all don’t like him and frankly, don’t give a shit about what he has to say.”

Some rally organizers also emphasized the power of unionizing in the fight for transgender rights. Olson, an organizer with the staff union, said the erasure of transgender rights is rooted in capitalism. 

“Labor is really important because without having a solid labor movement, without having unions unify us and also fight and give us a space to fight, we wouldn’t be able to go up against the administration as effectively,” Olson said. 

Agate said this demonstration is just the beginning, and protesters plan to continue making their voices heard. 

“We deserve to feel safe and accepted on campus and we will shout it out again and again until our voices are heard because we are here, we are queer and we are not going anywhere,” Agate said.