‘We must be fearless’: Pennsylvania Rep. La’Tasha Mayes denounces Pitt for hosting ‘transphobic’ speakers


Ethan Shulman | Senior Staff Photographer

La’Tasha Mayes, a Democrat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, speaks at an event in Alumni Hall on Friday.

By Tanya Babbar, Staff Writer

La’Tasha Mayes, a Democrat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, criticized Pitt for allowing “transphobic” speakers to come to campus and therefore encouraging “harm” to trans members of the community. 

“I denounce the transphobic speakers who are here on campus. I condemn the University for doing so,” Mayes said. “My speaking here was planned months ago, but I don’t believe this is an accident. I am exactly where I need to be.”

Mayes, who graduated from Pitt in 2004, gave her keynote address in Alumni Hall on Friday in honor of the 50th anniversary of both Rainbow Alliance and Pitt’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department. The event was at the same time as conservative commentator Cabot Phillips’ speech at the O’Hara Student Center. 

“When I spoke to Chancellor Gallagher privately and publicly, in front of the appropriations committee, he asked for $160-plus million, but you have people coming to this campus to harm and hurt transgender students, faculty and staff — I got a problem with that,” Mayes said.

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.” 

Pitt’s Turning Point chapter will also 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.” 

Mayes said Knowles’ call for the eradication of “transgenderism” earlier this month at a Conservative Political Action Conference is “hate speech.”

“If you speak in public or on your platform and you say you want to eradicate transgender people, or the made-up word you made, ‘transgenderism,’ then that is hate speech,” Mayes said. “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you get to say I don’t have the right to exist.” 

More than 11,000 people have also 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. 

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.”

Some Pitt students who attended the event said they appreciated the way Mayes addressed the University’s role in “anti-trans” events on campus. 

“I liked her blatant acknowledgment that the institution and administration of Pitt are failing us. I like that, when people are just real,” said Alison Zeigler, an anthropology student at Pitt’s Greensburg campus. 

During her speech, Mayes also talked about how she developed her political and personal identity while in college. During her first year, she said classes such as “Female Offenders in Society About Incarcerated Women” and “Intro to Africana Studies” inspired her to jump full force into the GSWS department, which was called Women’s Studies at the time.

“The Women’s Studies department at Pitt not only gave me friendship, sisterhood and bonds that lasted forever, it gave me ways to think about the world, explore and question the world, and space to come into my own as a young Black woman,” Mayes said.

Mayes noted that in the early 2000s, Pitt felt like a different place for those with marginalized identities. Mayes said she felt unwelcome in both Black spaces due to homophobia and sexism, and in queer spaces due to racism, classism and a lack of diversity.

Mayes also said she felt that the language for intersectionality was not in practice yet, and social stigma made it difficult to participate in LGBTQ+ safe spaces, such as Rainbow Alliance. As a result, the foundation of Mayes’ success during her time at Pitt and after, was confidence.

“I was feeling that tension as I was affirming my own identity. There were no spaces for Black lesbian students on campus, so I always had to be confident in who I was 一 who I am 一 to have the fullest academic and extracurricular experiences,” Mayes said. “Although it was challenging, I never saw my identities as a deficit — I saw them as a superpower.”

Mayes said while being out as a Black lesbian at Pitt was difficult in the early 2000s, she felt and continues to feel that embracing her identity is a good way to fight against oppressive forces.

“It was hard being the one of the few who were out, but I knew that was important for me and others on campus, and again, it’s how I live my life to this day,” Mayes said. “When we are being who we are, we should run towards it, never run away from it. Especially when…cultural and political forces want us to be less of who we are, or not to exist at all.” 

In setting out on a path to create spaces for herself and those with similar identities, Mayes founded New Voices for Reproductive Justice, an organization focused on fighting for reproductive freedom and the holistic health of Black women. She founded it alongside fellow young, Black feminists — Bekezela Mguni, Maria Nicole Dautruche and Lois “Toni” McClendon, a community elder. 

Mayes said Black women play a foundational role in the fight for reproductive justice, which is connected to intersectionality. To fight for justice for marginalized communities, Mayes urged the audience to find the bravery to stand up in the face of injustice, even if that means having to leave spaces where their identities are affirmed.

“If we are to disrupt politics as usual and disrupt the cultural wars, where marginalized communities are the political football, the political pawn — we must be unafraid. We must be fearless,” Mayes said. “We also have to know that we have a sense of safety in the bubbles we’re in. We have to know going out of that takes us back into the realities of oppression and the ugliness and hatred in the world.”

Bridget Keown, a teaching assistant professor in the GSWS department, asked Mayes how she can support her community as an educator.

In her answer, Mayes noted the importance of finding joy and respecting one’s self and identity.

“Creating space for joy and building bonds is what has kept me going and keeps other people going. We need to have Black joy. It’s how we know we’re gonna be okay, and that we still have a community,” Mayes said. “You are wonderfully, beautifully, and fearfully made, and that’s enough. Our presence makes a difference. Institutions change when we change.”