‘Slap in the face’: Protests continue against ‘anti-trans’ speakers amid Riley Gaines event


Nate Yonamine | Senior Staff Photographer

A protestor holds up a transgender pride flag at a rally protesting Riley Gaines’ appearance at the O’Hara Ballroom Monday evening.

By Punya Bhasin, News Editor

About 200 students protested at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard Monday afternoon, chanting “hate speech isn’t free, it costs lives” and carrying signs with phrases such as “save trans lives.” 

The protest, which started at 3:30 p.m., was in response to a Riley Gaines speaking event Monday evening. Pitt’s Turning Point USA chapter hosted Gaines, a former collegiate swimmer and critic of transgender women competing in women’s sports. Pitt police blocked off the intersection for about one and a half hours. This protest follows a separate demonstration on Friday outside the Cathedral of Learning in response to another Turning Point USA event featuring conservative commentator Cabot Phillips

Akira Ormes-Strong, a transgender woman living in Pittsburgh, said the University’s lack of action is “unsurprising.” She added that it’s sending a message that “hate speech is acceptable,” and is putting trans people across the city in danger. 

On April 18, Pitt’s College Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute invited Michael Knowles to debate “transgenderism and womanhood.”

“What people need to understand is that trans people can be recognized as people beyond their transness beyond a vague entity hidden behind a smokescreen hidden behind a wall,” Ormes-Strong said. “If Pitt doesn’t cancel the Michael Knowles event, they are cowards and endangering the lives of transgender individuals in Pittsburgh.”

For Stevie Windston, a transmasculine nonbinary individual who works at Pitt as a researcher, this past week has been especially rough on their mental state as they grapple with continued hate directed toward their community. Windston asked to use a pseudonym for their last name due to safety and privacy concerns.

“Honestly, it’s [the protest] given me a boost of confidence that I was really not feeling this past weekend,” Windston said. “There’s been a lot of existential thinking for me in terms of the multiple marginalizations I hold. I’m a Black person. I identify as nonbinary, and I’m also queer, and all of those things on top of normal life stuff, it gets to be a lot and there’s a lot of times where I feel burnt out or exhausted.”

Windston said they are disappointed by Pitt’s lack of action and “wishes Pitt’s actions actually matched their words.”

“I think there are a lot of times when these organizations just say they’re diverse or try to say they advocate for diversity for the sake of checking off a box, but they don’t realize that nurturing all of their community, including trans people, makes them a better organization.”

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.” 

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. 

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.”

While gathered at the intersection of Forbes and Bigelow, trans and queer individuals addressed a need for more representation of BIPOC, trans and queer individuals within the University, safety concerns as a trans individual on campus and more.

Dena Stanley, the founder and executive director of TransYouniting and a Black trans woman who helped organize the protest, said the University’s decision to allow “anti-trans” speakers on campus during Pitt Pride Week is a “slap in the face,” and is indicative of how much more work needs to be done in order to support the trans community.

“I not only want to see people out here today, but I want to see what they’re doing outside in the real world,” Stanley said.“This is the foundation, we had so many trans folks speak today because it is about our visibility as trans individuals and making sure our voices are heard.”

Stanley announced another protest on April 18 against the Knowles event. 

“We’re here for you, we love you, we support you and we are going to continue fighting for you,” Stanley said.