Status of ‘transgenderism and womanhood’ debate at Pitt uncertain after participant drops out


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Professor Deirdre McCloskey.

By Alexandra Ross, Assistant News Editor

Transgender scholar Deirdre McCloskey has dropped out of an on-campus debate against conservative political commentator Michael Knowles about “transgenderism and womanhood” next week, and the organizers of the debate have not yet found her replacement. 

McCloskey said she had “no idea” who Knowles was when she agreed to the debate, and after learning more about him and his beliefs, she decided to withdraw from the event. 

“[Knowles] is interested in stirring up hatred and violence towards people who do not fit his extremely conservative Catholic beliefs, belief[s] quite contrary to those of for example Pope Francis,” McCloskey said. “His beliefs are not even good Biblical criticism or theology. I decided not to participate in giving him a platform. … It is sad that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, once a force for liberty, decided to sponsor Mr. Knowles.”

Dylan Mitchell, president of the College Republicans club, said Knowles will still come to Pitt’s campus and give a speech if a replacement debater can’t be found. Mitchell said all tickets and registrations for the event are still valid.

After hearing of McCloskey’s withdrawal from the debate, Knowles posted on Twitter that perhaps McCloskey had “learned that I’m not the loose cannon that the liberal media have dishonestly portrayed,” and that “my opposition to transgenderism derives, not from hatred, but from love of the truth, in this case regarding epistemology and anthropology.”

“I’m happy to take a victory by default,” Knowles tweeted. “But it’s telling that even a distinguished scholar with three Harvard degrees and half a dozen honorary doctorates cannot defend transgenderism. Of course: the ideology is indefensible.” 

Pitt’s College Republicans club, sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, was set to host McCloskey and Knowles on April 18 for an on-campus debate. The debate, among other events hosting “anti-trans” speakers, inspired significant backlash at Pitt as transgender students said the events made them feel “unwelcome” and “in danger” on campus. 

ISI President John Burtka said ISI selected Knowles and McCloskey to participate in the debate because they are “prominent and articulate voices on the subject of transgenderism.” 

“We felt that the participants would go beyond a surface level discussion of the topic and offer students an opportunity to understand the deeper philosophical, political and religious dimensions of the issue,” Burtka said. “I am sorry that Deirdre chose to withdraw from what will be a civil and constructive event.”

McCloskey’s exit from the event has left ISI to search for her replacement with less than a week to spare. While a replacement has not yet been found, Burtka said he is “confident we will do so shortly.”

“We look forward to hosting a civil debate on this important topic at Pitt next week,” Burtka said. “We applaud the university administration for their commitment to free speech and open inquiry and look forward to providing a welcoming environment where students can learn and express their deeply held beliefs on gender and womanhood.”

Burtka confirmed that ISI reached out to Charlotte Clymer — a transgender writer, activist and communications consultant — Monday afternoon and offered her $10,000 to argue the “pro-trans/pro-government-deciding-trans-rights side” of the debate.

According to email screenshots Clymer posted to Twitter, she declined to participate for reasons including that “the humanity of my community — our right to exist — should not be a topic of debate” and Knowles’ “history of engaging in exceedingly bad faith.” 

Though she decided not to debate Knowles, McCloskey noted that she has participated in debates on transgender issues in the past, for example with British professor of philosophy Kathleen Stock in June 2022

“Kathleen is well informed and seeks the truth, though mostly mistaken on trans issues, as I said in our debate,” McCloskey said. “Mr. Knowles, I discovered, is even more mistaken, but utterly uninterested in finding the truth.”

Even as she condemned Knowles, McCloskey also said she was “dismayed” by Pitt students’ “anti-free-speech” demands for University administration to cancel the event. 

“Both are wrong, the hate-mongering Mr. Knowles and the speech-suppressing signatories of the petition,” McCloskey said. “The result would be not a rational debate but a fascist rally.” 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 1:50 p.m. Wednesday with a comment from Mitchell.