Michael Knowles, Brad Polumbo debate transgender issues, government regulation at Pitt


Kaylee Uribe | Staff Photographer

Michael Knowles speaks in the O’Hara Student Center on Tuesday night.

By Punya Bhasin, News Editor

Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo debated the question “should transgenderism be regulated by law?” as chants from protestors outside the building echoed throughout the O’Hara Ballroom Tuesday evening. 

Knowles argued that the government must regulate transgender issues, saying there “can be no middle ground.” Polumbo argued that while he doesn’t agree with all aspects of the medical transition process, he believes in the “live and let live idea of America.” About 250 people attended the event. 

College Republicans, sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, hosted the event. Knowles’ debate opponent as well as the debate topic changed last week after transgender scholar Deirdre McCloskey dropped out. Knowles is a conservative commentator at the Daily Wire, and Polumbo is a “libertarian-conservative journalist” and columnist for conservative news outlet the Washington Examiner. Students and lawmakers have repeatedly called on Pitt to cancel the “transphobic” event.

As Knowles began his opening remarks, a small group of counter protesters stood up and repeatedly chanted “trans rights are human rights.” The police quickly escorted them off the premises for disrupting the speech. 

More than 250 people protested outside of O’Hara Student Center during the debate. Pitt police sent out an emergency notification service message around 7:30 p.m. alerting the campus community about a “public safety emergency” in the vicinity of the protest. Police officers on scene confirmed that smoke bombs were set off, causing a loud explosive noise. Community members and students also held a smaller protest earlier on Tuesday.

Knowles called the protestors “an opening act” and thanked the police for removing them. Polumbo also said the protestors need to “grow the hell up,” and “the debate is happening whether you like it or not.” 

Some of the topics addressed in the debate included the use of bathrooms for transgender individuals, the institutionalization of transgender individuals and medical transitioning for children experiencing gender dysphoria.

Polumbo called Knowles, and people who agreed with his viewpoints, “right-wing verison of those LGBTQ activists who seek to use the state to police how other people can live their lives and restrict them from living in ways they personally disapprove of.” 

He said Knowles’ call to eradicate “transgenderism” and to “institutionalize Dylan Mulvaney” is a “totalitarian approach” and is “remarkably short sighted.” Mulvaney is a transgender activist and content creator. 

Knowles said if a man wishes to crossdress in his home — which Knowles largely attributed as an action “driven by pornography” — he wouldn’t suggest to “commit that man.” However, Knowles said the views of liberalism are “selfish and shallow” by allowing people with mental problems “to let them out on the street often to die of exposure.” 

“If he’s acting out in a way that is really disorderly and disrupting the public and harmful to himself, for instance, if he wants to chop off his own healthy body parts and cause all sorts of destruction to himself, then I think not only is it the right of society to take some action here to restore order, but I think it’s only compassionate for that person,” Knowles said. 

In rebuttal, Polumbo said most doctors recommend transition for adults experiencing gender dysphoria. Polumbo added that conservatives will be less successful at winning elections if they combat an “extreme,” with a “complete and opposite extreme.”

“Who are we to tell them how to live their lives?” Polumbo said. “I don’t want the government policing my wardrobe, my speech, what pronouns I use? I don’t want the government telling me what I can believe, what I can say, how I can live my life and if you don’t want that you have to respect that for transgender adults as well.”

Polumbo further suggested that businesses should have the right to decide for themselves their bathroom policies, and applauded the use of “single stall unisex bathrooms” instead of letting the government be the “arbitrator of truth.” 

Brad Polumbo speaks in the O’Hara Student Center on Tuesday night. (Kaylee Uribe | Staff Photographer)

Polumbo said it is ultimately not the government’s jurisdiction to decide what an adult does with their body. Polumbo added children “cannot fully consent” to the process of transitioning during childhood, and said it should be up to the parents. 

Knowles said Polumbo’s position is “inconsistent” and proves his theory that “transgenderism is false.” 

“You say that when you turn 18 you want to be able to chop yourself up and put on a dress and go into a women’s bathroom, and putting aside the public issues that come from that,” Knowles said. “I just wonder how it is the case that transgenderism is false for the first 18 years and then suddenly becomes true when one turns 18?”

According to Knowles, some data shows rates of transgender regret are “skyrocketing” and “we shouldn’t subject people to it.” The Associated Press reported in a review of 27 studies involving almost 8,000 teens and adults who had transgender surgeries, that on average  1% expressed regret. 

Knowles said he “has no confidence in any of the scientific studies” in regards to studies about transgender people. He added he wishes to see the issues studied through “anthropology, ontology and through philosophy” rather than biology.

“I don’t think any of us would want to allow some poor soul to have their limbs chopped off because of a disorder — we would want to give them psychiatric treatment,” Knowles said. 

In response, Polumbo said “there should be a direct danger to themselves or others” in order to be committed to an institution. 

Liliana Orozco, president of Pitt’s Turning Point USA chapter and a junior law, criminal justice and society major, said she went into the debate more so “agreeing with Knowles,” and while her “mind didn’t change,” she is glad she heard Polumbo’s argument. 

Dylan Mitchell, the president of College Republicans, said while he tends to agree more with Knowles, he noted that Polumbo made “great points” that he plans to consider more in the future. Both Orozco and Mitchell said the protestors who were causing violence should face consequences, with Mitchell saying they should be arrested. 

“Whether I change my mind or not, I don’t know, but I’m going to sit and think and wrestle about it, and whether I end up changing my mind or not, I’ll come away with a stronger view of my own positions and of other people’s positions, which is the entire point of intellectual conversation,” Mitchell said.