At Pitt, protestors outnumber Turning Point USA attendees by more than 12 to 1

On Friday evening, protesters outnumbered attendees of the Turning Point USA event at Pitt by more than 12 to one. Phillips was the first of three anti-trans speakers that conservative student groups invited to campus. Of the roughly 40 students at the event, a third were protesters, and when police told them to leave, they joined hundreds of people already gathered outside the Cathedral of Learning.

The protest was organized by students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, many of whom are members of PRISM, TINA, and CMQ+ and their Pitt counterparts. “This is what I was hoping for,” said Carnegie Mellon fifth-year PhD student Isaac Grosof, who helped organize and spoke at the rally. They were glad to see a “focus on trans positivity, as opposed to right-wing negativity.”

The crowd spilled out from the Cathedral to the Bigelow Boulevard sidewalk. Among the protesters was a nonbinary student from Point Park (“Why would you even bother?” they said of debating trans identities), a trans Pitt alumni who now works at Carnegie Mellon (“The events are really concerning—no, infuriating,” they told The Tartan), a trio of gender-diverse Pitt first-year students (“We all went to high school in rural areas and somehow they are doing better than Pitt,” one surmised), and a trio of siblings ages seven, eight, and 10 (“I think it isn’t right for people not to be the gender that they want to be,” the eight-year-old explained).

Students, faculty, and community members discussed concerns about safety and bodily autonomy outside the Cathedral. Many told The Tartan that they were worried about the uptick in anti-trans legislation around the country. Eight states are considering bills that would ban drag, and 44 states have introduced anti-LGBTQ legislation.

A flyer advertising the rally encouraged attendees to wear a face mask, and many did. Pitt police officers were stationed at both the rally and the Turning Point event.

At the Cabot Phillips event, hosted by Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, Phillips said that “liberal privilege” was the weightiest privilege on college campuses. “There is nothing that gives you privilege about being a white male at a college campus,” The Pitt News quoted Phillips explaining.

“Making friends,” Phillips said in a video he posted on Instagram, turning the camera to show police officers corralling a dozen student protestors out of the event space.

When the event concluded, Pitt Turning Point USA president Liliana Orozco thanked the remaining 25 students in attendance, “conservatives or not. It was a great conversation.” According to The Pitt News, Orozco said she was glad to hear “so many opposing viewpoints."

On March 27, Turning Point is hosting Riley Gaines. Gaines will be advocating against the NCAA’s decision to allow transgender women to compete in women’s sports. On April 18, Pitt’s College Republicans club will host conservative political commentator Michael Knowles and transgender advocate Deidre McClosky for a “debate on transgenderism.”

The petition calling for Pitt to cancel these events, which has been circulating since early March, now has over 11,000 signatures. Protests are planned for both of the remaining events.

Many speakers at the rally said that the rhetoric used by the anti-trans speakers is “genocidal.” Earlier this month, Knowles said “transgenderism should be eradicated,” clarifying that he meant the “ideology” of trans identities, not trans people themselves.

K.Q.S., a cognitive science graduate student at Pitt who asked to be identified by his initials, said the anti-trans language Knowles uses can “galvanize people to … violent acts.”

Jim, a Pitt sophomore studying computer science, criticized the Pitt administration for not giving transgender students a seat at the table. “We are being spoken of and about and around … we are never included in these conversations,” he said.

Sabrina Robinson, who teaches in Pitt’s Slavic languages and literature department, came to the rally as a representative of the faculty union. She said that inviting anti-trans speakers to campus “endangers the lives of my trans colleagues and my trans students and my trans friends. So I’m just a body in the street about that.” Robinson added that before students can dig into the history and structures surrounding discrimination — which is essential, she said — first “we have to make sure that trans kids are safe here.”

Multiple students the The Tartan spoke with made a distinction between free speech and hate speech. “There's space for like healthy debate… but whether people should exist or not isn’t in the realm of healthy debate … it’s hate speech,” said Kenich, a Pitt senior studying environmental science.

The First Amendment’s right to free speech does not make an exception for hate speech.

Some speakers drew a parallel between organized labor movements and the struggle for trans rights. Members of Pittsburgh’s Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) were at the rally, holding signs that read “trans rights now!” and “fight for socialism & LGBTQ liberation!” One protester was wrapped in a trans flag bearing the PSL logo.

On campus, many students said they understood that Pitt’s hands are tied by state funding and a conservative legislature. But they also saw ways the university could better support students, including more support for gender diversity.

A nonbinary first-year student at Pitt said that, from what they have seen in their first two semesters, diversity, equity, and inclusion training are often treated like a “chore.” The student works in a lab that, while doing the requisite DEI training, lamented their confusion about they/them pronouns. “It’s grammatically incorrect,” the lead said. No one shared their pronouns during the meeting. The nonbinary student said they are not out in their classes nor their lab.

As they navigate the next three years of college, they hope to find more spaces where they can feel comfortable and seen. They said that having professors who celebrate DEI practices is an important step forward.