EdBoard: transphobic rhetoric should not be tolerated in our community
Three upcoming events at the University of Pittsburgh will feature transphobic speakers. The Pitt chapter of Turning Point USA, a right-wing media non-profit, will be hosting two events. On March 24, Cabot Phillips, editor for the right-wing website The Daily Wire, will be speaking at an event titled "Everything the Media Won't Tell You" on March 24. This is followed by a March 27 event titled "Save Women's Sports" hosted by Riley Gaines. Gaines became a prominent voice against trans women in sports after tying for fifth place against trans athlete Lia Thomas at the NCAA Swim Championship. On April 18, Pitt College Republicans will host a debate on "transgenderism and womanhood" between Michael Knowles and transgender scholar Deirdre McCloskey. Knowles came under fire for claiming at the Conservative Political Activism Conference that "transgenderism must be eradicated from public life completely." A petition to prevent these events from occurring has garnered over 10,000 signatures.
In a statement from a University of Pittsburgh spokesperson to CBS news, they claim to "encourage intellectual critique … and disengagement from experiences that do not support personal well-being." In the spirit of intellectual critique, we at the Tartan disavow the rhetoric of the speakers at Pitt, and implore individuals to voice their disapproval. Because unfortunately, those whose "personal well-being" isn't supported by this debate can't exactly disengage from the very real effects of transphobic rhetoric.
Bigoted ideologues speaking at college campuses is nothing new. Many universities face the challenge of student groups inviting speakers who are overt white supremacists and neo-nazis. White supremacist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in 2017, and Matthew Heimback, who advocates for the creation of a white ethnostate, spoke at the University of Tennessee in 2018. This is a move in the alt-right's playbook that the Southern Poverty Law Center identified as early as 2017, and follows a familiar pattern: a student group will invite a deliberately inflammatory speaker mainly to induce a reaction from their fellow students, forcing others to either produce the reaction they're looking for or ignore their bigotry.
The Intercollegiate Student's Institute (ISI), the organization working with Pitt College Republicans to organize the debate, claims this event is about having a reasoned discussion regarding the nature of gender and transitioning. But that's very clearly not their goal with this event. Their mission statement claims to protect "attacks on free speech" and "students who feel isolated and even threatened if they question progressive orthodoxy." They've made up their mind on the matter, and they're merely looking to get a reaction. And while Pitt may reasonably fear that canceling Knowles' invitation will generate cries of censorship and liberal bias, the truth is these criticisms are being levied regardless.
While many are signaling their displeasure with the organizations hosting these speakers by signing the petition, a petition can only be part of the response. Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, and can "only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group." As such, Pitt is right to not intervene with these events. However, we support those protesting this event.
The Tartan is all for free speech, but why does that speech have to target trans identities? The bottom of the barrel is being scraped when the only discussion topic that comes to mind is one that invalidates the existence of trans people. Transphobic rhetoric is unwelcome in our community, and we will defend those whose identities are threatened by this bigotry.
There are three main reasons we find a "debate on transgenderism" harmful. The first is the topic of the April 18 event: transgender describes an identity, not an ideology. We don't debate people's ages; it's simply an accepted part of identity. Gender identity is the same and should be treated as such. The second reason is the format: a debate format implies that both sides are equally valid. But with this event, Knowles is automatically validated for believing that trans identities should not exist. The framing provides an inherent, harmful upper-hand to transphobic rhetoric. The third is the context: the debate erases history and espouses alternative facts. Knowles frames trans identities as a new phenomenon when, in fact, trans identities are as old as humanity itself. Knowles has also framed trans identity as something that is forced onto children ("Jen Psaki is literally crying at the prospect of not trans-ing the kids," he tweeted in April). Young trans people choose to transition, a slow process that leading medical associations deem medically necessary for people seeking the care. In short: being trans isn't a choice. We need to step out of hyper-polarization and accept people as they are, rather than questioning their existences.
Ultimately, there's really no winning move for trans-inclusionary folks who don't like the prospect of a hateful right-wing ideologue speaking in our backyard. If Pitt canceled the events, these speakers would be awarded tremendous coverage and publicity; we can either do nothing and let them win or do something and let them win. Arguably, even writing this article is making us complicit in boosting Knowles, a dishonest reactionary whose main accolades include being a podcaster for The Daily Wire (a conservative media outlet that fronts as a newspaper), and a host on PragerU (a conservative media outlet that fronts as a university).
So if there's no winning move, what's the right thing to do? The answer is to defend trans rights in your everyday life. Make sure you get your classmate's pronouns right, don't engage in cheap anti-trans humor, maybe even engage with people whose beliefs may border on (or are overtly) transphobic and try to guide them in the right direction. The culture war can't be won only by confronting these people in the public area. The far right is deliberately generating outrage so they can set the parameters of this debate, and to even engage with them on their terms is a concession. And while we can't ignore overt bigotry, we can certainly choose to defend our peers from this hateful rhetoric.