JURIST Special Coverage: University of Pittsburgh students protest anti-trans speakers News
JURIST Special Coverage: University of Pittsburgh students protest anti-trans speakers

In early March, conservative groups on the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania announced a series of three speaker events. Pitt’s chapter of a national conservative group known as Turning Point USA would host the first two, featuring Cabot Phillips and Riley Gaines as guest speakers.

On March 24, Phillips, a senior editor at the conservative news outlet The Daily Wire, would present a talk entitled “Everything the Media Won’t Tell You.” Three days later, on March 27, Gaines, a former college swimmer, would discuss how to “Save Women’s Sports”—in which Gaines would repeat her frequent calls to ban transgender athletes from performing alongside cisgender athletes. The third event, hosted by Pitt’s College Republicans chapter, would feature a debate on “transgenderism and womanhood.”

After news of the three events broke, students began calling for the university to cancel the events. Pitt officials finally responded to the backlash nearly a week after the events were announced. The university said that, while it recognized students’ concerns over the content of the speeches, both Turning Point USA and the College Republicans invited the speakers in compliance with university guidelines. As a result, the university allowed the events to proceed.

Since the university said its hands were tied, students and community members took matters into their own hands. As Turning Point USA and the College Republicans prepared for their events, counterprotests and community demands began to materialize.

March 24 – The Cabot Phillips Event

First up was Phillips. Unlike the other two events, Phillips’ talk was not labeled as specifically “anti-trans.” Rather, Phillips’ talk was set to focus on media bias from a conservative perspective.

Despite strong online rhetoric and a planned counterprotest, security outside of Phillips’ talk was light. Attendees freely entered the building, stopping only briefly to have their identity verified by a Turning Point USA member. Meanwhile, there was a heavy police presence several blocks over at the counterprotest.

Courtesy of JURIST. University of Pittsburgh police gather on the steps of the Cathedral of Learning during the March 24 counterprotest.

About an hour before the start of Phillips’ event, approximately 300 protesters gathered in front of one of Pitt’s main buildings, known as the Cathedral of Learning. The counterprotest consisted of a mix of community members and students from Pitt and other universities, with students making up the bulk of those attending.

For almost two hours, protesters took turns between listening to speeches and chanting. There were frequent condemnations of Pitt’s handling of the three conservative events, which one organizer described as “directly connected to backwards-looking, regressive policies.” Protesters argued that Pitt should have done more to prevent the events from occurring and protect the trans community. One organizer explained that the counterprotest came together once organizers realized the university would not move to cancel the events. “It’s easy to be complacent,” they explained, “[But] we’ve got to do something, and that starts here.”

One protester told JURIST:

[I]t infuriates and scares me that there are these people and far-right forces that are taking advantages of the opening they have to whip up fear and alienate and try to take advantage of the fact that people are suffering right now and are scared and isolated without a way forward. It is through this kind of thing, these kinds of rallies, coming together and showing up—outnumbering them ten hundred to one—to outweigh and completely deflate them.

Courtesy of JURIST. Protesters gather outside of the Cathedral of Learning on March 24.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away shortly after 7:00 PM EDT, Phillips entered the venue to begin his talk. He was greeted by an audience of approximately 60 people. However, not all 60 attendees were there to listen to Phillips. As he began to talk, half of the attendees began speaking over Phillips as a form of counterprotest. One of the protesters from inside the venue told JURIST, “What we did is we got a bunch of queer people and activists to sit there and we decided to just talk over them.”

At first, a university official approached the protesters and quietly asked them to leave the venue. The room was somewhat tense. After protesters refused to leave, even going so far as to pull up Pitt’s student guidelines to show that they were in compliance, Pitt police became involved. At that time, the protesters were given the option to either leave or face potential arrest.

“I asked them to cite what guidelines we were violating. And they could not,” one of the protesters said. “They threatened us with police [action]. We thought it would be better [to join the counterprotest] than be in jail.”

Courtesy of JURIST. Police escort protesters out of Cabot Phillips event on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.

As the protesters filtered out of the venue, Phillips lauded the Pitt police, stating, “People on our [conservative] side appreciate and need the police because people on their [liberal] side issue threats.” Phillips then asked the audience, “How often do you see conservatives protesting an event or preventing someone from speaking?” In line with the rest of his talk, Phillips promoted the idea that the media seeks to silence conservative voices. In turn, Phillips argued, conservative voices have become socially unacceptable. According to Phillips, young conservatives “can’t win the approval of [the] culture that hates [them].”

Outside, the protesters that had been removed from Phillips’ event joined the dwindling counterprotest located a few blocks over. Upon seeing that the crowd had mostly dispersed, two of the protesters jumped up on a bench to shout over the remaining crowd. “Is this what trans lives mean to you?” The protester continued, “I am a trans body. I have friends that are trans. And if people can spread hate speech here, I am not going home, so why are you?”

Back inside the event, Phillips continued his talk by arguing that college campuses, like Pitt, exacerbate the suppression of conservative voices. Phillips claimed that “professors treat conservatives differently” in support of his argument. During the question and answer part of the event, students rose in support of this claim. One attendee asked the audience whether any had ever experienced the sort of prejudice Phillips claimed in the classroom. Most in the room said yes, but were unable to provide specific examples or details as to the occasions.

Shortly after 9:00 PM, Phillips’ talk came to an end without any further interruptions. While some protesters hung around the outside of the venue to meet Phillips with further comments, police escorted Phillips out of a back door.

March 27 – The Riley Gaines Event

On March 27, protesters gathered at Schenley Plaza on Pitt’s campus in the late afternoon. Several blocks away, at the same venue as Phillips’ talk, Turning Point USA prepared to host Gaines.

Courtesy of JURIST. Protesters gather under a pavilion at Schenley Plaza during March 27 counterprotest.

Protesters at Schenley Plaza began gathering under a pavilion around 3:30 PM. After about an hour of preparation and instructions from counterprotest organizers, approximately 300 protesters headed out of Schenley Plaza and onto the street. Once there, the protesters gathered in a large circle and began chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Trans lives matter.” The circle took up most of one of Pitt’s major intersections, effectively bringing to a halt one of the campus’s main thoroughfares.

Courtesy of JURIST. Protesters stop traffic at a major intersection on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus during the March 27 counterprotest.

Similar to the March 24 counterprotest, protesters alternated between listening to speeches from attendees and chanting. About half an hour into occupying the intersection, a community member stepped forward with a megaphone to read out a list of demands from the protesters to the university. The demands included a public apology from the university “for being complicit in bringing transphobic events to the community” and a call to redistribute $151.5 million in state-appropriated funds to the university to “equitably lift up [Pitt’s] most marginalized students.”

One community member who spoke at the counterprotest told JURIST, “What is happening here doesn’t just affect the students. When these speakers come in… that gets taken to the community.” They continued, “I am here to nip that in the bud and to stop that from happening.”

As protesters continued to block traffic, several blocks away, audience members began entering the venue to hear Gaines. This time around, Turning Point USA stepped up the security with increased police presence, barricades around the entrance and ID checkpoints. By the time everyone filtered through security, an audience of about 100 people gathered to listen to Gaines. The audience mostly consisted of white, young women.

Gaines began her talk by describing her background: she is a former competitive swimmer who lost fifth place in a national championship to a trans woman swimmer. Gaines claimed in her talk that the reason she opposes transgender participation in sports is that “there is no way any amount of training can overcome” what Gaines referred to as a “fundamental biological difference” between cisgender athletes and transgender athletes. Gaines claimed the support of many coaches and officials, despite universities’ and sports governing bodies’ unwillingness to speak out against the issue. From Gaines’ perspective, universities and governing bodies have silenced people, like her, who speak out against transgender participation in women’s sports.

Courtesy of JURIST. The University of Pittsburgh’s Turning Point USA chapter hosts Riley Gaines on March 27.

Gaines said, “[T]he left likes to make this about humanity. [They claim] that you are doing something wrong for sharing your experience.” Gaines continued by saying she not only cares about “saving” women’s sports but also seeks to “preserve faith, family and freedom.” She has recently advocated for several transgender athlete ban bills at the state level, demonstrating her commitment to the cause. Gaines told the audience she supports the bills because they “ensure fairness and safety.” To her, “competing in sports is not a right, it is a privilege.”

That said, many state bills go beyond limits Gaines claimed were in place—which protesters and those opposed to Gaines’ views were quick to point out. Within the past three years, states such as South Carolina, Florida, Idaho and Texas have all passed laws that limit transgender athletes to participating in sports consistent with their biological sex as designated on the athletes’ birth certificates. There are also similar bills moving through other state legislatures, including Pennsylvania, where the University of Pittsburgh is located.

The Biden administration has tried to take action at the federal level to curb these state efforts. This month, the Biden administration proposed a new federal rule which would prohibit schools from “banning transgender students from participating on teams consistent with their gender identity.”

Courtesy of JURIST. Protesters gather outside of the Cathedral of Learning on March 27.

As legal battles play out at the state and federal levels, transgender activists, community members and allies continue to speak out. As one protester explained to JURIST on March 27, “[I was] sitting at home and seeing my entire community just be silent on everything. I was finally like ‘absolutely not, something has to be done.”

At Pitt, the stage is set for yet another counterprotest on April 18, coinciding with the College Republicans’ debate. As of the time of this report, one of the debaters has pulled out of the April 18 event. However, both the counterprotest and the debate are still scheduled to proceed.

This article was written by JURIST associate and assistant editors Lauren Ban, Sean Beeghly, David DeNotaris, Katherine Gemmingen, Liv Kruger and Luke Watkins, all law students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.