The Rally and Response to Protect Trans Lives, held in honor of Trans Day of Visibility, at the University of Pittsburgh began on a jovial note, as around 200 folks gathered in the big tent at Schenley Plaza. There were sequins and short shorts in abundance, trans flags, and a plethora of clever slogans.
Organizers Dena Stanley and Daeja Baker gathered clusters of workers – speakers, mental health support team members, and the safety team – and ensured they understood their roles and the timeline of events.
WTAE filmed quick interviews and B-roll segments while Pitt staff loomed in the background, rocking on their heels and attempting humorous small talk.
There was an excited buzz as trans and queer folks, and allies, greeted each other and made introductions.
Before the rally began, a mental health support team member led everyone present in a grounding exercise, encouraging deep and quiet breathing even as a helicopter circled overhead.
Attendees were asked to think about individual reasons for being present, the trans people important to each, moments of indignity, discrimination or violence trans folks have lived; and ended the grounding with a shared deep inhale and exhale, followed by a roaring crowd’s excited whoops.
Dena Stanley led the crowd to Schenley and Forbes, a major intersection on Pitt’s campus, and shut it down, blocking all through traffic.
Several trans activists took the bullhorn and shared their thoughts, with one of the speakers, Piper, expressing that the recent national conversation targeting trans folks had taught her she could no longer be someone who didn’t speak up about injustice, that she had learned that silence is violence.
Piper shared Pitt students’ demands:
- A public apology from the University of Pittsburgh for being complicit in bringing transphobic events to the community.
- Accountability from the University of Pittsburgh to provide safety and inclusivity for the trans community.
- That the University of Pittsburgh create a position for BiPoc queer/trans persons from the community outside of the Pitt student body as an ombudsperson as a university-paid position.
- To include a group of students to vote on Pitt campus event speakers.
- That the University of Pittsburgh create and establish a series of mandatory programming for their staff and faculty for ongoing cultural competency skills for serving the trans populations, led by a committee of trans students and community members.
- That the University starts going beyond offering “support” and pointing to diversity statements to actively educate students on why this rhetoric is harmful and why trans healthcare is important.
- Improved and increased education for staff and faculty and holding to higher standard; ongoing education
- That the $151.5 million in state appropriation funding received for in-state tuition offsets be distributed equitably to lift up our most marginalized students including Black & Brown TLGBQIA+ students and the TLGBQIA+ community at large.
Nick Ripley, a nonbinary attorney whose services are available to low-income LGBTQIA+ people through Hugh Lane Wellness’s Legal Aid Program, spoke, mentioning an upcoming University of Pittsburgh Event, a “debate” about “Transgenderism” and Womanhood, in which Michael Knowles will “debate” a trans woman, Deirdre McCloskey.
Knowles made international headlines when he said at a Conservative Public Action Committee’s gathering, “For the good of society…transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” He went on to say that “transgenderism” is false and therefore “we should not indulge it.”
Ripley said, “I want to take a moment to say Michael Knowles-ism is so dangerous. It’s being spread by hateful individuals in this country, and we must eliminate Michael Knowles-ism from public life.”
About Knowles’s debate partner, they added, “We need to talk about Deirdre. Deirdre has achieved new lows in white womanhood, and she is a good example of what happens when you think your queerness makes up for your racism.”
“Being queer or trans is not enough, you have to stand up for everyone,” Ripley concluded.
And that everyone includes those who have passed; trans people who have died as a result of hateful violence.
One speaker’s voice caught as she shared the names of five trans women who have died. One of those names was Aaliyah Johnson, a transwoman who was a figure in the local ballroom scene. She died outside of her McKeesport apartment after expressing that she was afraid and hoping to leave town. Her death shook the local trans community.
The specter of trans death and hate violence hangs over the past and the upcoming University of Pittsburgh anti-trans events.
Trans-hatred leads to genuine violence against trans people, and to very real deaths of trans people. While the University of Pittsburgh has decided that what Knowles is bringing to campus is free speech, trans rallygoers had a different message – free speech isn’t free if it costs lives.
Certainly, there must be a point at which hate speech like Knowles’s call for the eradication of “transgenderism” constitutes a call to violence, and a point at which preventing that violence becomes more important than a free speech appeasement policy.
And it is strange, as Pitt’s removal of students from their recent anti-trans event indicates, that the speech of protesting and heckling is not free, but must be silenced.
Rallygoers made their positions clear – it is more important to take the threat to trans people and trans lives seriously than it is to appease someone who wants to “eradicate transgenderism” with a platform for his eradication “speech.”
Organizers and rallygoers will return to campus on April 18, the day of the Knowles event.
Photos by Jay Yoder.