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Controversial Pitt debate will continue after transgender advocate drops out

Hundreds of people gathered outside of the Cathedral of Learning Friday to protest anti-trans speakers on campus.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Hundreds of people gathered outside of the Cathedral of Learning Friday to protest anti-trans speakers on campus.

Deirdre McCloskey said when she agreed to participate in a University of Pittsburgh student-hosted debate on “transgenderism and womanhood,” she didn’t know her opponent’s views.

McCloskey, a transgender woman and scholar with the libertarian Cato Institute, said when she read that her opponent, conservative podcast host and writer Michael Knowles, had called for “eradicating transgenderism,” she decided the debate wouldn’t be productive.

“I should have been more alert in the present atmosphere of hysteria stirred up by trolls on the extreme right,” she said.

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The Pitt student group chapter of College Republicans is hosting the event, which is sponsored by Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Student leaders with College Republicans did not respond to requests for comment. But ISI President and CEO Johnny Burtka said the debate is part of a series taking place at colleges across the country on topics intended to strike a nerve on campus.

Burtka said his organization does not use language like “eradicate” in reference to people, but he explained Knowles' use of the term, asserting that the commentator was referring not to people but to laws about restroom and locker room use.

“Michael is probably one of the more prominent conservative voices, especially when it comes to Gen Z,” he said. “Our charge was to find not only qualified speakers, but also speakers with large followings in order to help raise the profile of the debate.”

Burtka said that after McCloskey dropped out, the organization reached out to nine transgender women who advocate for trans rights. When none responded, they chose to keep Knowles and shift topics.

Pitt students and community members have said they plan to protest the event, as they did last month when another student group hosted a speaker who called for athletes to compete based on their assigned gender at birth.

Pittsburgh-based TransYOUniting says it will gather protesters Tuesday ahead of the event.

“The fact that even in this climate people are comfortable hearing harmful rhetoric geared towards the persecution of human lives is bewildering but no longer surprising," a TransYOUniting Instagram post reads. "We can’t back down and we can't fight fire with fire, but we will be heard.”

After McCloskey withdrew, Burtka said he reached out to Brad Polumbo, who previously had a fellowship with the ISI. The libertarian-conservative journalist is gay andhas argued the "idea that the government has the right to tell them what to do with their bodies is beyond absurd."

Burtka said he chose to have Polumbo debate Knowles about whether “transgenderism” should be regulated by law. The two will be asked if the U.S. government has an obligation to shape the moral character of citizens.

“[Polumbo has] been somewhat critical of some of the Republican bills restricting what he would see as restrictions on free speech, whether that’s for drag queen story hours or for medical procedures for adults," Burtka said. "He generally believes that adults should be able to do what they want with their bodies and that the government shouldn’t get involved."

Burtka questioned students who have said they feel unsafe on campus when their existence is being debated. He said he did not think that the speakers posed a threat by expressing their views.

While McCloskey did not think the debate with Knowles would be productive, she agreed with Burtka that the event should not be canceled because a speaker is provocative.

She said that she thought the debate would ultimately be a "fascist rally" — not only because of Knowles’ rhetoric but because of what she called the "anti-free speech petition," which has been signed by more than 10,000 people calling on the university to cancel the debate.

Knowles and Polumbo will debate at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday in the ballroom of Pitt's O’Hara Student Center.

Corrected: April 19, 2023 at 11:09 AM EDT
This story has been updated to clarify the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's stance on Michael Knowles' comments about transgender people.