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Protesters shut down Oakland streets during controversial gender identity debate

An effigy of Michael Knowles is burned in the street.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Protesters burned an effigy of conservative writer Michael Knowles prior to a controversial debate over gender identity at the University of Pittsburgh

As two conservative speakers took the stage Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh to debate government restrictions on transgender people, chants of “trans lives matter,” drumbeats and at least one firework could be heard from outside of the O’Hara Student Center.

For more than four hours, hundreds of students and community members shut down streets around the student center as they protestedthe controversial event hosted by the Pitt chapter of College Republicans.

Four people shouted “trans rights are human rights” for several seconds when conservative podcast host and commentator Michael Knowles first stood to speak inside the center’s ballroom. They were escorted out by campus police.

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During the discussion, Knowles' opponent, libertarian writer Brad Polumbo, argued that regulating “transgenderism” forces conformity, is un-American and “remarkably short-sighted” for conservatives who support small government. Knowles argued that the American people set moral standards and that the government should not force people to “lie” about another person’s identity. Knowles said that he supported policy that “protects two biological genders.”

Knowles concluded that government either embrace transgender identity, “which is to deny the natural distinction between men and women,” or to “restore” the understanding of sex as binary.

“We will live according to some standard or another. The only question is whether we’ll live in accordance with truth or falsehood,” he said. "When law becomes unreasonable and untethered from reality, society flounders as we see increasingly today."

Polumbo countered government regulation of people's own sense of their identity is incompatible with the fundamental view of America as “a place where each person can chart their own way in life, as long as they’re not hurting anybody else.”

“If this newfound flavor of authoritarian-style conservatism gets its wishes, it won’t just be betraying some of the principles that make America great, it will be setting the stage for its own destruction," he said. "Frankly that destruction will be deserved."

Ahead of the event, demonstrators burned a dummy in the street with a printed picture of Knowles’ face. Dena Stanley, the head of Pittsburgh-based advocacy group TransYOUniting, said, “We are just in awe that Pitt, one of the largest universities in Pittsburgh … have this man coming on campus. They talk about diversity and inclusion, but this is not what diversity and inclusion looks like — bringing a person who is clearly causing harm to our community on campus.

“He can spew whatever he wants on his platforms,” Stanley added. “But to debate about trans people … our gender is not up for debate whatsoever.”

While more than 11,000 people signed a petition calling for the university to cancel the event, the university permitted it to continue because a student group hosted it. But the Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute sponsored the debate, which was originally intended to discuss “transgenderism and womanhood.”

Last week a transgender advocate dropped out of the debate calling it a potential, “fascist rally.” The topic was then changed to “should transgenderism be regulated by law?” The term “transgenderism” is considered a dehumanizing term by GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy organization.

Zoe Fuller contributed to this story.