UPDATE: Since this story was posted on April 11, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has found a new participant in the form of gay libertarian columnist Brad Polumbo. Event organizers unsuccessfully sought out nine transgender participants before turning to the Washington Examiner's Polumbo, the Pitt News reports.
Organizers of a controversial “debate on transgenderism and womanhood” at the University of Pittsburgh say the event will go ahead as planned next week after one of the speakers, a trans woman, dropped out citing concerns about her opponents' intentions. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is reportedly seeking a replacement and has offered an honorarium of $10,000 to at least one other trans woman, who declined to participate.
Deirdre McCloskey, an economics professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who had initially agreed to debate conservative media personality Michael Knowles at the April 18 event, tells City Paper she did not know who Knowles was when she agreed to debate him.
Since discovering Knowles to be “utterly uninterested in finding the truth” and instead “interested in stirring up hatred and violence towards people who do not fit his extremely conservative Catholic beliefs,” she has dropped out of the event, she writes. McCloskey says she “is very willing to debate on the issue,” just not with Knowles.
Last month, Knowles made headlines for calling for the eradication of “transgenderism” from public life at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Since news broke of his planned appearance at Pitt, more than 11,000 people have signed a petition demanding the university cancel the event to ensure the safety of trans and nonbinary students and staff.
Michael Knowles responded to City Paper's request for comment, writing that he "is not the loose cannon the liberal media have dishonestly depicted." He alleged a "pre-debate conversation" with McCloskey a few weeks ago in which he claims to have convinced her that his "opposition to transgenderism is grounded, not in hatred, but in two millennia of epistemology and anthropology." He says he will accept a "victory by default," arguing that McCloskey opted to concede rather than lose and misgendered McCloskey throughout the statement.
John Burtka, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the conservative organization hosting the event, tells City Paper they are “exploring a number of possibilities in terms of alternate speakers” and are confident they will find a replacement for McCloskey and that the event will "go on as planned.”
According to emails published by Charlotte Clymer, former press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute offered her $10,000 to replace McCloskey at the event.
“This afternoon, conservative campus group Intercollegiate Studies Institute reached out to offer me $10,000 to debate Michael Knowles at the University of Pittsburgh on the validity of trans people,” Clymer writes. “His scheduled event there has drawn significant controversy in light of his recent speech at CPAC calling for openly-trans people to be eradicated from the public square. I declined.”
In her response to the organization’s request, Clymer objects to what she refers to as the event’s “intentionally anti-trans framing,” arguing that the term “transgenderism” is a slur without professional legitimacy and states her refusal to debate the topic of trans humanity.
“The humanity of my community — our right to exist — should not be a topic of debate,” she writes.
Like McCloskey, Clymer also accuses Knowles of acting in bad faith, writing, “Mr. Knowles has a long history of engaging in exceedingly bad faith, seemingly with an intention to harm others and to further his own personal brand.”
Clymer expresses concern that Knowles’s rhetoric is harmful to trans and nonbinary people and questions whether it’s appropriate for Pitt to allow him to speak on campus.
“It breaks my heart that trans and nonbinary students at the University of Pittsburgh are being forced to bear witness to their college offering a platform to someone who does the exact opposite of thoughtful disagreement,” she continues.
A spokesperson for the university previously told City Paper that although the scheduled event does not reflect the values of the university it is “legally protected speech,” and will be allowed to continue.
Although McCloskey says she “decided not to participate in giving [Knowles] a platform,” she also criticizes those calling for the event’s cancellation.
“Both are wrong, the hate-mongering Mr. Knowles and the speech-suppressing signatories of the petition,” she writes in an email. “The result would be not a rational debate but a fascist rally.”
When asked if event organizers had also offered her $10,000 to appear with Knowles, she said "I don't know. I did not accept their honorarium."
This story was updated at 4 p.m. on Tue., April 11, 2023 to include a summary of a statement from Michael Knowles.