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Trans students brace for Michael Knowles Buffalo speech

Just days after he called for the “eradication” of trans people, Knowles is being welcomed to the University at Buffalo

On the heels of his new-found notoriety, Joker-faced right wing political commentator Michael Knowles is speaking on the campus of the University at Buffalo Thursday evening—and many students are understandably furious and afraid.

Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire employee made headlines this past weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) when he took the stage and declared: “For the good of society, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” While his defenders and other purveyors of anti-trans hate have gone to great lengths to explain that Knowles wasn’t actually saying what it sounded like he was saying, to most of us the meaning was clear: Knowles dreams of a society without trans people.

The Buffalo Knowles event, “How Feminism Destroys Women (And Everything Else)”, will be hosted by Young Americans for Freedom, a project of national conservative student organization Young America’s Foundation. The event kicks off at 7pm ET and will be livestreamed on their YouTube channel. When Carrie Tirado Bramen, Professor of English and the Director of the University at Buffalo Gender Institute, first heard Knowles was coming to campus after his remarks at CPAC, she told me via email, “I felt physically sick.” 

In response, Tirado Bramen and her colleagues at the institute issued an open letter on Sunday to university president Satish K. Tripathi, asking him to rescind Knowles’ invitation and cancel the event. The faculty wrote that, “Knowles’ call for genocidal violence against trans folk clearly contradicts UB's stated core values of diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect.”

Two days later, President Tripathi issued a statement of his own, addressing the event at large but not the open letter specifically. In the statement, he offered support for the LGBTQ+ community at the university and celebrated the school’s diversity, but ultimately fell back on the First Amendment as his excuse for not intervening in the event.

“When faced with the prospect of intolerant and hateful speech directed at transgender people entering the campus dialogue, I understand that espousing our university’s values and clarifying the First Amendment may ring hollow—and, indeed, feel wholly inadequate,” he wrote.

And indeed, students and faculty alike were left feeling angered and betrayed. “I believe that President Tripathi would have never even released a statement to begin with if it hadn't been for the massive outpouring of community support,” Lawrence Mullen, a transgender and non-binary 4th year PhD candidate in the English department, President of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU), and President of UBQ, the graduate student club for queer and transgender graduate students on campus, told me via email.

Mullen continued: “He has a habit of being spineless around issues--such as this one--that requires direct, immediate action. Having Michael Knowles on campus is a direct threat to the safety of every transgender faculty, student, and staff member on campus--and that alone is justification for canceling the event.”

Haylie Byers, Co-Chair of University of Buffalo’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), called the statement, “meaningless and disingenuous.” They added, “Saying you care about diversity while letting your students be harassed by others who invited a speaker that would be happy to see some of them wiped from existence is atrocious, and Tripathi should be embarrassed and ashamed that he is too cowardly to take a real stand.”

In absence of institutional support from the highest levels of the university, students have taken matters into their own hands by organizing counter-programming to the hate they expect to be spewed at the Knowles event. Some will be partaking in the “joyous rebellion dance party” at the student union, while others are planning to march over to the event site in support of trans students and protest with posters and speakers. And some plan to take up space in the Knowles audience. 

Despite the solidarity and community support, the fear of violence looms. “It’s clear to me that this [event is] creating tension leading to the harm of students—at the very least mentally, and I can only hope not physically as well,” Byers said. “Trans and queer students cannot feel safe on campus when their admin is allowing speakers who would see them wiped out to freely speak on our campus. When you allow hate speech to be heard, bad things fester.”

Knowles has another college campus scheduled later this month at Purdue University in Indiana, and already students there are gearing up for the fear and the fallout. I’ve reached out to the school’s president for comment. 

“I personally don’t want any of my money going to Michael Knowles, seeing as he advocates for the ‘eradication of transgenderism,’” freshman Diego Albayati told Purdue student publication The Exponent. “The intuitive assertion one makes is the removal, suppression or elimination of transgender people, and I don’t support the removal, suppression or elimination of people.”

Faculty member Tirado Bramen pointed out that the Bufffalo community is still grieving from the white supremacist shooting massacre at a grocery store in May of last year that left 10 innocent people dead.

“The killer was an 18-year-old man from Central New York who had been radicalized on the internet by white supremacists including advocates of the Great Replacement Theory, which Knowles has given an open platform to on his show,” she said. “It’s been less than a year since the massacre and for a student group to invite Knowles is shameful and a hateful act. And I hope one lesson we take away from this is how hatred is interconnected: that white supremacy is intertwined with transphobia and misogyny.”

But even in the midst of hate and fear, student Rain Cooke—also a YSDA co-chair wants “to let people know that there is hope.” They added: “And for queer students such as myself, we need to know that we’re not alone. So many of us will be out there today showing support for one another, and that’s amazing!”

I’ll be posting updates this evening on Twitter shared with me from people on the ground. Follow along.

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