Right-wing political commentator Matt Walsh will speak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Oct. 24 about his documentary “What is a Woman?” (2022), which critiques progressive viewpoints on gender and gender identity.
A self-described “theocratic fascist,” Walsh promotes rhetoric that has been the subject of controversy in recent months, with some concerned he may promote hateful or even violent attitudes towards transgender people.
Wisconsin Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) is hosting and organizing the event as a stop on Walsh’s “What is a Woman?” college tour. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. in Memorial Union and will conclude with a Q&A session.
Wisconsin YAF chairperson Harrison Wells encourages all students to attend the event, especially those with an opposing viewpoint.
“A large number of people do believe in the fact that there are two genders and that biology exists,” Wells said. “So although there might be controversy around it, we still are going to have our event and we invite people with a host of opposing viewpoints to come and discuss with us.”
Wells believes the event will help to foster educational and productive conversations about transgender rights, as Walsh offers an alternative viewpoint to what he believes is the consensus among UW-Madison students.
“When there's a predominant viewpoint that is just being pushed, it eliminates discussion. And right now we do not have a discussion,” Wells said.
The YAF event is sponsored by a $2,000 grant from the ASM Grant Allocation Committee (GAC) and $8,000 from the national YAF organization. According to an ASM bylaw, if an event hosted by an RSO is in line with that organization’s mission, open to all students, and is educational — ASM is obligated to provide funding.
“Because it is [ASM’s] responsibility to represent student interests, and student organization interests, it is our responsibility to provide that funding when it has been requested and everything that is necessary to request that money is put in place,” said ASM Press Director Megan Savaglia.
Although many members of ASM disagree with Walsh’s rhetoric and political opinions, ASM cannot discriminate against providing funding on a political basis because funding must be made in a “viewpoint neutral” manner per ASM bylaws.
“If we were to deny this based on political preference, that gives precedence to people in the future to deny other groups the same thing,” said ASM GAC chairperson Gracie Nelson. “So I think it is a really hard topic.”
Nelson and Savaglia believe that if the event was denied ASM funding, ASM would appear to be against freedom of speech, and their decision would further embolden Wisconsin YAF in their critique of UW’s “liberal bias.”
Although ASM did not provide funding for Sen. Ted Cruz’s YAF event last year, Nelson said she expected the conservative response to a denial from ASM would be similar to when the Cruz event was moved off campus due to masking violations, which they attributed to the suppression of conservative voices.
“If it would have been denied, it would have come out as [us] suppressing freedom of speech,” Nelson said. “[YAF] made a really good case for why this was educational and why it aligned with their organization's values.”
Both ASM officers said they struggled with the decision because of their concerns that Walsh’s rhetoric might encourage transphobic sentiment or even physical violence, something transgender individuals face at four times the rate of the rest of the population.
“We’ve had instances this year on campus where we’ve had trouble defining the difference between hate speech and free speech and where that boundary lies,” Savaglia said.
In response to the event, queer organizations on campus partnered with the UW Gender and Sexuality Campus Center (UW GSCC) plan to host a day-long transgender community day and film festival at the Social Justice Hub at Union South.
“We wanted to be proactive in defining and providing space that was proactive and affirming,” said UW GSCC Director Warren Scherer. “One of the ways to address when marginalized communities experience discrimination is to counteract that ostracization… to remind folks that they are not alone.”
The event will showcase two films: “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” a biopic on transgender and queer Stonewall activist Marsha P. Johnson and “Tangerine,” a fictional movie set in Los Angeles about a Black transgender sex worker. The goal of showcasing the films goes beyond supporting transgender and queer students at UW-Madison and aims to educate them as well.
“I hope that students are feeling nourished and enriched as well as supported and affirmed,” said Whitney Anderson, program coordinator at UW GSCC.
Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE-UW) condemned the decision to host Walsh and encouraged students to attend UW GSCC’s trans-affirming community space instead.
“PAVE-UW condemns all forms of bigotry, including transphobia. As such, we are appalled that right-wing conservative figure Matt Walsh will be given a platform at UW-Madison to spread his transphobic misinformation,” said PAVE Outreach Coordinator Linzy Mahoney.
PAVE-UW also denounced statements made by Walsh on his podcast, in which he compared transgender healthcare to pedophilia and mutilation, as “unscientific, bigoted and debasing to the fights against these issues.”
Nelson welcomed proposals from students for amendments to ASM bylaws that would accurately define free speech versus hate speech without room for biased interpretation. She expressed hope that this would allow ASM to reject funding to future campus speakers who they believe might be harmful to the campus community.
Nelson also encouraged other registered student organizations to apply for usage of the event funding, stating, “If you want your voice heard, just like this organization, you are more than welcome to apply for funding.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated on Tuesday, October 18 to remove the term “gender ideology” from the headline, a term that the Trans Journalists Association recommends avoiding.
Noe Goldhaber is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in campus and state news reporting.