The Gender and Sexuality Campus Center (GSCC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a Trans Community Day on Monday, providing a space for LGBTQ+ community members and allies to gather and support each other while conservative commentator Matt Walsh spoke at Great Hall at Memorial Union.
Walsh’s presence on campus sparked unrest, and hours ahead of his talk protests in support of transgender rights gathered around Memorial Union and Library Mall.
GSCC’s Trans Community Day served as a safe place for the community to come together and decompress with crafts, food and movie screenings of films centered on trans and queer experiences, according to event organizers.
Some students decided to skip class, reschedule events and avoid areas of campus altogether on the day of Walsh’s event, said Katherine Charek Briggs, assistant director at the GSCC.
In Walsh’s opening remarks, he commented on GSCC’s Trans Community Day and the students attending.
“From what I understand they are currently huddled in a storm shelter underneath the grounds,” Walsh said jokingly. “They have lanterns and blankets and enough canned goods to last a week. Though I am told the canned goods are not gluten free so that is a problem. Half of them will starve to death.”
Wisconsin Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) hosted and organized the event as one stop of six on Walsh’s “What is a Woman?” college tour. His rhetoric and hateful attitudes towards transgender people has been subject to controversy in recent months.
Briggs talked to students in person and on the GSCC Discord server to check in on how they were feeling about Walsh’s presence on campus.
“There's kind of a couple of primary experiences we're hearing,” Briggs said. “The first is, of course, that it's really difficult and really hard for folks to feel like the university is supporting someone who's a self-described fascist.”
Walsh explained in his Monday speech that the university approved the event and was fully aware of what they were doing. To Walsh, the university is not supporting him at all.
“[UW administration] affirm and celebrate the spectrum of perspectives that ranges from crazy left wing to crazier left wing,” said Walsh. “My spot on the spectrum is anathema.”
Sarah Task, a student who was at the Trans Community Day event, said the space was there to help fight against negativity on campus. She further expressed how the event offered a positive space for queer individuals who did not want to be near Memorial Union where Walsh’s event was held — and which was vandalised with spray paint the same morning.
“This is a safe space,” Task said. “It’s a way to kind of be aware of what's going on, but then also not let it ruin our days.”
Briggs said some feel the atmosphere on campus that day was a quality of life issue but for others it’s just the feeling of another day, as many members of the transgender community experience aggressions and microaggressions all the time.
“One more person that says one more violent thing is not necessarily a big difference,” Briggs said. “So I want to hold that both of those things are true.”
On Monday night, Walsh claimed the university incited violence against him by telling the transgender community — or, as he said, “delusional and militant psychos who are already defacing property” — that his presence on campus was harmful.
Briggs explained how staff members of the university understand how the Board of Regents policies on events and free speech work and apply to the university but said it’s more difficult to understand as a student.
Walsh briefly touched upon free speech, expressing individuals in UW-Madison’s Gender and Women’s Studies department claimed he engages in harmful hate speech but “nobody has been able to explain exactly what hate speech is.”
In this instance, GSCC and transgender community members find themselves at a difficult intersection between the university’s policy on free speech and allowing threatening viewpoints to impact the campus community, as mentioned on the GSCC Instagram.
“I think how hate speech is interpreted and threat or violence is interpreted legally, in conjunction with freedom of speech and expression, can be really hard to swallow,” Briggs said. “What type of speech is protected, and what isn't, is always an ongoing question and can feel really alienating to a lot of marginalized people.”
At his talk, Walsh called out and criticized the UW administration’s actions surrounding his event.
“I’d like to just say to the UW-Madison administration, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Walsh said. “You are disgraceful, self-debasing cowards and you spineless, gutless clowns owe me an apology.”