Hundreds of Purdue University students gathered Thursday to protest – and some to support – a speech by conservative commentator Michael Knowles, who made recent national headlines when he called for the eradication of “transgenderism”.
Knowles addressed a sold-out crowd in the Purdue Memorial Union’s north ballroom. Just next door, thousands of students and community members gathered to celebrate trans life.
The event – called the “Block Party to Eradicate Transphobia” – included a drag show, art exhibition, resource fair, and games.
Lilli Ferguson is the President Pro-Tempora of Purdue Student Government. She said they didn’t want the event to feel like a response to Knowles’s visit.
“Someone coming here shouldn’t feel this is a protest or a response. They should just feel they are coming to be a part of the community and to celebrate our trans and gender non-conforming students on campus,” she said.
Student Russell Kleiner ran operations for the event. He said the community came together quickly to organize the evening – including planning over Purdue’s spring break.
“We got the banners, we got the balloons, we got all the sort of [knicknacks] and things, and that’s an incredible story to tell about Purdue,” he said. “In a timeline that we were working with we were able to do it, and now you look around and see tons of students feeling like themselves and enjoying the time and enjoying the community.”
A number of organizations set up tables in the Loeb Playhouse lobby, including the Purdue LGBTQ Center, Purdue Episcopal Campus Ministry, and Purdue Graduate Student Government.
State representative Chris Campbell (D-West Lafayette) set up a booth at the event and covered it in pride flags. She said she was happy to be at the block party – especially in light of the series of anti-trans bills move through the legislature.
“If we’re going to allow speakers at the university, we need a way to express the support for the community and make sure they know that having a speaker does not represent the voices of the university and this community,” she said.
Down the hall Robert Kim, a volunteer with Purdue Student Government, carried an armful of pride flags.
“So I’m passing out some pride flags,” he said. “Seems like a lot of people want these.”
Kim said with Knowles on campus, it’s important to make trans students feel supported.
At PMU, the atmosphere was not quite so convivial, as protesters and Knowles supporters began to gather ahead of the 8 p.m. speech.
A gray sky threatened rain outside, where hundreds of students gathered with protest signs and banners that said everything from “Protect trans kids” to “Transphobic? Kill yourself.”
Ben O’Brien is a sophomore at Purdue and a member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, which helped organize the protest. They said they’re upset that Purdue is paying for Knowles’ speaking fees.
“This is my tuition dollars that’s paying for this, this is coming through a SOGA (Student Organization Grant Allocation Board) grant. I don’t want a single cent of my tuition dollars into his pocket,” they said. “I don’t want to pay him to encourage other people to enact violence onto me.”
According to reporting from Based in Lafayette, Knowles was paid over $8,700 in speaking fees, with an additional $4,300 paid by the university for police personnel on site.
Riley Park, a University of Indianapolis grad student, came up to Purdue for the protest. They demanded that speakers like Knowles be barred from campus.
“Eradicate transphobia!” they shouted to cheers from the crowd.
The protest briefly fell into chaos when a person wearing a ski mask, glasses, and a red ball cap began taunting the group with a megaphone – shouting that “10 years ago, none of this was normal.”
A crowd of people gathered around to shout him down – some apparently trying to debate him – while organizers pleaded for people to “not engage.” The standoff between the two parties didn’t end until protesters moved inside ahead of Knowles’s remarks.
Inside, a long line of attendees snaked out of the ballroom and spilled out into the common area, where police tried to quickly move protesters back against the walls to keep them from blocking any walkways. Eventually, protesters were cleared out of a long PMU hallway and told to gather outside, though many remained indoors.
Hundreds of people gathered to see Knowles, and many were turned away. The ballroom filled after 7:30 p.m. Those still interested in hearing him speak were guided to a room on the second floor where TVs were set up to stream the event – until that also filled to capacity.
To begin his speech, Knowles showed the crowd posters with his face and the word “fascist” plastered on top of them in gray block letters.
“So where’d they get the idea that I’m a fascist?” Knowles asked. “They got the idea, it seems, from a speech I gave a few weeks ago at CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] in which I observed that men can not really be women. I said we should stop pretending that they can, and we should stop tolerating this nonsense as a basis for reordering our public life - that we ought to eradicate the ideology of transgenderism entirely.”
At this, the crowd erupted into applause.
“I guess you’re all fascists, too,” Knowles said, grinning.
Over the course of his roughly half-hour speech, Knowles outlined his view of a country locked in an ideological war that only one side could win.
“Like a troubled teenager at a crossroads, we must choose who we will become,” he said. “Will we continue to rebel against reality? Will we degrade ourselves further into decadence and delusion and drown out the facts of life by howling into the wind like the poor souls outside? Or will we open our ears to reason?”
Throughout the speech protesters could be heard chanting just outside – and Knowles missed no opportunities to mock them, describing them as everything from angsty teens to smelly.
Knowles ended his speech to a standing ovation before taking questions from the crowd, joking that his contract required he hear from people who disagree with him. Instead, attendees asked a variety of questions centered around how to protect children from “progressive, leftist, and transgender indoctrination.”
“Run very far away,” Knowles joked to one questioner before offering a longer answer about homeschooling children because it was “increasingly impossible” to send kids to either public or private school.
“We need to break the backs of the teacher unions and push for school choice,” he said. “Which is for many people the only chance they’ll have at raising their children in a way that won’t completely screw them up for the rest of their lives.”
As attendees filed out of Knowles’s speech, they were greeted again by a long row of protesters who continued to line the halls, occasionally shouting at one another before heading out into the night.
Jordan Stribling is a Lafayette resident who came to the speech because he was interested in Knowles. He said he’s a conservative and has wanted to hear Knowles speak for a while.
“Him talking about how we can protect our kids from this ideology in schools stood out a lot to me,” he said.
“I’m hoping they [Purdue] can get some other people in as well,” Stribling added. “Like Ben Shapiro or Matt Walsh.”
Back in the Stewart Center, the Block Party to Eradicate Transphobia was also beginning to disperse.
Mathew Neidmann is a graduate student at the university, who was passing through the event on his way back from seeing Knowles speak. He said he was horrified by what he heard. Neidmann’s partner was assigned female at birth and uses the women’s restroom – but according to Neidmann, because of the way his partner appears they are occasionally mistaken as a man.
“My partner is trans, specifically non-binary,” he said. “...lately because of what’s going on with the degradation in the trans debate such as it is in America, I worry. What happens when my partner goes into the women’s restroom - where someone like Mike Knowles thinks they should be – they are mistaken for a man and harassed or assaulted?”
“I dread waking up at night to a phone call that they are in the hospital because someone thought they were a man and decided they shouldn’t be in the women’s bathroom,” Neidmann added.
Neidmann said he disagrees with Knowles’s assertion that only one ideology can truly “win.”
“If he believes that Christians must achieve dominion over the United States, then of course transgender people must lose,” he said. “I think that transgender people don’t necessarily think that Christians must lose. They just have to accept the self-identification that they do and accept there are certain best practices that the medical community agrees on for treatment. That’s basically it…it’s a false dichotomy.”
A Purdue spokesperson said in a written statement that Knowles was able to speak and answer questions without disruption and that “those with differing viewpoints also made their voices heard in a peaceful manner.”
Correction: A previous version of this story was missing context about Mathew Neidmann’s partner, which has been added. The spelling of Mathew Neidmann’s name has also been corrected.