In the preceding weeks and days, the student body at the University of Iowa was growing increasingly distraught. For the second time in six months, the student organization Young Americans for Freedom hosted a speaker in the Iowa Memorial Union who openly spouted anti-transgender rhetoric. The organization invited Chloe Cole, a detransitioner who opposes gender-affirming care for minors to speak in the IMU’s Black Box Theater. This comes at a time when many people in Iowa are dealing with the bans of gender-affirming care set in place by the state government.
It also follows the last major event hosted in April by the university and the YAF, where they brought in staunchly anti-trans, and anti-LGBT commentator Matt Walsh to speak in the main ballroom of the IMU. The event was met with heavy backlash and a massive protest organized by the student body. Many have also expressed a concern over growing hate speech against the trans and queer communities in Iowa City. These concerns, along with the frustration and anguish with healthcare being stripped away, and this being a repeat offense, all sparked another protest by the student body.
The protest began in the south lobby of the IMU. From there they had moved up to the third floor where the Black Box theater is to try to disrupt the event. Event organizers had closed off the doors to stop the protesters from getting through. Protesters chanted out their frustrations before moving back down and outside. The group decided to deploy the same tactics as the event planners and organized themselves to barricade every entrance of the IMU to stop people from attending the event.
Image via Casper Bakker
Outside, groups had stood in the way of the doors of the IMU to stop attendees from entering. While impeding the doors, the protesters continued to yell out their frustrations. One of the protesters Emerson, said that the protest was good to let trans people “know that they were supported.” They had also said “the rhetoric being hosted is deeply transphobic.” Emerson themselves is a graduate student and teacher’s assistant who began transitioning through the University Clinics. They also expressed their worries over how lectures like these will be used to take away that care from trans people.
Many other students exclaimed their frustrations with the university for allowing another event like this to happen. They stated how lectures like this are created only as a way to spread hateful rhetoric, and anti-trans sentiments. Many were made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the days leading up to the event. Some had also reported forms of hate speech spreading on social media. Another protester, Kelsie, had said how the university tries to make it a discussion, but that there shouldn’t be a discussion when “one side is fighting for their autonomy and rights, while the other side is fighting to eliminate us.”
Eventually, police moved to break up the barricade at the main entrance of the IMU. They had done so by threatening to make arrests if people didn’t move and had pushed some people away. Two officers were stationed at the main entrance guarding the doors, allowing attendees to enter. IMU Assistant Events Director John Cory, who was standing on the roadside, described how the YAF had brought on the police into the events planning from the beginning. Protesters still clustered around either side of the doors and continued to chant in the face of those going to see Cole.
Image via Casper Bakker
The attendees of Cole’s speech numbered around 150, and were a fairly diverse mix of students, press, state representatives, and Iowa City residents. Among those attending were many state legislators. The talk lasted over an hour, where she talked about her transitioning from female to male, and then detransitioning. It also included a lengthy Q&A session in which she addressed questions from both supporters and critics.
Perhaps the most immediate and jarring aspect of the event was the difference between Cole’s rhetoric and the values espoused by the organization hosting her. The event began with an opening statement from Jasmynn Jordan, the chairwoman of the Young Americans for Freedom. She stated that “Iowa YAF is the premier conservative organization on campus, promoting individual liberty, free enterprises, strong national defense, and traditional values.” However, when it came to individual liberty and specifically “traditional values”, Cole seemed to differ both during her public speech and during our one-on-one interview.
This isn’t to say Cole didn’t make statements or make clear the overlap between her and the party and institutions she represents. She went on to state the usual criticisms and clichés of similar speakers by commenting on subjects like the DSM 5’s updated definitions of gender dysphoria, equating trans care to abuse, and claiming that being transgender is caused by conditions like autism and ADHD or sexual assault trauma. On multiple occasions she made it very clear to quote “childhood transition should never be allowed,” and even proposed a limit on access to gender affirming care until the age of 25.
Image via The Daily Iowan
Despite these claims, it’s relevant to establish the ways in which Cole distinguished herself from the YAF and similar commentators. For starts, Cole went into detail describing the role toxic masculinity played in coping with her sexual assault and intimate relationships, stating “I felt it would be a sign of weakness to tell anyone about this. I felt like the only choice I had was to man up. I started to develop a more masculine dynamic in my friendships, but I realized the social responsibility of being perceived as male was incredibly hard to deal with. It was a very lonely experience. I didn’t have as much room to talk about emotional struggles. My relationships were becoming more shallow, less intimate, and less satisfactory. I was putting on a mask and I started to developed depression.”
In a private interview she expanded on this explaining her thoughts on male victims of sexual assault, harmfully enforced gender roles, and expanding the definitions of manhood. She also commented on the negative experience female gender socialization played prior to her transition, “It felt like a lot of the messaging that I was receiving not just around woman’s bodies but also around femininity and womanhood in general, was very destructive to my view of womanhood. I felt my value as a woman was sourced in frivolous things like the way I presented myself or the way I looked, or my sexuality rather than the content of my character.” Cole’s claims that gender should be measured by one’s internal sense of self and character rather than outward sexuality and adherence to stereotypically assigned roles is a critic more common to progressives than conservative commentators.
This is on top of her disappointment in conservatives’ unwillingness to embrace the arts and modern media, and her appraisal of the LGBT community’s ideology of “self-acceptance, discovery, and acceptance of those who are different.” She even called for youth to “build their own identity,” highlighting the contrast between the speaker and those who were hosting her.
Image via The Iowa Standard
Chloe Cole’s public relations team and YAF representatives presented themselves as very involved and controlling. Their staff tightly regulated what press was present, turning some people away, and what questions were asked. They blocked my questions during the Q&A, because it likely was pertinent in highlighting the differences between Cole’s opinions, and mainstream conservatism, which would’ve also put her at odds with the crowd present.
This, along with her age, gave the impression many of her choices and positions were made or influenced by the organization, and she was being used as a tool and martyr to advance anti-trans rhetoric. They removed me and our KRUI photographer when we attempted to interview legislators present at the event.
On the YAF merch stand outside the Black Box Theater in which Cole was speaking, were stickers and flyers that directly contradicted many of the statements she had made both publicly and privately. With merchandise like stickers displaying “Woman, definition: adult human female.” and similarly crass phrases. All this put together creates an interesting dichotomy, not just between Chloe and protesters, but between her, the YAF and conservatives as a whole.
As it neared 8:00 PM, and Cole’s event was coming to a close, protesters then moved to block the intersection at Madison and Jefferson Streets. During the protest of Matt Walsh’s presence last April, many protesters were charged with impeding traffic while doing the same. Learning from this, they circumvented the law by walking in circles around the intersection in order to not remain stationary and avoid charges.
A line of cars trailed past the IMU towards Catlett Residence Hall. Despite their frustrations, protesters made the point that the frustrations from the people in their cars was insurmountable to the frustrations of the transgender community who over the years have faced countless attacks. This was a way for those people who were inconvenienced to be aware of the greater issues, and should take action so protests like these do not need to continue to happen.
Image via Casper Bakker
In grabbing interviews while walking around the crosswalk circle, one of the protesters said that while Cole’s personal views are valid, they said that the event was “a misrepresentation of the whole trans community. Taking only their word for everything is senseless. The people who are lifting her up are using her to support their anti-trans views.” They continued saying that there was no true discussion in the event, and how the university putting these transphobic voices on a pedestal was inconsiderate of the community that it fosters.
Eventually, the police deployed again to separate the ever-moving blockade across the intersection. They freed up one corner of the intersection so cars could slip by. Police had done so by positioning their cars in the way of the blockade, and physically pushed protesters aside, which led to vast anger among the protesters.
Once the flow of cars began leaving, protesters couldn’t reform the barrier. One protester when told how the police were involved from the beginning, said “the YAF wanted a sensationalist response, and to some extent they got one, but this is people standing together.” They also said although it’s their job, they wish the police had the ability to be conscientious objectors.
After the blockade was broken up, the protest then organized to march to University President Barbara Wilson’s mansion to continue the demonstration there. In an interview during the march, one protester said that as a trans student, it has been scary to see all the advertising and support for Cole’s lecture, as they said it’s being held to incite hate towards the transgender community. They talked about how limiting gender affirming care is an attack on trans people, and went into their own experiences of how gender affirming care helped their mental health, which has also helped their physical health, and overall quality of life.
Image via Casper Bakker
At Wilson’s mansion, protesters took turns giving speeches through a megaphone about their frustrations around anti-trans sentiments, as police stood outside on the lawn. Surrounding the significance of moving the protest to the mansion of the head of the university, one protester said, “it has to do with the president and the board of regents allowing transphobic speech by disguising it as a debate questioning the existence of trans people in society. Going to the president’s house shows that we want actual change to be done.” Others had stated that these events have happened before, and protests will continue until events like these are no longer held. They will not stop until there is a safe community for trans and queer people in Iowa City.
Going forward, it’s unclear how the university will address the concerns it has received over the rise of “hate speech” being tolerated on campus as they juggle their role as protectors of students against violence and hate, and as a public institution beholden to legal limitations on what kinds of speech they can restrict.
This article was written with aid from John Glab, and Casper Bakker.