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The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Campus community reacts to Matt Walsh talk

Walsh’s rescheduled event inspired less pushback, compared to last semester
Jenny Hellwig
Transgender pride flags line the walkway to University Chapel on Monday, Sept. 18, the day Matt Walsh is scheduled to speak.

Matt Walsh, a conservative political commentator who once called himself “transphobe of the year” in his Twitter bio, spoke in the University Chapel last Monday. The walkway from the chapel to the colonnade was lined with transgender pride flags, just as it was when Walsh was originally scheduled to speak on March 30.

Walsh is known for his 2022 documentary “What is A Woman?,” in which he poses the question to both experts in various fields and everyday people. The film, which denies the existence of transgender people, claims to tackle “the question you’re not allowed to ask.”

Walsh is discussing the controversial film amid a tour to several college campuses.

College Republicans and The Spectator, a conservative magazine on campus, first invited Walsh to speak last spring. But Walsh canceled his visit to Washington and Lee, citing “security concerns” at his home in Nashville in a tweet.

Walsh’s rescheduled appearance this fall has reignited a debate on campus over the meaning of civil discourse.

Eli Staubi, ’25, vice president of College Democrats, said inviting people like Walsh to campus only exacerbates rifts on an “already exclusive” campus.

“Civic discourse is when you have two parties that come together, who hold opposing viewpoints, but can at least respect each other,” Staubi said. “Bringing Matt Walsh in is the antithesis to civic discourse… he has said it’s his mission to get rid of transgenderism and gender ideology. That isn’t a position that you can have civic discourse with.”

But Henry Haden, president of College Republicans and treasurer of The Spectator, said the topic can be debated.

“To have discourse, you have to have both perspectives, otherwise it’s just a one-sided speech,” he said. “Transgenderism is one of the most highly contested subjects in the country.”

Haden said College Republicans and The Spectator wanted to bring in someone like Walsh to address the lack of conservative perspective in discussions of gender ideology on campus, particularly in response to the diversity and inclusion training required for first-year students during orientation, which Haden described as a “top-down approach” and prevents differing perspectives.
He said he thinks that Walsh’s speech shows that the act of opposing trans people’s “deep-seated convictions” is not a personal attack on them.

“Some people conflate it with hate speech,” Haden said.“It’s a debate on truth at the end of the day, and I think emotions arose a lot with that. A lot of people really didn’t understand what Matt’s message was.”

In March, over 600 students, faculty, staff and alumni signed a petition asking the administration to cancel Walsh’s visit. College Democrats joined Queer Liberation Alliance and OutLaw, two LGBTQ+ affinity groups, in planning the opposition to the event. OutLaw also launched a fundraiser which raised over $15,000 for the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center, a local organization that provides gender-affirming care, programming and other services.

President Will Dudley responded to the petition, saying the university’s diversity policy allows any group to invite speakers to campus but does not endorse any speaker. He also mentioned his personal support for the LGBTQ+ community.

Melina Bell, a professor of philosophy and law, said inviting Walsh to campus puts the university’s leadership in a difficult “double bind.”

“The leadership wants to uphold free speech because this is an institution of learning. They don’t want to individually vet each speaker – college students should not have gatekeepers,” Bell said. “But free speech is supposed to be used as a quest for truth.”

Bell said she’s frustrated with the alumni who financially supported The Spectator and College Republicans in hosting a person like Walsh.

“Outside people paid for Matt Walsh, and students were exploited to get him in the door. These people are dishonorable and have reckless indifference to people here,” Bell said. “If [these students’] child, partner, sibling, or anyone they know comes out as transgender, they may one day see this as a moral transgression. They may feel strong regret.”

For Bell, turning to figures like Matt Walsh instead of doctors on topics like gender ideology represents “a lack of respect for expertise.”

“Matt Walsh is clinging to an uninformed view because it is familiar,” Bell said.

Kailesh Amilcar, ’26, signed the petition last spring but attended Walsh’s speech this Monday.

“Walking out of there, I’m feeling extremely angry,” Amilcar said. “[I signed because] I believed the university should not provide a platform for hate speech, which although can be defined in many ways and is subjective inherently, I believed Matt Walsh’s rhetoric to fall under the umbrella of. I feel like this opinion of mine was definitely reaffirmed by many of Walsh’s comments last night, especially those claiming that transgender people are simply delusional and part of a ‘suicide cult.’”

No such petition circulated this fall. Students in College Democrats, the Queer Liberation Alliance and OutLaw focused their efforts on alternate programming rather than protesting. During the time of Walsh’s speech, they hosted an LGBTQ+ social at which they served food and played card games. There was no mention of Walsh at the gathering.

Mohammed Albotabeekh, ’25, signed the petition last spring but said he acknowledged that “Washington and Lee should allow anybody to speak, [because] the best way to learn is to listen to the argument of the other person.”

But Albotabeekh said he was disillusioned after attending Monday’s event.

“[Walsh] was just not a good speaker,” he said. “He didn’t provide any evidence to the points he made.”

To Bell, the rhetoric espoused by Walsh does not qualify as civic discourse.

“Civic discourse is being engaged in debate because you want to learn and you believe in your view, but you want to get to the truth,” Bell said.

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Jenny Hellwig, Editor-in-Chief

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    AmicusSep 26, 2023 at 8:41 pm

    Get your facts right. Matt Walsh didn’t call himself the “Transphobe of the Year”. That title was bestowed on him by the New Republic in an article published December 27, 2022. Matt embraced the smear in good humor to demonstrate that leftists aren’t interested in engaging in true civil discourse about ideas. This article demonstrates the same point very well.