The next week may be a defining one for the University of Pittsburgh student body.
Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a national nonprofit dedicated to spreading conservative values in academic settings, on Friday will be hosting an evening with Daily Wire editor, writer and commentator Cabot Phillips and on Monday will be welcoming former NCAA swimmer and outspoken critic of transgender athletes Riley Gaines to campus.
They may serve as bellwethers to an April 18 “Debate on Transgenderism & Womanhood” hosted by the Pitt College Republicans and featuring Michael Knowles, the conservative commentator who recently said that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” All three events have sparked backlash, including a petition with almost 11,000 signatures as of March 21 asking Pitt “to ensure these events do not occur on our campus” and to practice “the ideals it claims to represent and uphold.”
Getting far less attention, though, are two Saturday celebrations happening in Oakland: Pitt’s annual Dance Marathon, which continues to support UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and “Love on the Lawn,” a free benefit concert hosted by campus late-night talk show “Pitt Tonight” in honor of Women’s History Month that has also been designated as an official Pitt Pride Week event.
“Love on the Lawn” will take place from 3 to 6:30 p.m. on the Cathedral of Learning’s lower lawn. There will be sets from local singer-songwriter Gabriella Salvucci, student-formed band Funky Lamp and Pittsburgh-based group Mani Bahia & the Mob performing alongside multidisciplinary artist Clara Kent. It will be emceed by sophomore and “Pitt Tonight” host Nick Cassano and also feature a 15-minute interview with all the women on stage conducted by junior Julia Kasper.
It’s worth noting that “Love on the Lawn” was in the works long before anyone involved with it was aware of the Turning Point USA talks happening in the days before and after it. But main organizer Aidan Dean Dunn acknowledged that there was a bit of serendipity in “Love on the Lawn” being able to both fulfill its original purpose while also acting as a counterpoint to events that some believe could pose a threat to Pitt’s trans community.
“Something I’ve been trying to figure out for my career is how to put purpose into it and do something good with it,” said Dunn, a senior media and professional communications major with dreams of entering the music business world post-graduation.
“This just seemed like a really great opportunity and now especially that students on our campus are feeling threatened. We’re really happy to help celebrate those groups on a university campus.”
In addition to all the planned festivities, “Love on the Lawn” will be raising money for two student organizations — LGBTQIA+ student group Rainbow Alliance and Pitt’s chapter of the national menstrual equity nonprofit Days for Girls — and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Dunn said that organizers decided they’d also like to contribute to the same cause as the 2023 Pitt Dance Marathon once they realized both events were scheduled for the same day.
Information on each group and how to support them will be provided between sets, according to Dunn.
“The artists are out here to draw support to that,” he said. “We’re happy to provide the free entertainment, but we’d love if people could donate in any way they could.”
On March 10, Pitt released a public statement regarding “upcoming campus events.” The university acknowledged that the events in question “are toxic and hurtful for many people in our university community” while reaffirming that registered student organizations have the right to invite speakers to campus without university interference — “including highly provocative ones.”
“The presence of these speakers on our campus does not change the university’s unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” the statement reads. “That commitment includes steadfast support for those in our community who are negatively affected by these upcoming events, now and in the future.”
Rainbow Alliance released a statement of its own on Instagram last week regarding these events in which it said that if Pitt was truly dedicated to protecting its trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming community members, it “would not allow these individuals to propagate their harmful ideas.” The group’s statement also called on the university to acknowledge that “it is willing to remain idle and allow this harm to occur on campus.”
Both the Pitt College Republicans and the university’s Turning Point USA chapter have remained steadfast to ensuring these events go on as planned. Liliana Orozco, president of Pitt’s Turning Point USA chapter, told The Pitt News last week that “our voices will not be silenced just because some students might not agree with us.”
“There will always be people who don’t believe in free speech that want to shut down their opposition, especially when they’re speaking such powerful and important truths,” Pitt College Republicans said in a statement. “As college conservatives, we know there will always be backlash to our beliefs because we go against the tide of the majority, but that’s why it’s so important that we stand up for ourselves and refuse to back down.”
As for Dunn, he’s just hoping that “Love on the Lawn” can act as both a bastion of inclusivity for everyone in attendance and a balm for any Panther in need of escaping the discourse for a few hours.
“It’s good fun,” he said. “It’s a thing that you can come out and in spite of any protests or other negative things you can still have a good time and support local Pittsburgh musicians … and donate your time and money for really good causes who could use it.”
Related: “Community voices: On being transgender in America this week.”
Related: ” ‘We’re always the target’: Trans community, supporters voice opposition to speakers”
Joshua covers pop culture, media and more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Contact him at email@example.com.