Iowa City receives the nation’s leading anti-trans personality with trans-affirming chalk, chants, music and disruption

Cameras follow pro-LGBTQ protesters as they chant “Trans rights are human rights!” past people lined up to see anti-trans Daily Wire pundit Matt Walsh speak in the Iowa Memorial Union, April 19, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

“I’ll be speaking at the University of Iowa tomorrow night,” Daily Wire host Matt Walsh tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “I feel confident that I will be warmly welcomed with smiles and good cheer from all of the students on campus.”

Walsh was being sarcastic; the conservative commentator who found his niche promoting misinformation about and fear of LGBTQ people, in particular trans and gender nonconforming Americans, knew his campus tour stop in the progressive hub of Johnson County would be protested.

And sure enough, a large crowd of LGBTQ people and allies showed up to protest Walsh’s Wednesday evening event at the Iowa Memorial Union. They were determined, but full of good cheer, as they rallied against the man who considers transgender people “the greatest evil our country faces,” and disseminates this message daily to his many followers on social media and on his YouTube channel.

Demonstrations at Hubbard Park, adjacent to the IMU, had been planned and promoted for weeks by LGBTQ allies on UI’s campus. The majority of protesters were college-aged, and included Nick, who recently came out as a trans woman.

“Iowa City is the LGBTQ+ capital of Iowa, practically America,” Nick told Little Village while chalking a trans pride flag on the pavement. “And if your whole motivation of coming here was to advocate against the ideals that the city holds so closely, then you shouldn’t [come] … We’re proud of who we are, and no matter what your political stances, you’ve got to accept that.”

Thomas Pate, a UI student originally from Omaha, Nebraska, isn’t transgender but felt compelled to show up to protest Walsh.

“I’m a member of the community, it’s my people. Anything that impacts anyone in the LGBTQ+ community impacts me directly,” he said. “I don’t want to go out and see my friends being arrested because of who they are. I feel angry and sad, almost, with what’s happening. So I feel I have to be here.”

Thomas Pate and Christian Stogdill, president of the University of Iowa social fraternity Delta Lambda Phi, hold signs emphasizing human rights and visibility in transgender pride colors. Wednesday, April 19, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village
Trans Iowa City resident Nick (who anticipates going by Nicki sometime in the near future) adds a trans pride flag to the pro-LGBTQ chalk drawings between the IMU and Hubbard Park on April 19, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

In the weeks leading up to Wednesday, some trans-rights advocates sought to have the event, hosted by the UI chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), shut down, arguing in a petition that Walsh’s incendiary message “endanger[s] the LGBTQIA+ students that call this campus home.” Others accepted that the university had little recourse due to policies that ensure equal opportunities for all student groups, and the Board of Regents’ position that, “It is not the proper role” of Iowa’s public universities “to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which may include ideas and opinions the individual finds unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive.”

“There was no way they could deny Matt Walsh access due to the way in which our constitution is set up,” said Pate, who said he had spoken with UI Vice President of Student Life Sarah Hansen about the Walsh visit and felt reassured. “As a whole I think the university has done a pretty good job of, at least while I’ve been here, making me feel included in the spaces I’ve sought out. It’s much better than the place I come from.”

The week started with a campaign to chalk the sidewalks around the IMU with messages of “trans joy and resistance,” and culminated in hundreds of young people chanting support for trans rights and derision towards Walsh, a self-described theocratic fascist, inside the IMU lobby and on the street outside, where a pep band arrived to play tunes.

Resistance to the event wasn’t all polite and courteous — a standard Walsh has apparently set for the people he daily calls “delusional,” “mentally ill” “pedophiles.” Opponents of Walsh had for weeks torn down flyers around campus promoting the event. When YAF members tried to dox or at least shame people they caught pulling down the flyers by posting videos of them on social media, opponents put up their own flyers of alleged leaked communications between members of Iowa YAF and a UI College Republicans chair in which the latter uses a slur to describe trans students.

After Walsh’s presentation, some crowds of protesters blocked the exit of the IMU, as well as the street outside, where most attendees were planning to be picked up. The staircase leading to the building’s main exit was made largely inaccessible when hundreds of marbles were scattered across it.

Local activists — especially Oliver Weilein — documented the demonstrations on Twitter. Dozens of police officers watched the proceedings, but no arrests, incidents or injuries were reported.

The overwhelming response to these demonstrations from Walsh allies like Andy Ngo and Gazette opinion writer Althea Cole has been pearl-clutching over how uncivilly and intolerantly Iowa City’s LGBTQ folks, allies, anarchists and antifa demonstrators treated Walsh’s crowd.

When considering whether Walsh and his audience got a fair shake on the UI campus, it’s vital to understand Walsh is someone who got his start in rightwing talk radio during the Tea Party era, criticizing the Republican Party for supporting Reconstruction after the Civil War and defending the use of political violence. (“If you want extreme change, you must take extreme action.… You have to make people hurt,” he said.)

Someone who says medical care for trans kids is “just as depraved or damaging as molestation or rape.”

Who shares wild fantasies about gender-affirming care doctors “basically acting like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” calling them “evil — we’re talking about Nazi scientist-evil.”

Who advocates for conversion therapy.

Who calls the Pride flag a “hate symbol.”

Two protest attendees laugh as they try to stand up a tiny trans pride flag amid trans-affirming and antifascist chalk messages. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Who was making $100,000 a month sharing misinformation about LGBTQ people on his YouTube channel before it was demonetized for repeated attacks on trans TikToker Dylan Mulvaney, or so Walsh said during his Iowa City speech.

A Catholic whose stated beliefs got his event cancelled at a Missouri Catholic college in December 2021. (“His provocative positions on immigration, on communities of color, on Muslims, and on members of the LGBTQ community seemed designed to stir anger and resentment, rather than encourage thoughtful dialogue. His statements are in contradiction to Jesus’ great commandment to love God and love our neighbor,” read St. Francis Xavier College Church’s statement.)

Who said police need to “break down the doors” of drag shows attended by children, then “charge them all as pedophiles. Throw them in prison, and whenever they get out put them on the sex offender registry for life,” and has compared progressive politics to an aggressive cancer.

Protesters gather on Hubbard Park — while the majority demonstrate inside the IMU — surrounded by chalk art supporting the trans community (including ones reading “Kiss a trans person today” and “Hey, UIowa, there’s more people on campus than just football fans.” Wednesday, April 20, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Who has encouraged his followers to harass and report trans activists that have spoken out against him.

Whose campaigns against children’s hospitals providing care to trans youth — done in partnership with Libs of TikTok and Tucker Carlson, and animated by deliberately misconstrued information — have reportedly inspired bomb threats against those hospitals and death threats against doctors and staff.

…but who called it “full on tyranny” when the American Medical Association sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s office warning that rhetoric from anti-trans internet personalities is “resulting in a rapid escalation of threats, harassment, and disruption of care across jurisdictions.”

Who, when he’s not getting hacked, can’t stop posting vaguely eugenicist statements on population decline, comparing the success of minority races, and complaining how casting a Black actress as Ariel in The Little Mermaid is “white erasure.”

And who also makes non-veiled eugenics arguments, like saying the white supremacist Great Replacement Theory is “just a fact.”

A banner hung from the IMU parking ramp reads “UI president Barb Wilson supports trans genocide. Fuck Matt Walsh.” April 19, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Who tweeted this monstrosity.

Who, in “a crowded field,” was ultimately crowned Transphobe of the Year for 2022 by The New Republic, which noted how Walsh reacted to a November 2022 mass shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado that killed five and injured 25:

While the bodies were still warm, the host of The Matt Walsh Show would log on to say, “If [drag shows] are causing this much chaos and violence, why do you insist on continuing to do it? If, according to you, it’s like putting people’s lives at risk, if the effort to have men cross-dress in front of children is putting people’s lives at risk, why are you still doing it?”

Who is a cisgender pundit with no medical qualifications who seemingly doesn’t respect, understand or know a single trans person, but has made a career as a commentator on trans issues.

Who stated that teenage pregnancy is not only acceptable, but ideal as long as the girl is married, and called the concept of adolescence a “modern plague.”

Who doesn’t believe women should be allowed to be pastors, join the military or access birth control.

Who complained in blog posts that feminism is “a demonic dogma that obliterates the unity of the family,” and society is corrupting our daughters because they’re “unwilling to accept the Biblical notion that ‘wives should submit to their husbands’ because ‘the husband is the head of the wife.'”

Who declared anime satanic (which he recently doubled down on), then played like he was joking when the internet made fun of him.

Who complained conservatives weren’t mad enough about Lizzo playing James Madison’s crystal flute, suggesting it was far-left gesturing at “racial retribution.”

An adult man who thinks it is very, very, very important to make Anheuser-Busch apologize because they did a Bud Light promotion with a trans TikTok creator.

Who was accused of trying to recruit dozens of trans and nonbinary subjects to participate in his anti-trans propaganda film by creating a fake LGBTQ advocacy group called “the Gender Unity Project.”

Who has called for disarming trans citizens in a campaign against “trans terrorism” since the Nashville Covenant School shooting, blaming all transgender people for the murders.

And who said the quiet part out loud last week — “You shouldn’t be allowed to change your gender at all.” — while trying to own a trans woman on Twitter.

Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Let me offer an editor’s note of sorts: Little Village staff do not normally write opinion pieces. We sometimes edit them, but staff articles are written not to persuade readers or float questions, but to inform Iowans on news, events and issues in service of our core values. However, I’m not going to pretend I don’t oppose Walsh. To attempt to write about the ideology and significance of Matt Walsh like a neutral unbiased observer would be a farce; Walsh owes his name recognition — his assumed status as an intellectual worthy of being heard out, of getting equal airtime as his opponents and received with equal or more reverence by the American public — entirely on presenting as an expert to deprive trans and other queer people of their self-determination, of access to lifesaving care, of their ability to learn about their community, of their safety in public spaces and even their right to exist in public at all.

So no, this doesn’t read like coverage of your average film screening or campus lecture series. I am biased towards the humanity of my fellow queer people, and feel protective of my trans friends and family members, but I see value in examining a figure who hoped to turn Iowa City into a human rights battleground in service of a hate campaign.

Walsh’s beliefs and opinions on any given subject can seem contradictory, unless you understand that his sole guiding principle is, as his Daily Wire peer Michael Knowles recently put it, to “eliminate transgenderism from public life entirely.”

Matt Walsh has helped fuel the anti-trans panic that’s consumed rightwing discourse and inspired some of the cruelest legislation in the history of this state. His work is promoted not only by rightwing media, but also by social media algorithms that generate profits for their platform from the engagement value of hate-filled, fear-mongering posts.

Perhaps the most effective of his fear-mongering efforts so far is the documentary he’s toting around the country, which was screened at the IMU on Wednesday evening. What is a Woman? is Walsh’s feature-length attempt to own the libs, who in this case are trans activists, pediatricians, a gender studies professor and other interviewees who are “unable to give a straight answer” to the titular question, and thus reveal how delusional they are.

“As is often the case with conservative works, the documentary is billed as presenting The Forbidden Knowledge That Politically Correct Types Refuse To Discuss, and calls itself ‘the documentary they don’t want you to see’ posing ‘the question you’re not allowed to ask,'” writes Nathan J. Robinson in his breakdown of What is a Woman? for Current Affairs. “The position Walsh takes in the film is that there is a common sense definition of the word ‘woman,’ one that is based in biology … There is an implicit presumption, never defended, that the word woman needs to have one simple, satisfying definition.”

The documentary exists to affirm the belief in its target audience that “adult human female” is the only sensical definition of womanhood, and thus anyone who disagrees is obviously crazy. This won it praise from anti-trans figures like J.K. Rowling who, if not for their transphobia, would likely dismiss the Daily Wire host as a misogynist and Trumpist authoritarian.

That he has decided to take his far-right denial-of-reality show on the road to college towns — where, like the U.S. in general, the vast majority of people either support trans rights or don’t spend their workdays fuming about strangers’ genitals — isn’t surprising.

The strategy of visiting college campuses to deliberately test the limits of free speech in these stereotypically liberal spaces is an old conservative culture war staple. The YAF chapters at various colleges have always been eager support Walsh — they were even the sponsors of the Missouri speech that was cancelled in 2021 — and Iowa YAF is no exception. After Wednesday’s screening of What is a Woman?, the group hosted a Q&A with him.

One of Walsh’s more galaxy-brained takes is that his work helps trans people because they have higher suicide rates, so removing access to gender-affirming care, sports teams, support from educators and even bathrooms may save lives because, presumably, it prevents them from partaking in life as a trans person.

Researchers have reported many factors that contribute to higher rates of suicide among trans people, and almost all of them could be mitigated by pursuing the opposite of Matt Walsh’s suggestions. Not only does Walsh contribute to the stigma, fear and misunderstanding of trans people socially and culturally — his work has been cited by lawmakers who are trying or have succeeded in restricting the rights of transgender Americans.

It’s a grotesque rehash of rightwing arguments made throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis, when victims were blamed for their lot, and children were told the only way to avoid derision and death is to live as a heterosexual Christian.

Walsh protester Maddie holds a sign reading, “Matt Walsh, We Want Your Liver,” a message they decided to use because a friend suggested it, and it sounded funny. Maddie said Walsh is easy to make fun of, despite his toxic beliefs. Wednesday, April 19, 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Both the peaceful and disruptive aspects of Wednesday’s protest in Iowa City harken back to protests of Anita Bryant, the anti-gay crusader who took a banana cream pie to the face from gay rights activist Thom L. Higgins during a conference in Des Moines, where she was talking about plans to open “rehabilitation centers” for homosexuals. Across the country, LGBTQ folks gathered to tell the woman making her career off orange juice commercials and demonizing queer people to “suck oranges.”

“Gay pride will defeat Anita Bryant,” said 1977 anti-Bryant rally organizer Hugh Crell.

Impolite? Yes. Memorable? Often. Unifying? Certainly.

No single demonstration, even Higgins’ pie, brought down Bryant. But each one galvanized a community against an enemy, and little by little, made the whole sideshow look sillier.

“Matt Walsh is a threat, but in a way that’s easy to make fun of. In the way that Trump is,” said Maddie, a protester on Wednesday who carried signs reading “Go to Ames, bigots not welcome here” and “Matt Walsh, we want your liver.” “We like to make fun of him but we also know he’s doing terrible things. We’re here because we don’t think he should be taken seriously. I’m here because I don’t think he should be taken seriously.”

Bryant certainly hasn’t achieved her heteronormative Christian vision for America, but her ideology lives on in attempts to erase LGBTQ identity from public life by some of the nation’s most powerful representatives.

Matt Walsh is just the spokesperson of the day.