Conservative writer and podcaster Ben Shapiro drew more than 2,000 people to UNC-Greensboro’s Fleming Gymnasium Monday evening, some coming from across the state as well as Virginia and South Carolina.
Free and open to the public, the event brought out passionate supporters of the conservative provocateur as well as critics, protesters and the merely curious.
“I drove three hours from Greenville [South Carolina] with my daughter,” said Avery Wilson, 46, standing in line for the event a half-hour before doors opened. “It’s not that often you get to see someone as big as Ben Shapiro come out and stand up for the truth and for the women and show everyone you can’t shut down free speech on these campuses because you don’t like hearing the truth.”
The event also brought out a number of GOP politicians like perennial congressional candidate Lee Haywood and Jeff Hyde, a Greensboro-based conservative activist and occasional political operative who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2010 and for Guilford County Republican Party Chairman in 2011. Several could be seen glad-handing and distributing campaign and other political literature to the throngs of people waiting to get into the gymnasium.
Shapiro’s speech, “Men Cannot Become Women,” was born of the controversy around recent anti-transgender statements and events from the campus chapter of the national conservative group Young Americans for Freedom.
The group, which held its first general meeting on campus in October of 2020, has since sponsored events with titles like “The Disguised Racism of Critical Race Theory,” “Realities of the Black Lives Matter Movement” and “Abortion: The Ugly Truth.”
With an event last year titled “The Horror of Leftist Gender Ideology,” the group steered into a national conservative trend of depicting transgender people as mentally ill, the victims of abusive parents or themselves potential sexual groomers of children. Nationwide, Republicans have filed nearly 200 bills in the last year seeking to limit discussion of LGBTQ people, limit or end protections for them and limit or bar their participation in certain activities. A nationwide swell of school book bans related to books with LGBTQ characters or topics. While none of these bills have yet become law in North Carolina, conservative activists and lawmakers continue to press for them.
YAF’s anti-transgender ideology hasn’t gone over well at UNCG, a traditionally LGBTQ-friendly campus often called “UNC-Gay” derisively by conservatives and affectionately by queer students and their allies.
The group’s February 2 Instagram post of a Shapiro quote got pushback online and on campus.
“Men cannot become women,” the group quoted Shapiro as saying. “Women cannot become men. Men who believe they are women are not real women.”
“Not real women” was emphasized in red letters. Shapiro has particularly clashed with transgender women in public appearances and on television, insisting on referring to them as men, addressing them with male pronouns or as “sir.”
UNCG students say the Shapiro quote began appearing on flyers and graffiti around the campus following YAF’s promotion of it. Transgender women and particularly transgender women of color are disproportionately the victims of abuse and violence. Some UNCG students, particularly LGBTQ people, said YAF’s rhetoric contributed to normalizing hatred toward transgender people, making violence on campus much more likely. Some on campus, including elected student leaders, began talking with administrators about whether YAF was violating non-discrimination policies for student groups. Others began a petition to have the chapter banned from campus.
Campus administrators said the group’s speech was protected by the First Amendment.
But pushback against the group got coverage in conservative media, leading Shapiro – who has millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter – to promote stories on the controversy and ultimately work with the group to come to campus.
The university has been heavily criticized for hosting Shapiro since his speech was first announced at the end of March. Administrators emphasized that they were not bringing Shapiro in to speak or paying him from university or student fee dollars. The school was simply allowing a student group to bring a speaker in as it would with any other group, in a content-neutral way. Shapiro regularly appears for speaking engagements at colleges across the country and has been part of lawsuits when universities have moved to cancel or prevent his appearances.
A few students and other protesters were ejected from Monday evening’s event for screaming profanities or otherwise protesting once the speech was underway. In one instance Shapiro reacted to shouts of “F*** you!” by saying, “Two quick things…one, ‘F*** you’ is not an argument. And two – no thanks, I’m not interested.”
But those opposing the event largely chose not to attend, instead going to a competing “Celebrating Queer” event with a DJ and free food on the university’s Moran Commons area. Among the sponsors of the event, which Shapiro mocked at the beginning of his speech, were the Dean of Students’ Office, the Office of Intercultural Engagement, Campus Activities and Programs (CAP), the Wesley-Luther Campus Ministry and campus LGBTQ group No Labels.
“When we found out he was coming, we knew [YAF] just wanted more conflict, they wanted more points where they could say they were being oppressed,” said Isaiah King, head officer of No Labels. “So we just said, ‘We’re not going to give them that.’ So with multiple offices on campus, because this is a very LGBTQ-affirming campus, we helped put this event together instead.”
The counter-event drew several hundred student and went on well after the Shapiro event had concluded.
“We made it into a fun, supportive way to support our LGBTQ students,” King said. “And I really want to give it up to the school. I know a lot of people are mad that the school let a Ben Shapiro event happen. But I understand. They’d get sued like hell if they tried to stop the event. I think instead they really came together to do something that was legal, which was positive and really let our LGBTQ community know we’re seen and we’re supported.”