by John S. Buckley
James Madison University recently showed how it ought to be for a conservative student group to sponsor a speaker on a controversial topic and be received with respect for principles of free speech and open inquiry. Bravo to JMU students, the JMU college administration, and the Harrisonburg community for setting such a good example.
On Wednesday evening, April 26, the JMU Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter sponsored a notable right-wing speaker, Liz Wheeler, on the “ideology of transgenderism.” She’s a prominent speaker among conservative student groups on college campuses and she doesn’t pull punches, that’s for sure.
Although the word on campus was that the transgender community at JMU and in Harrisonburg was vociferously urging a boycott of the event and a small, colorfully outfitted, and sign-holding group showed up outside the hall where the talk was to be held, the whole event — inside, outside, and in-between was entirely civil. Everyone involved deserves credit for how it played out. The room was packed and late arrivers, I’m told, were turned away. Judging from the questions put to Ms. Wheeler after the talk, the audience was not all conservatives.
As if anticipating disruption, or at least aiming to head it off at the pass, the program began with remarks from an officer of campus security. I imagine he wouldn’t have said what he did without a green light from the college powers-that-be. He said disruptive behavior would absolutely not be tolerated; he cited some provision or another of the campus code of behavior; and he assured the audience that a second violation on anyone’s part would definitely result in removal and a citation.
His comments either did the job or weren’t needed in the first place. I sensed it was the latter.
In his introduction of the speaker, Parker Boggs, the JMU YAF chairman, said he and his group had been the object of hundreds of vituperative comments on social media (and some in person), but declared it only strengthened their resolve. Then, Ms. Wheeler did her thing. She bashed “queer theory” and later Critical Racial Theory, argued later in the Q&A that DEI was deceitful because the words “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” were not at all the tolerant, common sense concepts implied superficially but rather the deliberate come-on of cultural Marxism. She’s a strong speaker, quite ideological herself, and no shrinking violet in making her case.
While most of the questions she was asked suggested antagonism toward her thesis, they were not antagonistic; they were actually rather respectful. I find it interesting that the most challenging questions were from students who self-identified as … media, that is, from the student newspaper, The Breeze. They were professional.
Mr. Boggs corralled the 25 or so YAF members to stick around after the program was over for photos of the group and individual photos with Ms. Wheeler. I’d say his YAF group, at least one of whom was also an ebullient, outspoken member of Log Cabin Republicans (a nationwide, gay Republican group), was itself diverse in gender and background, and included many shades of conservatism. One community attendee wore a t-shirt reading, “Fact: Men Cannot Get Pregnant.”
Too bad the program wasn’t a debate. It would have been more informative to hear from the “other” side in more than questions afterwards. There was a paucity of statistics on transgenderism in the give-and-take, which might have been brought out in a debate context: for example, suicide rates among young people who want to transition, people who have fully transitioned, and people who have transitioned and have come to regret it. On this aspect of the overall issue, anecdotes and “blood on your hands” accusations are but weak and tawdry emotional hand-grenades. Ironically, however, the JMU “debate” organization was one of the groups on campus urging a boycott. Debate team: F; JMU YAF, A+ event for hosting a well-organized, interesting although controversial talk.
John Buckley is a University of Virginia graduate and former Republican state delegate to the General Assembly. He lives in West Virginia but continues to take a keen interest in Virginia.