On April 6, SF State made national headlines when former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines hid from transgender rights activists in a barricaded room for over three hours following her controversial speech about trans women in sports. As protesters outside the room chanted “trans rights are human rights,” Gaines tweeted from inside: “The prisoners are running the asylum at SFSU.”
The event was hosted by Turning Point USA, an organization founded in 2012 by conservative commentator Charlie Kirk. While TPUSA claims to focus on freedom, free markets and limited government, it garners the most attention when it comes to hot-button issues like abortion, vaccinations and LGBTQ+ rights.
TPUSA has over 600 chapters at colleges and high schools across the United States. This semester, SF State became one of those schools.
The TPUSA chapter at SF State, created by Broadcast and Electronic Communications Arts student Navid Mehdipour, debuted during the first week of the spring semester. Mehdipour said he discovered TPUSA when the organization tabled at Diablo Valley College, the school he previously attended. At the time, he was not heavily involved in politics; however, Mehdipour found himself aligning with the conservative beliefs of the organization. This was around the time of Donald Trump’s presidency, and when Mehdipour expressed support for him, he was met with backlash.
“Why am I being oppressed and getting attacked because of my political beliefs?” he asked. “I’m just saying something like everybody else. I just have a point of view; I just have my own beliefs.”
The beliefs of Mehdipour — and of TPUSA as a whole — are often controversial. On March 16, Mehdipour hosted a meeting about abortion in the Cesar Chavez Student Center. Members in attendance spoke about whether it is acceptable for women who become pregnant as a result of sexual assault to receive abortions. TPUSA has publicly promoted the idea that abortion is immoral, even for victims of assault.
On the subject of COVID-19, Mehdipour sought accountability for alleged vaccine-related deaths and claimed the science behind wearing masks is fake.
“Pfizer, Moderna, they are killing people with their vaccines,” he said. “Stuff that we’ve seen, it’s not a matter of opinion. It’s just [a] fact.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed nine deaths related to COVID-19 vaccinations. These were caused by rare blood clots after patients were injected with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
While Mehdipour clarified that his personal views do not represent TPUSA, anti-vaccine and anti-abortion rhetoric is prominent in the organization’s literature. The TPUSA website has an entire page dedicated to platforming misinformation about vaccines, sharing stories that highlight claims about negative side effects.
When it comes to TPUSA’s national controversies, abortion and vaccines are only the beginning.
The organization is perhaps most famous for bringing big-name conservatives to college campuses across the country. Over the years, personalities such as Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, Kyle Rittenhouse and Milo Yiannopoulos have taken the stage for TPUSA.
Since being acquitted of murder after shooting three and killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Rittenhouse has been a mainstay of the TPUSA live circuit. Yiannopoulos, who came under fire in 2017 after claiming that pedophilic relationships between younger boys and older men can be beneficial to young boys, has not worked with TPUSA since. In a New York Times article published after the controversy, though, Kirk clarified that his organization would only be taking a break from engaging with him directly.
Multiple TPUSA live events have sparked large protests over the years, some escalating to violence. In March, two people were arrested and one police officer was injured when Kirk spoke at UC Davis. A group of protesters smashed several windows outside of the venue before the event. There were also reports of eggs thrown and pepper spray used by protesters in the crowd of approximately 100 people.
On April 6, SF State received its first taste of the TPUSA live experience.
Gaines, who swam against Lia Thomas at the 2022 NCAA championships, visited campus to talk about trans women in sports. According to Gaines, trans athletes like Thomas possess unfair biological advantages.
When Gaines and Thomas competed against each other in the women’s 200-meter freestyle, they tied for fifth place. The four swimmers who placed ahead of them were all cisgender women. Advertisements for the Gaines event referred to Thomas as a biological male, and implored students to “help Riley in her fight to save women’s sports.”
The event evoked an impassioned response from students at SF State. On March 30 — just a week before Gaines came to campus — TPUSA College Field Representative David Llamas posted videos on Twitter of his interactions with SF State students.
One video showed a student blowing their nose into a Riley Gaines poster as Llamas tabled for TPUSA in the quad. In another, he recorded a student after they allegedly smashed his iPad. “Get that shit out of my face,” the student demanded as Llamas followed them into the J. Paul Leonard Library. “This is the behavior of fascists,” he responded.
“You’re allowed to disagree with Riley,” Llamas said. “I’m sure that even Riley and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. We just want to start a dialogue.”
After weeks of growing tension, Gaines spoke to a maximum capacity crowd of approximately 75 people in Room 310 of the HSS Building. Over 100 protesters filed into the hall outside of the venue, their chants of “trans women are women” bleeding into the room. Inside, another group of protesters passed around a black Sharpie to write messages on their faces: “Trans lives matter,” “Ur lame” and “You want me dead.” They stomped along to the rhythm of the chants pouring in from outside.
“I really am glad that a lot of people here don’t agree with me,” Gaines said. “I want to reach the people who don’t agree with me. What good would it be to sit here and talk with people who agree with me?”
As soon as the event concluded, numerous protesters from outside cascaded into Room 310. They swarmed Gaines, shouting and pumping their fists, as she backed into the corner of the room. Three officers from the University Police Department escorted Gaines away from the crowd, rushing her down the hall into Room 325. Approximately 50 protesters surrounded the door as UPD created a barricade around it.
For over three hours, protesters stood their ground outside of the room. Behind them, a trans flag hung on the wall from thin strips of tape. They chanted, banged their fists against walls and danced to songs like “money machine” by 100 gecs and “I Don’t Like” by Chief Keef as UPD collaborated with the San Francisco Police Department to safely extract Gaines. She was unable to leave campus until nearly midnight.
Gaines took to social media — and even national television — to claim that she was punched by a “man dressed as a woman” during the frenzy. “I was ambushed and physically hit twice by a man,” Gaines tweeted from inside the room. “This is proof that women need sex-protected spaces.” Golden Gate Xpress had eight reporters inside and outside the event taking photos, recording video and observing from the time she arrived until she was ushered into the safe room. GGX staff did not witness the alleged assault by the person Gaines described.
The protest sparked an outcry from several prominent conservative figures, including Kirk himself. “Violent trans radicals assaulted Riley Gaines at a TPUSA event on campus at [SF State] tonight,” Kirk wrote in a tweet. “The Alphabet Mafia continues its terror.”
It even prompted a statement of support from Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. “This is an appalling attack on free speech on a college campus,” McCarthy tweeted. “House Republicans stand with Riley Gaines and her brave and tireless efforts to protect women’s sports.”
On April 10, four days after the Gaines event, SF State President Lynn Mahoney responded to the controversy in a campus-wide email. “To our trans community, please know how welcome you are,” Mahoney wrote. “We will turn this moment into an opportunity to listen and learn about how we can better support you.”
The protest was not the only response to the Gaines event at SF State. On the same day, the AS Queer & Trans Resource Center hosted an event of its own — a mixer in the Cesar Chavez Student Center to celebrate trans and queer athletes.
Queer & Trans Resource Center Director Chloe Simson and co-director Jeremy Lark believed that the mixer would be more productive than a direct demonstration of the Gaines event. However, they supported anybody who decided to protest.
“We had received requests from students to organize a protest movement, and we were considering setting that up,” Lark said. “But we have to acknowledge that that’s Turning Point’s MO. They want to create a big confrontation so that they can paint themselves as the silenced minority.”
In total, approximately 80 people attended the mixer. Roughly half of them made their way to the Gaines event afterwards.
Simson said the Queer & Trans Resource Center received numerous complaints from students who are not comfortable with TPUSA’s presence on campus. Within TPUSA’s first hour of tabling alone, Simson received 24 complaints.
“This was the first time I’ve seen anything this overtly transphobic on our campus,” Simson said. “This is very direct intimidation and discrimination.”
Mehdipour, who introduced Gaines at the event, said that violence actually stems from the side of trans advocates.
“We’re not harming anybody,” he said. “First of all, what happened in Nashville, Tennessee, three children and three adults got harmed by a shooter who happened to be transgender.”
Mehdipour is referring to a shooting that happened at a private Christian school in Nashville on March 27. The shooter, who identified as trans, killed three children and three staff members. According to statistics from Gun Violence Archive, there have been 2,861 mass shootings (four or more people shot or killed) since 2018. Only three of those shooters identified as trans.
Marc Stein, an SF State professor and historian of gender and sexuality, said that the portrayal of trans people in the media is creating harm.
“The problem that law has currently is that it maintains strict distinctions between physical harm and psychological harm,” Stein said. “Speech that can be directly linked to physical harm is not protected, but speech that causes psychological harm… today’s dominant understanding is that we can’t really do anything about that.”
Despite this, Stein expressed concerns about whether TPUSA’s rhetoric crosses the line of free speech.
“There’s a defamation and slander exception to free speech,” he said. “It’s in question about whether certain ways of referring to trans people might constitute defamation, slander or libel.”
Stein also questioned whether TPUSA’s event violated state obscenity laws or incited imminent unlawful activity, both of which are exceptions to free speech.
This isn’t the only instance of TPUSA provoking gender-related controversy at SF State. On Oct. 1 of last year, a video was posted to the TPUSA at SF State Instagram account displaying a tampon dispensary in the men’s restroom. The caption of the video, which was recorded by Mehdipour, mockingly states “#mywokeschool.” It currently has over 4,500 views and 120 likes, making it the most popular post on the Instagram page.
While some agreed with Mehdipour’s sentiment, others took issue with the video. “Weirdest thing here is the person filming in the bathroom,” one user commented.
On behalf of trans students, Simson and Lark are demanding that SF State take action against TPUSA. Not only are they calling for the organization to be removed from campus, but they also want the university to make a public statement denouncing TPUSA’s transphobia.
“Free speech does not prevent the university from making a statement against transphobia,” Simson said. “I’m very strongly encouraging the administration to make a stand because this is not something that can be overlooked.”
In a statement that was emailed to the campus community before the Gaines event, Dean of Students Pam Su and Assistant Dean of Students Chris Trudell offered their stance on the issue of free speech.
“SF State is a publicly-funded state institution, and by law, we are required to provide opportunities and venues for free speech to any entity that requests it,” they wrote. Su and Trudell did not directly address the Gaines event, nor concerns about transphobia on campus.
Su did not respond to a request for comment before the event. Trudell, who was in attendance at the Gaines event, declined to comment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonprofit organization that protects free speech rights on college campuses, supports TPUSA’s right to host events on campus — no matter how controversial.
“The university would not be able to shut down the event, or to silence the speaker, or otherwise interfere with [TPUSA’s] right to host this event under the First Amendment,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Zach Greenberg.
However, Greenberg also asserted that people have the right to protest within certain limits.
“For these events, students, protesters [and] audience members have the right to protest the event,” Greenberg said. “They can hold signs, they can question the speaker, they can do everything they want to do, expression-wise, up to the point of disrupting the speaker.”
As the Queer & Trans Resource Center fights to remove Mehdipour’s organization from campus, he reflects on the future of TPUSA at SF State. He expects to graduate from the BECA department at the end of the Spring 2023 semester. While he might not be around to see what becomes of his TPUSA chapter, he believes that his work this semester will have a lasting impact on the campus.
“I hope I could make people awake,” Mehdipour said. “Because wokeness is destroying America. And I love America.”