Fight for Trans Rights in Iowa City

Apr 25, 2023

Blake Espeland

IOWA CITY, IOWA – What is freedom of speech? What is freedom of expression? What is individual liberty? These were some of the questions that were swirling around my mind in response to hearing Matt Walsh would be speaking at the University of Iowa about his recently released documentary, “What is a Woman?”. It then dawned on me that they are all the same question, but just dressed differently. Much like how a trans woman (or man) has the same value as a cisgendered man, woman, or any other person, but is just expressed differently.

So then whose freedom is it to tell a trans person “no, you can’t dress like that”, or “no, you can’t love like that”? One’s freedom of speech, expression, and liberty is somehow also the freedom to limit the speech, expression, and liberty of another. Where is the freedom in that, you might ask?

As long as the freedoms of the powerful few can overpower the freedoms of the rest, there is no freedom. I would like you to keep that in mind as you continue reading about my experiences last Wednesday evening in Iowa City.

Overall, I’m incredibly proud of the turnout, support, and organization. The protest had high energy, but it was nothing like the riot some say it was. No property was damaged and no people were injured.

When I arrived, about 150 protesters were gathered in Hubbard Park next to the University of Iowa Memorial Union (IMU), and there was a long line of Matt Walsh devotees waiting in line in front of the south entrance. I arrived at around 6:15, after the protests had started, and it was apparent that people were waiting for something. Some were sitting and laughing with friends, some were standing and taking it in, and some were marking the sidewalk with chalk. At this point, it wasn’t much of a protest.

For the next 30 minutes, more people began to show up, and the collective noise of the protesters started to rise; the energy was building. News crews started to arrive on scene, and people were doing interviews.

At about 6:45, shortly before the speech started, a person with a megaphone came up to the idle protesters and encouraged us to make our way towards the entrance. The goal was to cause as much of a distraction and inconvenience to the attendees as possible. It was highly effective. The line, which was once streaming in, ground to a halt.

Group of protestors amass outside Iowa Memorial Union

Group of protestors amass outside Iowa Memorial Union

In the atrium of the south entrance, shouts and chants started to ring out from both sides. At this point, I started to feel incredibly tense. I worried something bad was about to happen. This was by far the most dangerous point of the entire protest (that I experienced). Both sides were forced into an incredibly confined space, and the protesters were heavily out-numbered at this point.

Suddenly, commotion broke out from upstairs. I thought the worst had happened, until I heard what sounded like a fire suppression system. I was confused; there was no alarm, so why are the sprinklers going off? Everyone seemed to think the same thing until I heard someone yell “Marbles!”. Sure enough, marching down the stairs came an army of marbles – just the diffusion we needed. It wasn’t long until the police got involved and evacuated the protesters from the entryway. This was the last effective action the police would take.

Once outside, a much larger group of protesters exited the building and joined up with us. These were the people who had arrived earlier and agitated outside the entrance to the auditorium. In solidarity, we took to the streets outside of the IMU and made sure the viewers could hear us from inside. I saw tears falling down the cheeks of some people as they passionately chanted, and smiles on the faces of others as they felt the energy of the crowd rise.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get anymore intense, a section of the school marching band showed up and provided us with a fight song. The chants swelled in excitement. I could hear the frustration and pain in the voices of the protesters around me. Pain for loved ones or themselves, frustration for all who have to put up with people who are seeking to erase their sense of self.

Once the show ended and people started to come out of the IMU, the protesters peacefully blocked the road and created obstructions for people trying to leave. The drivers were forced to sit and wait for hours as the protesters chanted at them, and the showgoers couldn’t do anything but stand in awe. It truly felt cathartic. It felt as though they finally understood, for a bit, the fear and shame that comes with being transgender in this country.

The protests were an example of the ability for collective action, across many organizations, to stand in the face of oppression. It showed the ability for fellow humans to stand up for people who feel things that they don’t, that experience life completely different from them, and who love differently. And at the same time, it showed how humans have the ability to hate those that feel things differently, that experience life differently, and who love differently.

However minor the impact of these protests are, it still sent the message, that when it comes to personal expression, nobody cares as much as the Left. And while individually, we may be vulnerable, together we are unshakeable. For it is only through collective action that true freedom is gained for all.


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