On November 1, a protest led by trans and queer students on campus gathered on Hamilton Steps to speak out against a CUCR guest speaker and detransition advocate, Michelle Alleva. The protest was planned in just under 24 hours yet had an impressive student turnout. Bwog sat down with a few students who attended the protest, including the two leaders behind it all.
Content Warning: This article contains mentions of transphobia, homophobia, suicide, and ableism.
After inviting Michelle Alleva, a vocal supporter of restricting gender-affirming care, to speak at their second guest lecture of the semester, the Columbia University Republican Club (CUCR) was met with a protest from trans rights activists outside Hamilton Hall on the evening of November 1. At the time of the event, approximately 30-40 students were gathered outside, handing out flyers and zines concerning trans rights and healthcare. The protesters were also chanting, “I am trans; I am happy!” and “Respect trans existence!” Public safety was guarding the doors of Hamilton, yet the protest remained peaceful throughout the evening.
Alleva’s Speech At The CUCR Speaker Series
Alleva’s invitation as a special guest in the CUCR semesterly guest-lecture series comes at a poignant time in American politics. In her speech, Alleva mentioned her own experience to opine on the prospective ban on transgender youth care in Florida, which was officially passed by the Florida Medical Board on November 5. Alleva is very supportive of the ban. Referencing their restructuring of their health care policies for both trans adults and minors, she said “the only place in America where something is happening is in Florida.” She claimed that the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) June reevaluation of the benefits of gender-affirming care found “no evidence on outcomes versus those who are not receiving intervention.” She also mentions further reports from other institutions that reached the same conclusions, despite the general consensus in the scientific community asserting the opposite.
“Every systematic review can suggest that there’s low confidence and benefits that outweigh the risks,” Alleva claimed. “The evidence for adult transition is similarly unreliable. There is no credible evidence that would be life-saving.”
Alleva, both at the CUCR Speaker Series and online, was very open about her personal story as a woman who detransitioned after years of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a double-mastectomy, and a hysterectomy when she identified as a trans man. Since then, Alleva has become very vocal about the alleged “danger” of transitioning when one is young.
Alleva’s main argument is that people often “mistakenly” believe they are trans when, in reality, they probably are experiencing an undiagnosed mental condition. In Alleva’s case, she believes her doctors failed to do a differential diagnosis or complete a full psychological assessment. This, she says, caused her to make this life-altering decision she was not actually mentally prepared to make. “Vulnerable populations—people who are autistic people who have developmental disabilities, people who are suicidal—have to be treated with extra care when it comes to life-altering decisions,” said Alleva in her presentation on Tuesday. “Without an evaluation assessment, a person’s decision cannot be fully informed.” Alleva argued that her personal experience as a detransitioning adult should be used as an example to show why giving children gender-affirming care should be heavily restricted.
One student at the protest, Shay Orentlicher (CC ’26), was able to gain entry to Alleva’s speech after being told by the president of CUCR that non-members of the organization were allowed to attend the lecture once everyone who had previously registered was seated. Orentlicher told Bwog what happened inside.
“I sat respectfully and took notes as [Alleva] insisted that, because she, as an adult, was wrong about her identity, children should be denied healthcare,” said Orentlicher. “I listened quietly as she asserted that ‘gender identity is complete pseudoscience’ (a direct quote). I asked a respectful question—whether her statistics about the growing number of detransitioners accounted for the different types of detransition—and didn’t object to the logical fallacies of her answer. I sat in polite silence as the club members asked questions in the hopes that she would validate their transphobic views.”
Orentlicher clarified that their issue with Alleva was not that she detransitioned. “Everyone has their own journey with gender,” they said, “and all of those journeys are important.” However, Orentlicher argued that there is a difference between sharing a story and sharing an agenda, and Alleva wants to do the latter. “Alleva was not trying to broaden our understanding of gender; she was using her detransition to advocate against gender-affirming care as a whole.”
Alleva was vocal about the protest on her Twitter page. She portrayed the protesters as angry and claimed that she needed a “police escort out the back” of Hamilton after the event. Bwog was not able to confirm if Alleva was escorted out by campus security. She also criticized one of the flyers handed out by the protestors, created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Public Affairs. Alleva tweeted that the flyer was “incredibly general” and did not refute the specifics of her presentation.
Bwog reached out to CUCR for comments on Alleva’s invitation to speak at a campus event; CUCR has not responded.
Planning the Protest on a Tight Deadline
The protest led by trans students and allies on campus began to gather around 7:45 pm on November 1, 15 minutes before Alleva’s lecture to CUCR. According to one of the leading organizers of the event, Aristotle X (CC ’26), approximately 30-40 students arrived to protest the meeting, occupying the entire staircase to the left and right of the Alexander Hamilton statue outside the building. The students were there of their own accord, as this protest was not affiliated with any club or organization.
Students who showed up to the protest stood on the staircase until around 9 pm, when Alleva and CUCR began to leave Hamilton Hall. Protestors brought different pride flags and draped them around the base of Alexander Hamilton’s statue, and many tuned into the livestream of the CUCR event to listen to Alleva’s speech. They also held signs, passed out zines and informational flyers about trans healthcare, and chanted. According to Eli Andrade (CC ’24), the lead organizer who handled the more administrative aspects of the event, protestors originally wanted to sit in on Alleva’s speech and quietly listen to it in person. However, security guards were stationed outside Hamilton’s doors, and students who did not sign up to attend the event were not allowed inside (with the exception of Orentlicher).
Andrade told Bwog that they had originally heard about CUCR’s invitation for Alleva to speak at a Gender Revolution party the night before. “This was an event [Gender Revolution was] expecting to come up,” Andrade told Bwog. “I’m also a part of the Queer and Trans Advisory Board (QTAB) for the Multicultural Affairs Office, so dealing with these antagonistic ‘events’ or ‘debates’—under whatever guise they may be—is part of what we are supposed to anticipate and spread the word on. Serving as that liaison, I was already expecting that event would pop up.”
However, Andrade, X, and other members of the queer and trans community on campus did not expect Alleva’s lecture to happen November 1. They did not have enough time to properly organize a counter-event with a University-affiliated club, so no offices or staffs were able to be involved with the planning or execution of the protest. Andrade and X, then, had to organize as a completely independent gathering of trans and queer students and allies in 24 hours.
Both organizers of the protest stayed up all night working on different elements of the protest, as they both told Bwog. Andrade designed and published a short letter “emphasizing respect, peace, and tolerance” online and sent it to as many people as possible, to encourage higher turnout. X spent the night creating zines and informational flyers to pass out at the protest, as well as contacting as many people as possible who would be interested in showing up to advocate for the respect of trans people.
“When I am thinking on it institutionally, I think about ways I can leverage my existing networks within queer and trans community here, as well as other groups I know that are connected in some way, shape or form,” X said to Bwog. “What is really important for me is remembering how strong that support network is. Every friend knows a friend, and every friend who knows a friend knows the stranger, and that really helped with the amazing turnout.”
Andrade told Bwog that another challenge in organizing the event with little preparation or foresight was the need to keep everyone safe and to follow University guidelines. “There are a lot of rules to follow for a protest, because a lot of things can get messy, or any single little thing [against University guidelines] can be nit-picked,” Andrade said to Bwog. The crowd could not block the door to Hamilton because obstructing the exit for the people attending the event is considered ‘intimidation.’ Students were not allowed to hang flags on top of the statue because the University considers that ‘vandalism,’ but they could hang flags or posters at the base of the statue. Furthermore, protestors were not allowed to chant during Alleva’s speech because the rules classify that as disruptive. To prevent any rule-breaking, Andrade ensured that protestors remained on the steps the entire time, and that the chants would occur after Alleva’s speech and focused more on trans existence and joy.
“I was so nervous about keeping everyone safe,” admitted Andrade. “It was my number one stress. I know everyone was having a sense of community bonding, but I was very anxious all day looking towards that, because I knew I’d have to be the one taking responsibility for them. And I was 100% ready to do it. Part of being brave is doing things even when you’re scared.”
“Community in Rebellion”
When asked to look back on their quickly-organized protest, both organizers noted that the sheer number of people who showed up to the protest demonstrated the strength and power of the trans and queer community on campus, especially when they know that their rights to exist were being challenged. “I think it was the last straw,” remarked Andrade when asked why the group decided to protest against Alleva and the CUCR. “We knew these things were happening, [even if] they were very subtle. For example, if you go into the CUCR Instagram, you see a Mickey Mouse with rainbow ears trying to ‘brainwash’ your kids, so we knew [the homophobia] was there… But when we heard this detransition advocate was coming to campus that was very much in your face; they’re going to be speaking about these things. And are they going to be speaking in a respectful manner? In an informed manner? We don’t know.”
X remarked that the CUCR speaker event was “one more issue in a long, long line of the ways we have historically demonized transness and queerness.” X, in their experience, said that right-wing voices often use the narrative of people who detransition as an example of society “forcing” trans-ness onto others, even if said narrative is completely false. The purpose of the rally, according to X, was to counter those transphobic narratives, and to demonstrate that most Republican complaints about trans health care should not be directed toward trans people, but toward the healthcare system itself.
Another reason to protest, according to X, was to demonstrate how the CUCR’s decision to invite a transphobic speaker to speak on campus had a physical impact on the bodies of the people they hurt. “I did not sleep the night before the protest; I was so stressed, I was feeling sick,” told X. “I hope CU Republicans know that, in their decision to host the detransitioner for whatever reason, and to espouse so many false narratives that so many of us had to sit and watch and listen to during the protest, that this had very real material consequences on people who go here.”
Orentlicher told Bwog that they had to protest Alleva and the CUCR because the words they heard at the lecture falsely presented their identity as a “pseudoscience, a social contagion, something [they were] incapable of understanding.” They began by talking about their own experience as a person who medically and socially transitioned in their early teens. Orenlichter admitted that their family had no problem with them taking puberty blockers—many members of their family experienced precocious puberty and needed to take the medication themselves—until doctors began prescribing this to transgender children. Then, as Orentlicher pointed out, the puberty-blockers suddenly became viewed as “unsafe” for children, and government officials, like the ones in Florida and figures like Alleva, began using these false narratives to harm trans people. “This rhetoric isn’t simply a matter of opinion,” Orentlicher told Bwog. “It results in denying kids like me the care that has made enormous improvements to our lives. To platform and encourage a speaker who talks about this care as dangerous and harmful is to contribute to this wave of transphobic legislation and ideology.”
Orentlicher continued, “I came to Columbia in large part because I knew it had a relatively large trans population and trans-friendly accommodations that other universities do not explicitly offer. I was tired of having to fight for my existence, and I thought that I would have to do that a little less often here. When I heard this speaker was coming, it felt like whatever transgender-friendly policy that had drawn me to Columbia was completely shattered.”
Though the protestors felt the need to protest harmful misinformation about trans healthcare being endorsed on campus, the organizers did not want sadness to overshadow the joy that was central to the rally. As Andrade told Bwog, to get a sense of the protest, one only needs to listen to the last sentence spoken: a chant by all protestors shouting, “I am trans, and I am fucking happy!”
“I think the amount of trans joy was so beautiful and so invigorating,” said X. The organizer cited their own liberation after getting proper access to gender-affirming care as a personal reason to get involved with the protest, and how other people they knew who transitioned felt the same way. “I think those representations go beyond just how we depict people, but also are important in determining our own material survival and our own capacities to imagine a world that looks beyond each day as another fight.”
Andrade added that seeing the community that gathered on the Hamilton steps was “heartwarming” and a “community in rebellion,” referencing Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color, a book by Lorgia García Peña.
“I was standing below the steps, facing everyone, giving the last address. And I just had to pause for a moment, and I could just see everyone with their fires in their hearts in their eyes… That’s the sense that I got: it was a community in rebellion, a community standing together.”
Lastly, both leaders of the protest acknowledged that the participation of cisgender allies at the protest really demonstrated the support of Columbia’s trans and genderqueer community. X told Bwog that the participation of a diverse community—not just trans students—was a visible and powerful reminder of the “capacity we have to build a coalition” that fights for the liberation, dignity, and happiness of all trans and genderqueer people.
“It was great to see non-trans people standing up for us, which is in my experience all too rare,” said Nomi Richardson (CC ‘26), another student who attended the protest. “It was also incredible to have a communal expression of our joy and satisfaction with our transitions with other trans people, and to express that joy.”
Orentlicher said they felt “demoralized” after they left the event, seeing all these people meant to be their classmates were encouraging the spread of harmful misinformation about the trans experience. However, when they found the group on Hamilton Steps, waving their pride flags and chanting words of affirmation, Orentlicher was filled with joy.
At the protest, Orentlicher said they found their friends, their friends’ friends, and many new people who were open to talk about anything with them, not just the immediate events taking place. Orentlicher concluded, “I am so proud of Ari, Eli, and everyone else involved for creating a protest that was about our community and joy, not about Alleva or her rhetoric.”
The Future for Trans Activism On Campus
Bwog asked all the protestors how the trans and queer community will look like after this rally, now that they have the knowledge the community is both much larger and much more connected than they expected. Without hesitation, all said that the fight for proper education about trans lives and trans visibility did not end that night.
“I think this will have to keep going on,” said Andrade, “and I believe people will be more than eager to jump on it, especially if these types of ‘discourses’ keep on rising. You will definitely need to have another group of people to push against that too, because we cannot control what these other clubs are going to be doing.” Andrade emphasized the importance of remembering the community that was found on November 1, and that the fight for trans rights is part of a larger issue that requires a “mutual reinforcement of solidarity.”
Andrade, who is active in QTAB and Gender Revolution, also noted that getting involved with supporting trans rights on campus could mean supporting the different projects their clubs are leading, especially for Trans Awareness Week, which this year falls on November 13-19. One project Andrade is excited about is a QTAB-led poster project, where informative posters that identify the root causes of transphobia, racism, and sexism will be created and displayed in academic buildings. Andrade claimed that, by placing them in academic spaces, these posters would demonstrate that “identity is not for debate,” and that these spaces often twist and undermine issues about identity under the guise of “academia” to hurt disenfranchised communities. QTAB was hoping to have the posters up before the CUCR event, but since Alleva’s guest lecture happened so soon in the month, it was not possible.
QTAB will also be launching an anonymous, campus-wide survey about the trans experience at Columbia, according to Andrade. “It would be really useful if everyone fills it out; even people who are not trans, gender non-comforming, or gay can fill it out,” Andrade told Bwog. The purpose of the survey is to gather as much data as possible about the experiences of the trans community on campus so that QTAB can send the anonymous responses to the University administration. Andrade encouraged people to write about everything: their experiences in the classroom, with the Core Curriculum, in clubs, and especially with events like CUCR’s guest lecture with Michelle Alleva. Bwog will update the article with the link to the survey as soon as it is available.
Lastly, if students at Columbia would like to learn more about their trans peers and find community with each other, many events on campus will be occurring to celebrate Trans Awareness Week. Multiple clubs on campus centered on LGBTQ+ identities are hosting events together, including the “Centering Trans Joy” arts and crafts event that happened last night, along with discussion panels about the trans experience and building community occurring later in the week.
Note: The photo in the header was taken before the protest. Students did not drape flags on the Hamilton statue’s back throughout the protest.
Victoria Borlando contributed to the writing of this article.
Publisher’s Note: As of September 11, 2023, this article has been updated to reflect changes requested by Michelle Alleva’s lawyer on August 9, 2023.
Student-led Protest Outside Hamilton via Bwog Staff