A protester in the crowd outside Swift Hall held the transgender pride flag. (Katie Chen/The Daily Northwestern)
A protester in the crowd outside Swift Hall held the transgender pride flag.

Katie Chen/The Daily Northwestern

Students protest conspiracy theorist James Lindsay at NUCR and YAF event

May 3, 2023

More than 150 demonstrators gathered outside Swift Hall on Tuesday evening to protest a lecture by James Lindsay, an author, conspiracy theorist and anti-LGBTQ+ activist.

Northwestern College Republicans and NU’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom hosted Lindsay, who helped popularize “groomer” rhetoric. The rhetoric, which has been debunked and labeled as anti-gay by PolitiFact and the Anti-Defamation League, accuses LGBTQ+ people of enabling pedophilia. Lindsay has also promoted “white genocide theory,” which claims there is an intentional effort to replace white populations in majority-white communities. Historians have traced the white genocide theory to having antisemitic roots. 

Prior to the event, several NU students emailed University President Michael Schill expressing concerns about Lindsay’s invitation to campus. They also raised questions about the event’s funding — particularly why Lindsay chose to speak at NU for free.

SESP sophomore Katherine McDonnell, a former Daily staffer, said students can help shape the values of the University through protest.

“Mobilizing for students today, even if it doesn’t mean administration will or can do anything, is an act of recognizing that we will hold each other accountable, and that we expect each other to actually think critically, to question conspiracy theorists (and) to lead with love,” McDonnell said.

Lindsay speaks for free, ASG discusses funding 

NUCR and YAF did not pay Lindsay to speak at NU, said Weinberg junior and NUCR’s acting President Agustin Bayer. He said NUCR only spent funds on security and that the University asked the club to increase security as controversy surrounding the event grew. In the days leading up to the talk, other students disseminated a graphic on social media promoting a protest against Lindsay.

Lindsay’s speaking rate, according to the national website for Young America’s Foundation — a collaborator of both NUCR and NU’s YAF chapter — is typically between $5,000 and $10,000.

Although NU’s YAF chapter doesn’t receive funding from Associated Student Government’s Student Activity Finance Committee, NUCR does. The group may have funded event security with Student Activity Fee funding, according to ASG co-President Molly Whalen, a McCormick junior.

The ASG Activity Fee currently costs each undergraduate student $79 a quarter and is part of tuition.

“It’s our money that goes to bringing speakers in like this,” Communication senior and protester Jonathan Van De Loo said. “It’s pretty insane to me that there are students on this campus that can look at someone who blatantly denies that people who are trans exist … and (that) it was paid for with money that the school collects for tuition.” 

University spokesperson Jon Yates said NU has “provided no funding” for the speaker beyond ASG funding. The University has no say on how SAFC funding is determined by ASG, he added.  

Students voice concerns over hate speech

Protesters’ chants of “we are here, we are queer, we’re not going back” were audible inside Swift throughout Lindsay’s lecture. Shortly after the event began, many protesters crowded around the building’s front doors aiming to walk into the event. Event security turned some demonstrators away due to fire capacity, according to Yates. 

On some flyers and social media graphics advertising the talk, YAF and NUCR featured an image of sunglasses with a queer pride flag and a skull and crossbones superimposed over the lenses. Another similar flyer also included a rainbow skull and crossbones, invoking the queer pride flag. Several protesters said this image, a variation of which is featured on the cover of one of Lindsay’s co-authored books, struck them as overt hate speech.

McCormick freshman Innocentia Eweyeju said a former classmate gave her a flyer and asked her to come to the Lindsay speaker event. As a Black woman, she said the invitation made her feel “very, very hurt” because she felt extremists do not want to see people like her on campus. 

“I came to protest and make sure that other underrepresented minorities, queer people (and) low income students also have the opportunity to freely and safely get an education just like me to rise to the top,” Eweyeju said. 

Communication senior Mackenzie Matheson was among multiple students who emailed the Office of the President about the flyer prior to the event. The office emailed Matheson back that while many of Lindsay’s views are “antithetical to Northwestern’s values,” universities serve as venues for “rigorous debate and discourse.”

Matheson said she was not satisfied with the Office of the President’s response. Though she said ideally the event would have been canceled or moved off campus, Matheson said she had hoped the University would have at least suggested NUCR and YAF create a flyer without what she considered a hate symbol.

“As a lesbian, I feel a bit worried and just uneasy (with) imagery of rainbow sunglasses with a skull and crossbones,” Matheson said. “I think Northwestern privately saying they condemned his values but not doing anything publicly is a sorry response.”

Debates on the balance of free speech and equity have intensified in recent years. Students nationwide say college administrations’ often trite responses to concerns about hate speech are indicative of broader campus cultures that make students with marginalized identities feel unwelcome.

In 2017, Schill wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying he was silenced by student organizers while president of the University of Oregon. UO protesters prevented Schill from delivering his State of the University address that year after student appeals to the University to stop tuition hikes fell flat. 

A person wearing a suit jacket speaks to a crowd of individuals and stands in front of a blue background with multiple Young America’s Foundation logos.
James Lindsay presents to students in Swift Hall. (Ziye Wang/The Daily Northwestern)

Event attendees defend Lindsay

In Lindsay’s talk, titled “The Dangers of Identity Politics and Intersectionality,” he condemned intersectionality as a vehicle for socialism and decried higher education institutions.

“Your education has been stolen by a corrupt system,” he said. “It’s brainwashing you into a corrupt program.”

Weinberg freshman Rhys Halaby, YAF’s treasurer, said the club intended for the event to foster conversations on campus about “contentious political issues.” He added that he and other YAF members didn’t agree with everything Lindsay said.

“I think certainly we created dialogue,” Halaby said. “There was definitely some back and forth.”

Halaby said the flyer design students wrote to Schill about was based on the cover image of “Cynical Theories,” a book Lindsay co-authored. Halaby said that the club would have changed it in hindsight. The original image featured just rainbow sunglasses, and YAF organizers added the skull and crossbones.

Bayer said he appreciated Lindsay’s focus on “academic integrity.” He cited the conspiracy theorist’s role in the 2017-18 grievance studies affair, in which Lindsay and several others submitted hoax papers to social sciences journals — some of which were published — to expose what they saw as poor research standards in fields such as gender and cultural studies.

“Searching for the truth is not dangerous to anybody,” Bayer said. “In fact, the truth will set people free.”

Conspiracy theorists like Lindsay contribute to a larger phenomenon of “populist and often conspiratorial anti-LGBTQ rhetoric” that increases violence nationwide, gender and sexuality studies Prof. Annie Wilkinson wrote in an email to The Daily. These homophobic and transphobic sentiments have spread more in the U.S. over the last few years, she said. 

Wilkinson added that anti-transgender panic, furthered by people like Lindsay, has led to the introduction of more than 500 bills across the U.S. targeting trans people this year in statehouses. According to the Trans Legislation Tracker, 54 of these bills have passed thus far this year.

“One of the most important responses to ‘dangerous speech’ is communicating norms that such harmful speech is unacceptable,” Wilkinson said. “By giving Lindsay a platform on campus, Northwestern is failing at that.”

Weinberg junior Kendall McKay said though she didn’t know much about Lindsay before the talk, she enjoyed attending the event and agreed with many of his points on intersectionality.

McKay added that she had previously been interested in joining YAF to express her conservative political views.

“People of all political affiliations and ideological beliefs should be able to have groups on campus that they can join,” McKay said.

Protesters center joy

At the protest, a freshman organizer who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons invited members of the crowd to share what they loved about their identities. One by one, students  talked about their experiences as Black, Latine, Muslim, LGBTQ+ and Jewish people, among other identities. The crowd cheered after each person spoke.

The organizer told The Daily this moment was a chance for the protesters to spotlight their joy and pride amidst hateful rhetoric.

“It’s important to show that you are not cowing to them,” the organizer said. “Queer people have always been here and will always be here, no matter what legislation has passed. Black and brown people will always be here, no matter what.”

Van De Loo shared his experience as a queer person with the crowd and later led about 50 protesters to fill the remaining seats in the room where Lindsay was speaking. He described the parts of the talk he heard as “childish” and “a broad conspiracy.”

He said he attended the protest to stand against national efforts to dehumanize queer people.

“I’ve had so many people who have been role models for me that have spoken out like that and shown themselves to be righteously angry and righteously joyful in the face of people like Mr. Lindsay,” Van De Loo said. “Part of the resilience of queer people throughout history (is that they) have been able to make their own joy in spite of all of the repression.” 

Aviva Bechky contributed reporting. 

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected] 

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