The University of Wyoming’s annual graduation ceremony, typically a ceremony filled with glowing remarks and optimism about the future, took on a more political tone Saturday as U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis prompted boos with her outlook on transgender individuals.
Toward the end of her roughly 17-minute speech, Lummis said, “Even fundamental scientific truths such as the existence of two sexes, male and female, are subject to challenge these days,” bringing loud jeers and a stammering response from Lummis.
Lummis went on to explain that she wasn’t commenting on people who transition between genders, which was met with continued outrage from the audience.
Lummis then pivoted to the topic of COVID-19 restrictions, which brought a more supportive reaction from the crowd filling up more than half the seats in the roughly 11,612-seat auditorium.
Lummis, in a statement from her office Sunday, apologized for her remarks and said it was never her intention to make anyone feel unwelcome or disrespected.
“My reference to the existence of two sexes was intended to highlight the times in which we find ourselves, times in which the metric of biological sex is under debate with potential implications for the shared Wyoming value of equality,” Lummis said.
“I share the fundamental belief that women and men are equal, but also acknowledge that there are biological differences and circumstances in which these differences need to be recognized,” she said.
The university itself acknowledged Lummis’ statements in a press release on Sunday, saying it “supports and celebrates its diverse communities that collectively make us the wonderful place that we are.”
Chad Baldwin, associate vice president of communications & marketing for UW, said Lummis’ speech was screened by staff before she gave it, and the school does not regret letting her make her remarks.
“The university recognizes the importance of the First Amendment on campus,” Baldwin said, explaining the school did not believe Lummis’ comments should be restricted. Baldwin said the topic of free speech is an issue UW President Ed Seidel is “still firm” on.
Members of the university’s Inclusion Council issued a longer, more critical response to Lummis’ comments in a press release Monday morning.
“We affirm that humans may comprise various chromosomal variations, and not every person is strictly born female or male,” the press release said. “Intersex members of our community who have diverse chromosomal makeup should be seen and recognized.”
The Council recognized the free speech argument, but said words leave an impact and can sometimes be “hurtful and marginalizing.”
“The University of Wyoming works to pursue an environment where critical discourse is held while maintaining civility and respect,” the Inclusion press release said. “As with all areas of study and engagement, education is needed across communities to create a better informed campus, community and world.”
Annika Pelkey was one of the several hundred graduates on-hand Saturday. She said a UW student who identified as non-binary committed suicide this year.
“It feels very real,” Pelkey said.
A recent survey from the Trevor Project focusing on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth showed that nearly half of all LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year nationally.
Hunter Swilling, a former UW student body president and current president pro tem of the student government senate, said Lummis’ comments were particularly insensitive given the transgender student’s death.
“Senator Lummis is an immensely successful person, but instead of imparting her knowledge onto our graduating students, she used it as an opportunity to bring others down,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “Her comments were also immensely insensitive, given UW has had a transgender student commit suicide this year. Her bigotry runs counter to everything we hold dear and to our ideals as the Equality State.”
As a member of the LGBTQ community which she estimates composes at least 25% the UW student body, Pelkey said she was “confused why” Lummis had been invited to speak at the ceremony, but also said she and her colleagues decided to “give her a shot” and “give her the respect” of hearing what she had to say.
“What she said was a very disrespectful thing about the LGBTQ community,” Pelkey said. “What she said was blatantly wrong.”
She was, however, encouraged by the student and audience response. Pelkey said around 80% to 90% of the students reacted the same way she did, letting out loud boos and other expressions of condemnation.
“It was really amazing to see my peers stand up and blatantly boo her,” Pelkey said. “Overall, it was a good reminder that my peers are incredible.”
For many like Pelkey, it may have been the venue that Lummis, a UW grad, chose to utter her statements, rather than any surprise about the beliefs she holds.
In the past, Lummis has spoken out against gay marriage, sponsored a bill to allow parents who oppose federal support of transgender students to access to vouchers for private or homeschooling, co-sponsored a bill that allows nonprofits to discriminate against LGBTQ people and voted against repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, according to LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.
The Movement Advancement Project gave Wyoming a 2.75 score on a scale of 42.5 for its LGBTQ laws.
“I think she said what she did to earn brownie points with her party,” Pelkey said.