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SF State’s LGBTQ+ center temporarily closes after campus protest

Members of the SF State Queer & Trans Center (left to right) Dae Philpot, Chloe Simson, Jeremy Lark and Lily Eiselt pose on campus on April 13, 2023. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Days after San Francisco State University students protested a conservative activist speaking against trans athletes, a truck with an LED board showed up on campus. 

The truck’s message, spotted on Monday, read, “Chloe Simson, if you support women, condemn the bullying and assault of Riley Gaines.” 

Simson, the director of SF State’s Queer and Trans Resource Center, followed the link to listed on the LED truck that redirects to a petition by Accuracy in Media, a nonprofit media watchdog with conservative leanings. It called for university action “against the violent mob that attacked Riley Gaines.”

On April 6, conservative activist group Turning Point USA, which has a student chapter on campus, hosted Gaines, a former collegiate swimmer who is now leading calls to bar trans athletes from competing in accordance with their gender identity. 

Several dozen protesters entered the room, swelling the crowd until the space reached capacity and spilling into an adjacent hallway, as the campus newspaper Golden Gate Xpress reported. Gaines shared her experience, and the discussion continued, which she later praised online and in interviews as “a great dialogue.” 

As Gaines moved to leave, the protesters filled the room, leading her to hunker down in a different room for nearly three hours, something she described as an ambush and alleged assault in one of many interviews with Fox News. She later posted a video to Twitter that shows her exit through a crowd of heated protesters but does not appear to capture any acts of physical violence. 

Asked if anyone was injured or arrested at the event, campus police said no one was detained, adding: "We are conducting an ongoing investigation into the situation. There were no arrests related to the event. The disruption occurred after the conclusion of the event which made it necessary for UPD officers to move the event speaker from the room to a different, safe location.”

Gaines’ video swiftly went viral, becoming a cause célèbre in national conservative circles. Since then, Simson said the center has faced intense harassment. They also said they are scared for their physical safety—enough to close the office for at least a week and stay off campus until things cool down. 

They have received several emails, Instagram messages and comments blaming the LGBTQ+ center for purported attacks on Gaines, and one email called the group “sick cultists.” Another email reviewed by The Standard stated the students should be sent to a Muslim country where “they will kill you like they should do here with all of you.” 

SF State’s Queer and Trans Center did not organize the protest against Gaines. Instead, it opted to hold a mixer that celebrated trans athletes as a positive counter-event—although Simson said they are proud of students who spoke up for trans rights. But Fox News quoted a statement from Turning Point attributing the protest to the center, which is an official campus-funded entity.  

Staff of SF State's Queer and Trans Resource Center (left to right) include Chloe Simson, director; Dae Philpot, BIPOC coordinator; Lily Eiselt, office assistant; and Jeremy Lark, assistant director. | Jason Henry for The Standard

“It’s scary on campus,” said Simson, a graduate student who is nonbinary and trans. “It’s definitely shocking that something like that is happening on our campus. I’ve never experienced that sort of harassment and misinformation.”

The university’s Turning Point chapter did not respond to requests for comment.

SF State President Lynn Mahoney acknowledged in a statement to the campus community that the event about trans athletes featuring Gaines was “deeply traumatic” for trans students and that administration would use the experience to learn to support them better. She also applauded the discussion that arose from a diverse crowd at the event. 

Gaines, whose Twitter follower count has reportedly more than tripled since the event, blasted the university for lack of accountability, alleging on Twitter and in interviews she was kidnapped and assaulted. 

A representative for Gaines did not respond to a request for comment. 

A composite image shows Chloe Simson, director of the Queer and Trans Resource Center, and flyers and signage on their office's front door. | Jason Henry for The Standard

SF State is not the only Bay Area educational institution embroiled in controversy over a conservative speaker visit. Accuracy in Media also stationed an LED truck on the Stanford University campus this week that accused a person with the Stanford National Lawyers Guild for using “fascist tactics to bully others.” The truck also included a link under someone’s name to an online petition to “take action against fascist bullies.” Accuracy in Media did not respond to a request for comment.  

Another group on Twitter called Women Are Real has driven an LED truck around San Francisco. It sports a poster in support of Gaines, also alleging that she was assaulted at SF State. 

“People are using inflammatory language that could get students shot, could get them killed,” said Jeremy Lark, assistant director of the Queer and Trans Resource Center. “A line needs to be drawn for rhetoric that is used to incite violence. Threats on any identity-based community in the university are an invitation to violence for the whole community.”

SF State's Queer and Trans Resource Center has been closed since reactions to last week's protest went viral. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Simson and Lark predict that the presence of Turning Point’s campus chapter will grow as election season ramps up and national politics becomes more divisive. Lark said while they understand the university must legally allow speakers like Gaines on campus, it needs to make its stance very clear and explain why these events are permitted to de-escalate some tensions. 

In 2017, UC Berkeley canceled an event with right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos amid a mass protest that later led to injuries.  

“We do think it’s going to escalate,” said Lark, who is queer and nonbinary. “We think SF State University may become a much larger center for media controversy. All we want to do is get back on campus. We want to serve our students. It’s not safe for us, and it’s not safe for them.”

Garrett Leahy contributed additional reporting for this story.