University of Wyoming students booed U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis during her speech at the school’s commencement ceremony on Saturday following her comment that “even fundamental scientific truths, such as the existence of two sexes, male and female, are subject to challenge these days.”
Lummis, a Republican and UW alumni, paused and smiled amid the jeers and attempted briefly to explain her comment.
“I’m not making a comment on the fact that there are people who transition between sexes,” she said.
But she dropped the matter as the boos continued and finished the rest of her prepared speech.
UW President Ed Seidel sent out a statement following the ceremony.
“One of our speakers made remarks regarding biological sex that many on campus take issue with,” he wrote. “While we respect the right of all to express their views, from students to elected officials, we unequivocally state that UW is an institution that supports and celebrates its diverse communities ...”
Lummis said later in an emailed statement that her “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.”
She also apologized in the statement for her comment that sparked the booing, saying that it wasn’t her intention “to make anyone feel un-welcomed or disrespected ...”
“I have appreciated hearing from members of the University of Wyoming community on this issue, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue,” she wrote.
The university’s Inclusion Council – which consists of the dean of students, the director of the School of Culture, Gender and Social Justice and other staff – released a statement Monday that took issue with the accuracy of Lummis’ statement as well as its impact on members of the campus community.
“We are committed to creating a campus where ALL members can safely live as their authentic selves as they navigate their educational experience and contribute to campus and community,” the statement read. “All sexes and genders are welcome at the University of Wyoming, and we deeply regret the harmful impact these words at our graduation ceremony may have had on those graduating as well as their families and friends.”
The statement also noted that people can be born intersex, meaning that they are not born strictly male or female.
“Intersex members of our community who have diverse chromosomal makeup should be seen and recognized,” the statement said.
Lummis’ comment on Saturday isn’t especially surprising given her legislative record surrounding gender and sex, same sex marriage and LGBTQ rights.
In 2013, for example, then Rep. Lummis cosponsored the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, meant to block the federal government from punishing a person for acting on their religious belief that only marriages between a man and a woman should be recognized. She also cosponsored the 2015 State Marriage Defense Act, which would give states ways to get around federal recognition of marriage equality.
The clash at Saturday’s ceremony echoes friction between UW students and government officials from this year’s legislative session, when lawmakers were considering a bill that would have banned transgender women from competing on female teams.
Much of the debate between lawmakers over that bill rested on whether or not those who are born male have an innate advantage over those who are born female when it comes to athletics. Some lawmakers were steadfast in their belief that there are only two sexes – male and female – and that these sexes have different levels of innate physical capability.
Lummis’ statement following the commencement ceremony seems to reflect that perspective.
“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 wrote.
Others said these differences aren’t so black and white, questioning traditional ideas around the physical capabilities of males compared to females, and whether it even makes sense to split people up into this dichotomy rather than considering gender and sex on a spectrum.
Several UW students gave testimony against the bill. Some of those who spoke told lawmakers that this kind of legislation doesn’t represent them.
One of those students, Riley Skorcz, a speech, languages and hearing sciences major, told lawmakers that she planned to leave Wyoming after graduating.
“Why? Because of bills like this,” Skorcz said. “Why would I want to stay in a state that repeatedly proves that they are not welcoming to LGBT people like me?”
Lummis’ comments appeared to have evoked some of those same frustrations among other UW students.
“Lummis implying that it’s a bad thing for existing laws and ideas to be questioned upsets me as I think it’s the job of each generation to question if laws and ideas created long ago still fit with our ideas and values as a society,” UW chemical engineering student Abby Gruner texted the Star-Tribune.
“This unwillingness to accept new ideas and replace old ones definitely frustrates younger generations such as my own.”
Former UW Student Body President Hunter Swilling, a molecular biology and physiology major, said in a text message to the Star-Tribune that Lummis’ comment was “immensely insensitive” in light of the fact that a UW transgender student died of suicide in September.
“I respect her right to free speech, but she should think about the hurt her words have the power to cause as one of the most powerful elected officials in the country,” he wrote.
People are scrutinizing notions around gender and sex all across the country right now.
Many states are becoming more restrictive around access to gender-affirming care, which helps people medically transition to the sex and gender they identify with. In April, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a measure that makes it a felony to prescribe gender-affirming puberty blockers and hormones for people under 19 years old. (A federal judge blocked part of the law on Friday while a court challenge goes forward). Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state officials in February to consider the use of certain gender-affirming treatments for transgender youth to be child abuse.
On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court gave the go ahead for some state child abuse investigations around families with transgender kids to continue after they had been stopped by lower courts. Other states — Florida, South Carolina and Utah, to name a few — are also leaning toward becoming more restrictive around transgender rights.