Bigot bus on tour: When “biological reality” is neither real nor biological

Zinnia JonesOn March 1, a bus in Madrid bearing an anti-transgender message from a conservative Catholic group was impounded:

The slogan on the bus read: “Boys have penises, girls have vulvas. Do not be fooled.”

A Catholic group, Hazte Oir, had planned to take it on a nationwide tour of Spanish cities.

The group said the ban was illegal and that it planned to acquire a new bus.

One message on the side of the banned bus states: “If you are born a man, you are a man. If you are a woman, you will continue to be one.”

It is believed to be a response to posters put up in northern Spain by a transgender rights group, which read: “There are girls with penises and boys with vulvas. It’s as simple as that.”

A similar bus, sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage, International Organization for the Family, and CitizenGO, later appeared on the streets of New York City:

The so-called FreeSpeechBus, is currently spreading its hateful message through the streets of New York City. The organizers behind the bus include the International Organization for the Family, labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the notoriously anti-LGBTIQ group National Organization for Marriage. The bright orange bus is covered in the message, “It’s Biology: Boys are boys…and always will be. Girls are girls…and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all.”

The transphobia bus

The transphobia bus.

The campaigners behind the bus defended its message:

But Grabowski said that people in progressive cities shouldn’t stay silent if they see a transgender person using a restroom that matches their gender identity.

“One of the purposes of the bus tour is to have people speak up if they feel uncomfortable and let the business owner know,” Grabowski said. “This can’t be considered transphobic or bigoted.”

The groups hope the rolling spectacle can grab the attention of lawmakers and the public, convincing them that opposition to transgender rights is grounded in science, not animus.

Asked if transgender women are women, Grabowski said, “No, we believe if you’re born a man, you’re a man.”

“They are a small segment of the population, with a disorder, that has quite a big megaphone for the demographic it represents,” he said. “This is not about live-and-let-live,” he added, saying transgender people pose an threat to norms of sex and procreation. “This is about what is best for the common welfare of society.”

The bus has since traveled to Boston and New Haven.

Most notably, the campaign does not explicitly lay out what they mean by “biology” or offer any kind of detailed model of human sex, nor do they bother to demonstrate why such a definition would be superior to other models of biological sex.

The models of sex that they do imply are (deliberately) oversimplified as well as self-contradictory. Rather than reaffirming a straightforward “biological” fact so fundamental and obvious as to need no explanation, the campaigners are expressing a philosophical preference toward a certain concept of human sex. The buses themselves illustrate that this is a matter of choices between possible constructions of this concept.

While the buses’ trans-denialist messages are defended as a matter of “biology”, they actually offer (at least) three distinct and mutually exclusive models of biological sex:

  • One – A woman will always be a woman and a man will always be a man; sex is thus an immutable trait.
  • Two – Women have vulvas and men have penises; a person with a vulva is a woman and a person with a penis is a man.
  • Three – Women have XX chromosomes and men have XY chromosomes.

Models One and Two conflict in the case of trans people: does a trans woman who acquires a vulva “become” a woman under Model Two, or will her one-time possession of a penis mark her as forever a “man”? Does a trans man who gains a penis “become” a man under Model Two or remain a “woman” still?

Models Two and Three conflict in that there are women such as those with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) who possess XY sex chromosomes, but develop much like typical cis women and possess a vulva (in one case, becoming pregnant and giving birth to a daughter with XY chromosomes).

Models One and Three conflict as individuals with CAIS and XY sex chromosomes almost invariably identify with a female gender throughout their entire lives.

So which one of these models represents the actual “biological reality” being offered? What makes one of these models more of a “biological reality” than the others? Did the meaning of “biology” change at some point on the way from Madrid to Manhattan?

The persistent references by transphobes to “basic biology” are a deliberate ploy: this is meant to simplify the life sciences to a kindergarten-like model that is so generalizing, it can no longer account for a certain percentage of the population who comprise an edge case of the construction of biological sex. The very concept is intentionally designed to exclude the complex biology that is necessary to describe the phenomenon of transness.

There are many biological aspects of sex which are deliberately disregarded by the campaigners. Sex hormone levels and other aspects of endocrinology are clearly matters of biology. The activation of estrogen and androgen receptors and the resulting changes in gene expression and phenotype, such as breast development or facial hair growth, are all biological in nature. Genital reconstruction surgery is also biological, and trans women’s vaginas, constructed from the penis and scrotum, have been found to differentiate over time into layers of vaginal tissue that are histologically similar to cis women’s. Gender is itself a component of sex, and gender is determined in part by biological traits; additionally, monozygotic (identical) twins have an elevated likelihood of both being transgender.

Yet all of these elements of biological sex go unrecognized. Why? What makes their definition of “biology” preferable over these? Justifying this specific model by saying “It’s biology!” is like arguing that Pluto is a planet because “It’s astronomy!” and providing no further details. Again, their determinist message is blatantly selective: they have chosen to reduce this model to simple syllogisms of XX and XY chromosomes, which cannot be changed, in order to show that one’s sex cannot be changed. This argument is not a persuasive one – it is merely working backward from a predetermined position. Such arguments typically do not fare well in court, where concepts are teased apart to find the most reasonable interpretations, and impassioned-yet-ignorant rhetoric is not simply accepted at face value.

Their sole remaining argument is that expressing these views is a matter of protected free speech. But all this demonstrates is that the umbrella of free speech can encompass some of the most noxious, abhorrent, and openly hostile expressions and viewpoints. This is the only justification that can be retreated to when the content of the speech itself is devoid of any merit and/or may have harmful consequences. One could use the broadcasting of trans-denialist messages on public streets to make this point, but one could just as well cover the bus in swastikas and Nazi iconography while playing the speeches of Hitler over a loudspeaker.

But this campaign, by its leaders’ own admissions, goes beyond free speech: they are open about their intent to persecute a marginalized minority by encouraging the harassment of innocent transgender people in restrooms. This will directly lead to more violence against us. In their own words, “This is not about live-and-let-live”, and their fascist-colored bus is their chosen venue for denying our freedom to live. Its sponsors are now finding out the result of willingly forsaking the mutual agreement to live and let live, as their bus is repeatedly vandalized and chased out of town by trans activists, antifascists, and other allies.

They cannot be surprised that people may decide that this bus and its message are not best for the common welfare of society – these are the terms on which they have chosen to fight. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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2 Responses to Bigot bus on tour: When “biological reality” is neither real nor biological

  1. Pingback: “Biological sex”, empirical backfire: How transphobes gambled on COVID-19 – and lost | Gender Analysis

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