UnFreeSpeech Bus

Last week the anti-trans #FreeSpeechBus started its US tour in New York City, just a day after the bus was vandalized, sparking a debate about the legitimacy of free speech claims in the heating debate over trans inclusion. For Canadians these sort of claim sound very familiar, as they are brought again and again in the discussion related to Bill C-16 sparked by the J. Peterson debacle. The bus, an initiative of three conservative groups, features the slogans: “it’s biology: Boys are boys… and always will be. Girls are girls… and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all.” In the holy war against trans rights, even science and free speech, the usual suspects of the Christian-right, are been called to duty. Yet, it will not be long before these newly recruits start backfiring, because neither science or free speech oppose gender variance.

The science of biology has moved way beyond the failed hypothesis of binary sex. Freedom of speech also includes trans communities’ freedom of expression. As I wrote elsewhere, science and free speech are scarecrows used to plant fear of trans communities in the heart of the public by making it look as if they pose a threat to freedom of speech and thought.

I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the organizers statement that “gender is based in biology, not bigotry”.  Stepping aside the long debate over the nature/nurture charter of sex/gender, it is safe to say that the actual science of biology and not a 19th century eugenics inflicted mirage of it, holds that sex is a spectrum.

After centuries of trying to mark a clear border between male and female, advancement in genetic research and neuroscience have found that the differentiation within the groups of birth assigned males and females are greater than between the groups. It is no longer scientifically valid to talk about a binary sex system and instead sex is understood as a spectrum. The sex/gender binaries are man made, not the spectrum.

I also agree that free speech is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of Western democracies.  Freedom of speech does not only protect one’s right to be offensive, it also protects individual and communities’ right to express their diversity. Gender variance is also a form of speech, not only slogan covered buses.

Absurdly, the #FreeSpeechBus ask to limit others freedom of expression. Conversely, trans people are not limiting anyone freedom of speech, if any it is their opponents who try to take it away from them. Free speech, like any other freedom, is a resource that is distributed among members of our society, it is not a free-standing entity given unconditionally to secluded individuals. The campaign fails to contextualize freedom of speech within the realities of social disparities, making invisible the maldistribution of the right to express oneself.

Trans communities are not alone in this, the recent ‘freedom speech’ attacks on them are part of a broader developing technology of oppression. Under neoliberalism it has never been equally distributed. In that sense, neoliberal freedom of speech is itself a cornerstone of the post-truth authoritarian age we just stepped into.

Boys are not always boys and girls are not always girls, they are constantly taught how to style their body, carry themselves in the world, how to walk and talk like boys and girls, and they are painfully punished if they do not obey. We all know the level violence enacted by parents, teacher and peers on the little ‘boy’ who wants to wear a dress to kindergarten or the ‘girl’ who refuses.

This campaign is not about science and free speech. Freedom of speech and thought requires a diverse society in which people are free to explore and play. Instead of pushing society insecurities about gender toward fear and hate of trans people, it is time to take a deep breath and apply the first role of the scientific method: asking brave questions about what you believe to have always been true.


Ido is a SJD candidate in the Sexual Diversity Studies collaborative specialization and the Faculty of Law. He is a Trudeau Scholar whose work looks at the experiences of trans communities in law.

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