A controversial bus that displays an anti-transgender message crawled through the streets of Boston Thursday, prompting protests and a demonstration of support from Mayor Martin J. Walsh on City Hall Plaza.
The “Free Speech Bus,” which recently raised eyebrows in New York, arrived at City Hall in the morning before making its way to the State House, and later to Cambridge.
The large vehicle is painted orange and carries the message “It’s biology: Boys are boys . . . and always will be. Girls are girls . . . and always will be. You can’t change sex.”
The bus is sponsored by several conservative groups, including the National Organization for Marriage, CitizenGo, and the International Organization for the Family.
Joseph Grabowski, spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, said the goal of Thursday’s visit was to raise awareness about issues surrounding “so-called transgender rights,” and differing viewpoints on legislation like the “bathroom bill.”
“Unfortunately, [the issue] seems to be on a collision course with other rights of other citizens,” Grabowski said, citing people’s religious liberties and the right to free speech. “We are trying to have a respectful policy discussion that considers everybody’s concerns.”
Members of the transgender community and elected leaders railed against the message on the bus Thursday, calling it discriminatory and hateful. One person reportedly tossed a cup of coffee at the vehicle.
After the bus stopped at City Hall, Walsh raised the transgender flag on the plaza with Alex Zafris, a transgender woman who serves as the mayor’s deputy director of scheduling, hours after the vehicle had left the area.
Walsh told a large gathering of college students, elected officials, and members of his administration that his office is “always going to support our transgender community and defend their fundamental rights.”
Walsh said he did not know about the bus’s City Hall visit until earlier Thursday.
But he had a message: “We will not be intimidated by discrimination or harassment,’’ Walsh said. “And we will not tolerate these types of actions. When you deny the experience of transgender individuals, you are denying the experience of basic human civil rights.”
At around 11:30 a.m., the bus was parked outside the State House, where people held signs and chanted, rallying against the words displayed on the vehicle.
The bus then continued to Cambridge, where students had anticipated its arrival. According to The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, the College’s Office of BGLTQ Student Life hosted a banner-signing event this week, after learning the bus would possibly venture to the area. The event was intended to reaffirm the office’s commitment to supporting transgender rights.
Freedom Massachusetts, which fights for the equal treatment of transgender people statewide, said the groups’ presence in the Boston area was “downright frightening.”
“This bus is the embodiment of the kind of harassment and discrimination that study after study documents our community combats on a daily basis,” said Kasey Suffredini and Mason Dunn, cochairs of Freedom Massachusetts, in a statement. “We urge our community — especially our vulnerable transgender youth — to remember that the overwhelming majority of Bostonians and Bay Staters see you and support you.”
Eric and Evas Nelson, of Sandwich, said they saw the bus outside the State House and were reviled by it. They said they had heard about its trip to Boston and wanted to go downtown to support their son, Logan, who is transgender and attends Emerson College.
Eric Nelson said that when he saw the bus he felt defensive at first. “You feel like you want to confront these people,’’ he said. “There is no rationalization” for what they are doing.
But, he said, there wasn’t much interaction between protesters and people on the vehicle. He saw only the driver and one other person on the bus, which, he said, left and headed to Harvard Square.
Their son, Logan, stood with dozens of people behind the mayor during Walsh’s brief remarks. He acknowledged he had not seen the bus but was shaken by its presence in the city.
“I find it really horrifying, especially after all the strides that we’ve made, that something like this moving vehicle of hate can just come into our city and spread a really toxic message,’’ Logan Nelson said. “But out of all of this it’s really good to see how quickly everybody responded.”
The bus operators are no strangers to confrontation. According to a website promoting the bus, the vehicle was heavily vandalized during a recent trip through New York City. The windows were smashed, and someone spray-painted the words “Trans Rights” on it.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com.