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Transmissions: The curious case of Joseph Roman

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith  

Criminals make up excuses for their crimes. We've heard so many bad excuses for crime, that many such stories have become the things of legend, like the infamous "Twinkie defense" Dan White used as his explanation for the brutal slaying of gay supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. White's consumption of sugary snacks was somehow proof of the depression he was suffering, and that depression caused him to kill two men.

Or consider Josh Duggar, now pinning the assaults he performed on his sisters on the devil literally tempting him, or Keith Griffin claiming that it was his cat, not him, who downloaded over 1,000 sexually explicit photos of children to his hard drive.

Now enter Joseph Roman, a 38-year-old man in Chicago. He allegedly assaulted three girls, who were between the ages of 6 and 8. Like most sexual assault suspects, Roman was a friend of their families, which allowed him to gain access to these kids.

What makes Roman's alleged sexual abuse germane to this column is his defense. He has admitted to some of the attacks, but has an interesting excuse. He told Chicago police he is "a 9-year-old trapped in an adult's body."

His excuse is not novel. Indeed, the denizens of 4chan, a website known for, among other things, hard-core trolling, began to push a faux identity last year called "clovergender." Named for the clover shape that 4chan uses for its logo, "clovergender" is a trolling campaign that purports to foster positive awareness of "children trapped in men's bodies who are attracted to other children." The whole point of this is to delegitimize transgender and related identities.

I'm not sure if Roman knew of the 4chan trolling campaign, or if he came up with this excuse all on his own. Either way, the hard right latched onto him, with several websites such as Info Wars branding Roman as "trans age" and using him as a cheap jab at transgender people.

The thing that both 4chan and these other right-wing websites have attempted to do is conflate Roman's crimes with transgender people, and, specifically, transgender people using restrooms or other facilities consistent with their gender identity. This plays directly into the "transgender bathroom panic" that has fueled calls for anti-transgender and anti-LGBT legislation in places like North Carolina and Texas.

I should also note that this reminds me of Rachel Dolezal's "trans-black" shenanigans, but with an obviously darker - no pun intended - side. While Dolezal may well have been attempting to defraud people with her actions (she is a white woman who identifies as black), we should not forget that Roman allegedly assaulted three children.

That said, let's get one thing straight: Roman's defense, taken at face value, doesn't excuse his crimes. He can passionately identify as anything he wishes, but this doesn't change the fact that he was charged with assaulting three children. The same is true of any transgender person who commits a crime: our identity is not, in and of itself, a "get out of jail free" card. If anything, it is more likely to cause us to get harsher sentences purely out of anti-transgender animus.

This is the frustrating thing with the bathroom bills, let alone the stories about Roman or the clovergender nonsense. Being transgender in and of itself does not equate with sexual desire any more than anything else does, and there is no great transgender conspiracy that exists to get transgender people into sex-segregated spaces to commit sexual assault.

This is not deterring people such as Arkansas state Representative Mickey Gates (R), who has introduced House Bill 1894 as part of a trio of anti-transgender bills in his state. It will ban trans people from updating their birth certificate. His argument: "What happens if you have a guy and he's 24 years old and he decides he wants to be a 14-year-old guy so that he can have sex with a 14-year-old girl." Again, sidestepping that this is still sexual assault and has little to nothing to do with updating a gender marker on a birth certificate.

I will tell you this: transgender people are a wide and varied bunch, and under that umbrella are people who may fetishize attire coded for people opposite their birth gender. There's also the widely discredited, but still active, theory of "autogynephilia," by which researchers Kenneth Zucker and J. Michael Bailey conclude that most trans people have a sexual fetish for feminizing their bodies. If this world has taught us anything, it is that people can become aroused off of any number of things, real and imagined.

Likewise, there are people out there who role-play at being "little girls," and other forms of "age play." This, however, is more about playing at such a role, not assaulting actual children. Worth noting, too, that not all who do such are transgender, either.

Let's not get lost in the weeds here: none of the above falls within the dodge that Roman is trying. Even if there was validity to his claim, his alleged actions don't square with his supposed identity, nor are those actions a natural outgrowth of such an identity.

For those of us in the transgender rights movement, we have to continually explain that our identities are not something we adopt rashly. For many of us, we spend years, even decades, trying to fight against our transgender nature, then spend more time learning both self-acceptance as well as finding a place in this world to be ourselves.

Those who argue against our very identities would tell you that this is nothing more than a lark at best, and that one can easily change from one gender to another in order to commit any number of crimes, like some character in a cheesy comedy from the 1980s. Indeed, our hard-won identities are treated as something we would cast off whenever we may need to, while so many of us are facing hardships and remaining true to our gender identities or expressions.

I expect and hope that Roman will be convicted and spend a long time in jail, but his dodgy excuse will likely be with us for some time, reinforcing bigotry and hatred aimed at the transgender community. We must, and will, push back.

Gwen Smith isn't kidding around. You'll find her online at http://www.gwensmith.com.

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