At approximately 8:25 p.m. last Sunday night, the New York State Police on Long Island logged a 911 call about a toddler in cardiac arrest. The boy, 17-month-old Roy Jones, was rushed from the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, N.Y. to Southampton Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 9:11 p.m.
According to authorities, the toddler had endured a savage beating. His tiny body had been repeatedly punched with closed fists and grabbed by the neck. By the time 911 had been called at dusk, he was already in cardiac arrest from the sheer brutality of the assault and it was too late to save his life.
Charged with manslaughter in the first degree and held without bail is the toddler's mother's live-in boyfriend, 20-year-old Pedro Jones, who was babysitting. The pair lived together on Shinnecock Nation tribal land, though Jones himself was not a member of the tribe. They were reportedly to marry, and Jones called the toddler "my baby," though Roy was not, in fact his baby.
"I was trying to make him act like a boy instead of a little girl," Jones explained. "I never struck that kid that hard before. A one-time mistake, and I am going to do 20 years."
He told troopers that the little boy had been too feminine and that he'd been trying to toughen Roy up by literally beating the life out of him.
"I'm sorry," he said "That's my baby. I loved him to death."
A nominally civilized society such as ours can only recoil in horror at any news of a child's death at the abusive hands of an adult. Infanticide is the ultimate forfeiture of our humanity, rightly seen as a perversion of the very essence of the natural order and the circle of life. The act is a declaration of such abject monstrosity that is very nearly beyond forgiveness. But it happens every day, and we guiltily avert our eyes to these stories when we read them because, on some level, we realize that the children could easily be our own and the pain is too much to bear. In 2008, in the U.S. alone, the Department of Health and Human Services reported 772,000 cases of child abuse, resulting 1,740 fatalities--a sharp rise from 1,330 in 2000.
But there is an added and significant dimension to the tragedy. The reason given for the beating is that, even at 17 months, the toddler was perceived by his killer to be effeminate. Madhouse logic indeed, but to Pedro Jones there was a way that little boys should act and a way little girls should act.
While Jones is a tragic example of the paradigm taken to deadly lengths, society's discomfort with gender variance permeates nearly every part of the national dialogue and runs through every part of the culture.
It's present in the heightened male objectification of women inherent in certain types of music videos that present them as "bitches" and "hoes" who crave an answering violent thuggishness from their men. It's present in advertising that teaches young women that they're essentially a life support system for their physical assets, that the ideal woman is a weak-willed, mindless consumer of frivolity, whereas a "real man"--stronger, but stupider--is waiting for nothing more than the arrival of the Swedish Women's Nude Basketball Team with cold beer.
There are coded echoes of it in the leading and prejudicial questionnaire put to servicemen and women this spring by the Pentagon regarding the viability of openly gay soldiers serving side-by-side with heterosexual ones. The document is mined with phrases that seem crafted with unease on the part of straight male soldiers as a goal, fears that their gay counterparts might not be "real" men but something inferior, less masculine, less reliable in a firefight.
It was there in June of this year when the Family Research Council hailed Republican Governor of Rhode Island Don Carcieri for vetoing hate crimes legislation that would have included transgender-identified persons as a protected class. Gloated Tony Perkins, the president of the organization, "[Governor Carcieri] deserves praise for his strong stance for the Families of Rhode Island, and other Governors can learn from his example." Perkins neglected to explain how excluding transgender people from hate crime legislation had anything to do with protecting families.
It was there in the Hieronymus Bosch-level grotesquery of the lies, distortions, and misrepresentations of the lives of gay and lesbian couples used by the Proposition 8 supporters in their now-failed battle to make their horror of sexual and gender variance the law of the land in California by codifying their bigotry at the ballot box and in the courts.
It's endemic in fundamentalist Christianity, which claims Biblical authority for rigid gender roles and, more importantly, the appearance of rigid gender roles. Psychologist and Southern Baptist minister George Alan Rekers, co-founder of the Family Research Council and formerly of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) who, until he was caught this year flying a gay rent-boy to Europe to "lift his luggage" and give him nude sexual massages, was best known for sharing his wisdom on how to "cure" homosexuality.
A May 2010 article in the Miami News by Penn Bullock and Brandon K. Thorp reported on Rekers' 1974 "Feminine Boy Project" at UCLA. The article highlighted the story of a 4-year-old-year old "effeminate boy" named Kraig was subjected by his parents to Rekers' aversion therapy.
Part of the therapy involved putting Kraig in "play-observation room" with his mother, who had instructions to avert her eyes from her child when he played with "girly" toys. An essay by Stephanie Wilkinson published in Brain, Child magazine in 2001 recounts that, during one of the sessions, Kraig became so distraught and hysterical at what must have seemed to the 4-year-old like the withdrawal of his mother's love, that he had to be carried out of the room by the staff. At home, the "treatment" continued, with Kraig being rewarded for "masculine" behavior and spanked by his father for "feminine" behavior.
After two years of treatment, apparently "cured" of his effeminacy, Kraig was held up by the psychologist as proof that his treatment worked until, at 18, shamed and scarred by his diagnosis and treatment, Kraig attempted suicide.
Last summer, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover who committed suicide in his mother's house after months of taunts about how he acted "like a girl" and therefore had to be gay. His mother had to cut down his dead body from the support beam from which he hung himself. The previous year, a 14-year-old classmate killed 15-year-old old Lawrence King, of Oxnard, CA because King came to school in lipstick and nail polish.
As a society, we equate masculinity with force, with violence, with aggression, with being "tough" and invulnerable. We celebrate it those things as virtues. To a widely-varying degree, we look with disdain, or pity, or condescension, or amusement at too much deviation from the prescribed norm. And we occasionally exact a terrible penalty for stepping outside those rigid parameters.
The beating death of 17-month-old Roy Jones was no less a hate crime because the victim was a baby. Whether would have grown up to be gay, or transgender, or just a gentle, sweet-natured straight boy, was still many years away. More, it was irrelevant.
The attack, and the apparent impulse behind it--that a violent man was made uncomfortable by a even a perceived variation on gender-normative behavior--is exactly what makes transgender and gender-variant Americans among the most vulnerable segment of the population, and children who even appear gender-variant are the most vulnerable of all.
It's still early in the investigation and there are naturally more questions than answers at this point. Doubtless, facts and details will emerge about Pedro Jones along with the very real possibility that he endured horrors of his own that helped craft what he later became. It's too early to paint him as a monster, or at least as a one-dimensional monster. With few exceptions, monsters are made, not born. They are still monsters, but they are carved with the hurtful blows of many sharp chisels, over many years.
At the very least, his own violent psychopathology notwithstanding, someone, somewhere, taught Pedro Jones that the worst thing a little boy can do is act like a girl. In the end, it matters precious little when or where he learned it, because a 17-month-old toddler ultimately paid a terrible price for that lesson.
On Sunday night, his little body wracked by agony, blackened with bruises, beaten within an inch of his life, gasping for breath in a world suddenly full of more pain than he could bear, his little light flickered and vanished into the darkness.
Maybe this time, when we read about the death of Roy Jones, before we look away and try not to think of our own children and how truly defenseless they are, not only against violence, but against an adult's determinant view of who and what they might be, we might examine the way in which we see our society and the complex mosaic that makes up our fellow citizens.
We might say a prayer of comfort for his family, then ask ourselves what his death might say about us. We might ask what our role should be in shaping that world and, by definition, in shaping how our children will come to see themselves as citizens of it.