Have you seen a sex offender? What did he or she look like? A caller to a public radio show last week thought he knew. “Daniel” was angry that Target, the national department store chain, is allowing transgender customers to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. “He’s got high heels and lipstick on!” Daniel exclaimed of some imaginary bathroom user. “What if he’s actually a pedophile going in there?”
If only pedophiles could be identified that easily.
This was in the same week that former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was sentenced to prison for financial crimes committed to cover up his sexual abuse of multiple children in the 1960s and ’70s. Nothing in his appearance or standing would have flagged him as a sexual predator. Quite the opposite: He was a white, Middle American, small-town wrestling coach.
And for eight years, that “serial child molester,” as U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin called Hastert last week, was just two heartbeats away from the presidency.
Child sex abuse, one of the most heinous of crimes, is also one of the hardest to catch because of offenders’ power and victims’ shame. Hastert’s history of abusing boys he coached might never have come out were it not for his paying one, who was 14 when the abuse occurred, $3.5 million not to talk. Later Hastert would accuse him of attempted extortion.
Even as Hastert was making these payments, law enforcement around America was pursuing other boogeymen. Black people were being pulled over disproportionately for offenses like broken taillights. Others ended up dead after police encounters that began for trivial reasons. Prisons were disproportionately filling with African-Americans.
And now state legislators are targeting other boogeymen — transgender people — on the same stated grounds that the caller objected to Target’s bathroom policy: Public safety. As if anyone who were out to commit a sex offense would deliberately draw attention to themselves.
North Carolina and Mississippi have passed laws restricting people’s bathroom use to their gender as assigned at birth. Mississippi goes even further. It allows individuals, businesses, medical professionals, social services agencies, schools and other agencies to deny service to anyone who offends their religious or moral convictions. That can include LGBT people, single mothers and people who have sex in any context other than heterosexual marriage. Government employees can refuse to issue marriage licenses and religious organizations can deny housing or employment to anyone who offends their morality.
A new Tennessee law allows therapists to reject LGBT patients on moral grounds. A Kansas Senate bill would allow any student who spots a transgender person in the “wrong” bathroom or locker room to sue the school for $2,500. In Oxford, Ala., not using the bathroom that corresponds with your birth sex could result in six months in jail.
These ill-conceived and inhumane measures reflect baseless fears of transgender people simply wanting to live their lives in a way that feels authentic. But while the morality police are on witch hunts, what actual crimes are they ignoring? Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky probably got away with 15 years of sexually abusing boys in his charity for underprivileged youth because adults looked away. The former university president and athletic director were charged with failure to report suspected child abuse and the endangerment of child welfare.
Yet in West Des Moines, Iowa, last year, Meagan Taylor, who is transgender, attracted the attention of a hotel receptionist, who called police saying Taylor must be a prostitute.
Sometimes the monsters are the people we’re most likely to trust. A slew of CEOs has had to leave their positions in recent years because of improprieties toward women. They include former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd, who was charged with sexual harassment; former Starwood Hotels CEO Steven Heyer, who was fired for sending inappropriate messages to a female employee; and former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, fired over claims of sexual harassment and defaming an employee.
The victim Hastert was paying to keep quiet said in a lawsuit seeking $1.8 million he claims is still owed to him, that the abuse caused him severe panic attacks, leaving him unable to hold a job for periods, and bouts of depression requiring hospitalization. Another victim said Hastert had been a key figure in his life, and that he had felt “intense pain, shame and guilt” over the abuse. A third victim, who was repeatedly abused by Hastert in high school, died in 1995 of AIDS, his sister, Jolene Burdge, told the court.
“You took his innocence and turned it against him,” she told Hastert, who has admitted to the abuses. Since the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes is past, the judge sentenced Hastert to 15 months for violating federal banking rules to pay his victim. “Some actions can obliterate a lifetime of good works,” Durkin said. Yes. But for some other people, all their good works can be obliterated for no reason other than being born into a race or gender that put them under suspicion.
(c)2016 Des Moines Register
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Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at [email protected]