The Transage Myth and the Film Sound of Freedom

Illustration: Brady Izquierdo

By Yadira Albet  (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – A recent Facebook post spoke about the box office hit this year Sound of Freedom (SOF), which has sparked controversy in the public sphere and media, and not only because of the issue it addresses, but also because of statements made by its leading actor, Jim Caviezel, producer Eduardo Verastegui and Timothy Ballard, CEO of the organizations Operation Underground Railroad and The Nazarene Fund.

Reading the analysis in this post, and others that talk about Sound of Freedom’s media controversy, the subject of adults who say they feel like children so they can sexually abuse real children comes up.

There is no solid scientific foundation for this behavior, also known as “transage”. Meanwhile, it also indulges other behaviors that are classified as diseases, and is used as an excuse, which has deliberately been employed by offenders of pedofilia-related crimes to free themselves of their sentences.

The concept doesn’t feature in mental health diagnosis manuals and isn’t related to the so-called “Peter Pan Syndrome” – fear of becoming an adult and emotional immaturity – and attempts to classify people who don’t identify with their biological age, but feel much younger. As well as not being backed up by any reliable psychological or medical research, it has been approved by the transphobic discourse on trans identity, putting the words “transage”, “transgender” and “pedophilia” all in the same sentence. The false analogy commonly used is: “if you let a person who identifies with another gender change their legal documents, you should also let a pedophile who feels transage to be a little girl and play and touch other little girls.”

Dismantling this hoax doesn’t help there being cases where people who have committed pedophilic sexual offenses claiming to be transage. One of the most high-profile transage cases was that of Joseph Roman, a 38-year-old man in the US., accused in 2018 of raping three girls, and whose defense team built the case under the claim that Roman was a “trans age” person and felt like a 9-year-old boy.

Despite zero success with this defense statement, many right-wing media outlets capitalized on this event to spread panic among families, insinuating that if progressive reforms linked to recognizing trans identities continued, a similar argument might well work in the future. Journalist Gwendolyn Ann Smith had this to say on the issue: “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.” The columnist for Pride Source magazine writes about other cases with absurd defenses for sexual offenses, that range from being possessed by the devil to blaming their cat, whereby Roman’s attempt to walk free from jail wouldn’t be very different.

Plus, a basic analysis of this case leads us to the psychological profile of a child. According to this profile, a 9-year-old child wouldn’t have the capacity to experiment sexual desire to the point of raping other children.

Another striking case was that of Stefonknee Wolscht, a 52-year-old man who decided to leave his family when he was 46 and live his true life: that of a six-year-old girl. Posts went viral claiming that he went to a school for children, where he could touch and kiss them without any ban because “he felt like a girl.” However, Maldita factchecking platform debunked this fake news, and the photo posted on social media in an alleged school environment, was in fact at a conference for adults at George Brown College.

It could be said that there is a greater opening and different critical movements of dominant rationalism (systemic, post-rationalist and gestalt) within the field of clinical psychology, but by not working with a gender-focused and complex approach and there still being a lot of disinformation about matters linked to clinical psychology, the door to other pseudoscientific movements has been opened. They pick up on some features and reconfigure them to answer biased opinions or conspiracy theories. But from that to coining terms that aren’t appointed to coherent or scientifically-proven theories, there is a gap that can be quickly salvaged, at the pace of global disinformation in the hands of influencers and celebrities.

First of all, age and gender identity aren’t the same thing, even though they model personality traits and the individual’s interactions with others and themselves, they have completely different psychological and legal implications. Drawing a parallel between them makes absolutely no sense. However, this is one of the lines of homo/transphobic speech, which contributes to exclusion and hate towards the LGBTIQ+ community, and it associates these rights movements for a marginalized community with pedophilia groups in popular imagination.

Secondly, other mainstream and trivialized trends by this discourse on social media (trans-species, transnationality, transracial identities) have contributed to confusion, bias and unfounded opinions that are going viral.

These kinds of discourse founded on misconceptions or the explicit intention to exclude minorities, is finding fertile ground in Cuban society where, in addition to machista tendencies and the homo/transphobia we’ve been dragging throughout History, have worsened people’s ability to analyze and critically assess things properly, which is due to a weakened institutional and social education system, disinformation campaigns from religious fundamentalist groups and the uncritical way the Cuban people receive products and messages published and spread in the news and Internet.

The only way to counteract this trend is to spread reliable, well-supported information and to encourage critical thought and education with a scientific focus. This is the only way we can progress towards a more free, equal, informed and inclusive society, where nobody is cast to the side because of what they think, their orientation and identity, with comprehensive sex education being a good path for us to see and recognize ourselves on this diverse spectrum, from a scientific standpoint, with civic spirit and empathy.

Now, in regard to the Sound of Freedom movie, praised by Mel Gibson, directed by a Christian production company (Angel Studios) and based on Timothy Ballard’s life, there are some matters that are worth pointing out.

When you search on the Internet for movies that deal with child trafficking, child pornography and the abuse of minors, you’ll find a long list of quality movies made over the past 20 years. Some were even based on real and famous investigations where companies, political figures, artists and the Church are exposed. There are also series, documentaries and short movies of campaigns that warn about the surge in child pornography, child trafficking and sexual violence against children, as well as the struggles against all of these phenomena.

One of these movies, Los demonios del Eden (2005), a documentary based on the book of the same name by Mexican journalist and activist Lydia Cacho, is a very valuable chronicle about the fight against child trafficking in Cancun. In this documentary, trafficking networks, politicians and companies involved were exposed with zero sensationalism and the result of a serious and brave investigation, giving victims a voice.

There are other movies that are just as profound and thorough, in the way that Sound of Freedom doesn’t deal with something new, or even done better, about the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

The controversy that broke with the film has many angles. One is in the fact that it was supported by QAnon, organizations and celebrities that defend conservative beliefs that are close to the far-right and religion. Another, is the alleged “desire to expose a global pedophilia ring” that is purely sensationalist and draws a stereotypical representation of sexual trafficking victims and the criminal networks that run it. The plot of Sound of Freedom shares common points with the US model of the white man savior and the happy ending of all his feats. It doesn’t save the viewer especially raw and repulsive scenes, and it shows naivety, a lack of depth and the poor script for some dialogues and situations. It’s a forgettable movie that deals with a serious issue from a trivial standpoint.

There is a real concern for the issue of the sexual exploitation of children and child trafficking, but… not all of the time, not everywhere in the world and most importantly: not for the same purpose. This is perhaps the most relevant point, drawing a line between the legitimate struggle for children’s rights and protection and the people that are using them to discredit the LGBTIQ+ community, feminisms, and other human rights movements. It’s understandable that the issue of “protecting children” moves many people (it should and needs to), so it has an excellent strategy to draw an audience, followers, celebrities that are promoting in and even sponsors. However, anyone can get on this boat and steer it wherever they want, not with any real interest of encouraging social change at every level to fight this scourge, but for their own purposes, whether these are political, religious, advertising, or economic.

Sound of Freedom is an example of how the tide can be manipulated, and like every manipulative product, it will bring together “examples” that people who have little knowledge of the subject with people who have very clear ideas against progessive movements within the context of Caviezel’s own words: “God’s children are not for sale.”

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