On August 13, 2012 little Zachary Dutro-Boggess celebrated his fourth birthday. The following day his mother - for want of a better word - beat him so hard that his intestines tore open and a few days later his stomach became infected and he died. Jessica Dutro, from Portland, Oregon, was worried that her son was gay: "He walks and talks like it. Urgh."
She thought she could beat this suspected homosexuality out of her son but instead she and her boyfriend Brian Canady took away his life. Words cannot describe the rage, disgust and sheer sadness I felt reading Zachary's story this morning – just as they cannot describe the fear, pain and confusion he must have felt as the people who were meant to care for him literally kicked the shit out of him.
Zachary could have been so many things. He was a beautiful little boy with a whole world of possibilities yet to discover. He'll never feel the joy of swimming in the sea with friends on holiday now; nor the thrill of his first kiss, or those tears you only get from laughing so hard that your stomach hurts – the only pain he should ever have felt in his belly. He'll never grow up to understand the cruel world that killed him. A four-year-old boy doesn't understand words like gay, or faggot or homophobia. When you're four you just exist and wonder at everything around you. You just are. So why couldn't they let him be? "Leave him be, he's not hurting anyone" – these are the words I remember from my own childhood when I, too, was being punished for "walking and talking" in ways that boys supposedly shouldn't. If only Zachary had grown up enough to learn that you have to watch how you walk and talk sometimes.
I was disgusted when I read Zachary's story but I wasn't shocked. For the past few years I've been taking part in Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual, global event to honour, and raise awareness of, the disproportionately high number of people who are murdered simply because they don't fit rigid gender roles. I'd love to say there are no children on the list but there are. One year we read the name of a baby who had been born with indeterminate genitalia, murdered, again, at the hands of a parent. One can only assume the ignorance and fear that leads someone to such a hideous act. But what sort of fucked up thinking leaves a parent believing that death is better than a child who doesn't conform to gender norms? Thinking based on lies.
In a society that lies, every day, about the wonderful, beautiful diversity of our human race, a society that pretends we all fit into neat little boxes of male and female, and places restrictions on us according to those boxes, people will freak out when they stumble upon natural human variation. Diversity is normal. In every society in every continent in every century there have been people who do not express themselves, either physically or emotionally, according to our current notions of what it means to be a man or a woman. The response to that perceived difference is a wide spectrum, with violence and bullying at one end and love and acceptance at the other.
I recently interviewed footballer Jaiyah Saelua, star of a new documentary about American Samoa's national football team and the FIFA World Cup's first transgender player to compete in a qualifying game. She is completely valued in American Samoan society. Seeing the love and respect she shares with her teammates in Next Goal Wins
was a bittersweet experience for me – sweet because I'm happy that transgender acceptance is possible and bitter that it is not happening everywhere. Watching Jaiyah contribute so much to her team and the lives of her peers was like peering into an unlikely alternate universe. Being a girly boy in American Samoa isn't a problem. You still get to grow up and reach your potential as a human being.
Why isn't it like that everywhere? What about the gay, bi and trans kids in Jamaica living in sewers after being thrown out of their family homes?
Or the little Indonesian boy murdered by his mother in 2011
because she thought his penis was too small? Or how about Roy Jones, just 17 months old, who was throttled and beaten to death in 2010 for 'acting like a girl'
. What is wrong with acting like a girl? Why are children being murdered because of it?
These are extreme examples but they are the radical manifestation of ideas that permeate billions of people's lives every day. That femininity is shameful. That women are inferior. That boys and men must express themselves purely in terms of violence, anger and heterosexuality. These ideas about gender hurt all of us. Not just trans people. Not just gay people. Not just women. When children are being murdered because they don't conform to our ideas of how boys and girls are supposed to be, we all lose some of our collective humanity. I want to live in a world where natural human expression is not punished by violence and hatred – and it already exists, in tiny tropical oases like American Samoa. If only little Zachary had been born there instead.
Follow Paris Lees on Twitter @ParisLees