Galen Baughman is a star, a master of stand-up. Not stand-up comedy, although he is surely smart enough for that, but stand-up persuasion. Telling a personal story with modest, dignified eloquence, this presentable 32-year-old weaves a narrative that artfully compels the sympathies of a mainstream audience who might be expected to loathe him, for he is speaking as a so-called “sex offender”.

He stands, alone in the spotlight, for a TEDx talk delivered late last year to college students in New York about his nine-year imprisonment for sex with a willing 14-year-old boy, and his close brush with indefinite incarceration under civil confinement as a “sexually violent predator”. His presentation was released on YouTube on 26 January.

I was alerted to this by “Salem21” in a comment here on Heretic TOC last time, and emailed my enthusiastic congratulations to Galen after seeing the video. He replied saying “…we’re hoping that this breaks 100k views in the first thirty days and really raises some eyebrows”.

It should, so you might want to click over to YouTube yourself for a bit of that action.

Galen was still a teenager himself,  a 19-year-old college student, when he fell into the clutches of the law. He had been at the University of Indiana, studying at the university’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music to become an opera singer. He was sentenced in a Virginia court in 2004 to 30 years in prison for sex with a minor after having been charged initially with soliciting sex over the internet. The younger teen was a “sexually mature” adolescent, willingly involved. The boy did not want to prosecute, but his parents did.

A Guardian report significantly describes Galen as “gay”, which these days is a liberal media signifier of good-guy status. It is possible to tell a story of state injustice against a gay person but would the same sympathy have been extended to anyone perceived as “paedophile”, as could easily have happened in this case? No way! Not in the present climate, for sure. It is to Galen’s great credit that he has managed to present himself through TEDx and elsewhere as a likeable, regular guy – gay being the new normal – without putting anyone else down. Yes, he notes the “maturity” of his erstwhile boy partner, but the title of his talk, “Are we all sex offenders?”, hints at a bigger message, a message that is truly big on inclusivity and diversity.

The state, he says – and as all of us here know only too well – has gone crazily punitive, especially in the sex-law field, with more and more people, including children, being labelled as sex offenders for offences that give no offence, and for crimes that are not criminal. Instead of being reserved for a relatively small number of cases in which real harm is caused to real victims, the state lashes out indiscriminately with draconian measures. Anyone could be a sex offender, so the term becomes meaningless.

Because the laws have become so overly broad, he says, and because so few people commit a new crime after release, a child is “more likely to be labelled a sex offender, than to be abused by a sex offender” – and if that isn’t a killer observation I don’t know what could be.

Part of Galen’s long sentence had originally been suspended by the judge, meaning that after six and a half years he was due to be released. But the authorities told him they thought he might be too dangerous to let go. In 2007 he was informed he might qualify for civil commitment. A psychologist eventually arrived at the prison to conduct an assessment interview, to decide whether he was a “sexually violent predator”. He refused to answer questions unless he had a lawyer present. Instead of allowing the state to stitch him up with a biased official report, Galen hoped to introduce testimony from his own expert witness, a leading doctor who would have said he was not suffering from any condition making him likely to engage in sexually violent acts.

Galen took his case to a jury trial in a Virginia court. Even though the judge refused to allow evidence from Galen’s own medical expert, a jury of six women and one man decided he was not likely to be a “sexually violent predator”, thereby removing the rationale for holding him indefinitely in civil commitment.

He was the first person in Virginia ever to win such a civil commitment jury trial, and one of only a few nationally. He was released on probation, and subject to a state policy based on a “containment model” involving polygraphs and therapy sessions with a great deal of intrusive non-confidential questioning (anything said to a therapist could end up on a prosecutor’s desk) about sexual behaviour, including masturbation.

He wanted to resume his studies at the Jacobs School of Music but being on probation meant he needed permission from the governors of both states, Virginia and Indiana, to move from one state to  the other. He managed to overcome the Virginia block, but didn’t have enough political clout in Indiana to secure their cooperation. It would have needed plenty: after all, what state governor would want to be seen letting in a sex offender?

He does not drive a car because he fears any cop who runs his plate will notice he is on the sex offender registry and look for a reason to pull him over, if only to harass him. He still had six years on probation ahead of him at the time of the Guardian’s story in September 2013.

But all is not gloom. For Galen, unlike many whose lives are so routinely trashed by an uncaring system, there would appear to be a future in advocacy.

Following his release in 2012, Galen Baughman spent two years as the Director of Communications at International CURE, a grassroots advocacy organization, where he focused on policy analysis, direct advocacy, messaging strategies and grassroots organizing.

More recently, he resigned from CURE when he was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship. That’s Soros as in George Soros, the fabled progressive-liberal business magnate and philanthropist behind Open Society Foundations (OSF) an international grant-making network. The fellowship sees him at the Human Rights Defense Center, embedded in DC with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs. He is working to end the practice of civilly committing youth as sexually violent predators. He is a campaign strategist on issues related to sex offender policy and trains advocates around the country to build movements against mass incarceration.

He is a JustLeadershipUSA 2015 Leading with Conviction cohort member, and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Center for Sexual Justice.

Not bad, eh, for a guy who lost almost the whole decade of his twenties behind bars?

You might also like to read his article “Questionable Commitments”, published by the Cato Institute, which looks at the history and development of civil commitment.

 

ROOM WITHOUT A VIEW

If word reaches you that the first half of a two-hour movie is set almost entirely in a single small room and has garnered four Oscar nominations, your curiosity might be piqued. Mine was when I heard BBC film critic Mark Kermode raving about Room, an abduction drama that he rightly insisted, repeatedly, “is not what you think”.

What Kermode thinks we will think is that it’s all about “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), the evil abductor of a young woman who is kept locked in a windowless garden shed (there is just a skylight) and routinely raped for years on end while her toddler son is kept out of the way in a cupboard. Plus an escape drama in which the plucky kidnap victim triumphs against the odds.

Room has these elements but they are not the point. This is not a simple goodies and baddies story. The first half focuses not on the kidnapper or his dastardly deeds but on the small room where the victims are held captive, hence the title, and how mother and child make a life for themselves there – a surprisingly bearable one for the child as an infant because this is his whole world and he knows no other, except through the screen of a small TV. Indeed, the illusion that no other world exists is one the mother strives to maintain for the child as long as it is viable, much like the fiction of Santa Claus. In the second half, once the obvious baddy has been vanquished, subtler issues present themselves.

To say much more risks a spoiler so let’s switch focus to an Oscar nomination Room deserved but did not get: Best Actor in a Leading Role, for Jacob Tremblay, who is now nine, was seven as shooting started and plays the little boy, Jack, as a five-year-old. He is on screen for almost the entire movie and carries it off with apparently effortless perfection: not a single syllable or gesture is strained or unconvincing. In truth this probably owes a lot to director Lenny Abrahamson, up for Best Director, who allowed Tremblay to ad lib: an imaginative child will say interesting things that a kid would say and do things a kid would do better than any adult could script it – although another of the nominations is for Best Adapted Screenplay, by Emma Donoghue, from her own best-selling novel of the same title. Another is for Brie Larson, as Jack’s mother, “Ma”, who is nominated for Best Actress.

The film is also up for Best Picture, for Irish producer Ed Guiney, and I would put in a special word for Joan Allen as Grandma, and Tom McCamus, in a small but significant role as Grandma’s wise and sympathetic boyfriend. He is kind, and could easily be Kind.

Ultimately, though, it may be thought that no movie, even a beautifully crafted “arthouse” offering such as Room, would win plaudits in Hollywood without conforming rather tightly to mainstream mores. A film can ask some big questions, as this one does, about what it means to be a good parent and a good person, but it cannot afford to hint at the “wrong” answers. It cannot be subversive. That may be so, but this is a film worth seeing for all that.

 

ETHICAL  CARTOGRAPHY

Like Galen Baughman’s work, Cart O’Graph’s new channel on YouTube is far better than Hollywood for delivering usefully subversive content. Our host makes use of his moral compass to guide us over the ethical territory he has mapped out in over half a dozen videos so far. He writes:

“On this channel, I provide information and make rational arguments on the topic of Minor Attraction and Child Sexuality. I also speak with people who are Kind, to show that we are human beings. If possible, I will also engage non MAPs in discussions or debates. This is an informative channel, but I do hope to entertain as well.”

I checked out “Is Minor Attraction Wrong?”, a 12-minute talk piece, illustrated with well chosen stills, including wittily amusing ones. Cart, if I may be so familiar as to use his first name (!), modestly disclaims much knowledge of philosophy, but argues reasonably and presents some useful information. He cites James Prescott’s work, familiar to many of us here, on the link between a sexually repressive upbringing and the genesis of harsh, aggressive, violent attitudes and behaviours as kids grow up, and into adulthood.

He also mentions an “Express newspapers” report comparing the benign upbringing of French children, who typically get a lot of parental and other adult affection, including kissing, with that of their less fortunate American counterparts. Good information, but I found myself wanting to know the research source it was based on, or an exact reference for the press report at the very least.