Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Newsweek Gets It Backwards

Newsweek's cover story this month is entitled "Young, Gay and Murdered: Kids are coming out younger, but are schools ready to handle the complex issues of identity and sexuality? For Larry King, the question had tragic implications." [ http://www.newsweek.com/id/147790/page/1 ]

The reporter, Ramin Setoodeh seems to me to have concluded that it was because Larry came out and because he dressed in a vampy way and directed sexual and romantic comments toward boys at school that he was gossiped about, harassed and finally murdered. I would question the chronology. I am totally skeptical about the assumption that his behavior led to the other boys' hostility rather than their hostility fueling his behavior. Because it’s the latter that I have seen so often. A little kid starts out gender variant by nature, even in pre-kindergarten. But often subtly so. Then other kids' discomfort and grown-ups' refusal to address their discomfort or teach about stereotypes leads to their excluding that child from play and refusing to sit with the child at lunch. The teachers continue to hope the problem will go away.

In each grade, the class' meanness grows and teachers still don't talk with them about gender as a continuum rather than a binary concept. They don't even bring up female athletes or male dancers. In each grade, the targeted child tries new strategies to manage the hurt. One year, they will hardly talk at all. Another year, they'll talk nonstop. Often, eventually, they will become defiant and exaggerate what comes naturally: a gender expression others find discomfiting. Their peers' meanness -- and adults' refusal to address it in meaningful ways -- often accompanied by isolation from healthy well-adjusted LGBTQ role models -- precipitates the targeted child's using bitter humor and dramatic flair as a defense. And sometimes that works. Once you are clearly not trying to hide your sexual orientation or gender identity or whatever about you is different, it sometimes makes calling you "gay" anti-climactic and gets kids off your back. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. It didn't work, in the end, for Larry.

Know that I am not saying that transgender youth are necessarily exaggerating anything. I have no idea if Larry would have eventually identified as trans or not. I just imagine that, in time, Larry's spike heels and glitter might have given way to more garden-variety femininity or andogyny. If it hadn't, so what?

The point is that Setoodeh infers from his interviews, especially with Brandon's father, that the way to protect Brandon would have been to change Larry's behavior. But liking someone and wanting them to like you back is not a crime. Middle school is the time when most kids get crushes and tell friends. It doesn't sound to me as if Larry's behavior had risen to the level of stalking at all. If it did, then why haven't all the girls on that pre-Valentine outdoor quad been charged with stalking? Their behavior and Larry's appear to have been the same.

Maybe, rather than changing Larry's behavior, the most effective way to protect Brandon would have been to help him see someone's flirting -- even another boy's -- as flattering instead of insulting. We let homophobia and transphobia go unchallenged all the time and then we seem shocked when a young person becomes enraged at the thought that his peers might think he was gay. We let Brandon down not by failing to prohibit Larry from saying he liked him. We let Brandon down by letting him grow up believing that who Larry was (and who he would be by extension if he liked Larry back) was the worst thing a person could be.

And we let Larry down by letting his whole school grow up hating his difference and making his life there hellish. His femininity and his getting a crush didn't lead to his murder. Brandon's soul-searing transphobia and homophobia did. And adults' behavior, in turn, led to that.


  1. Schools really do need to lose the "hands off" approach when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. As we can see, that approach is not helping anyone. Schools need to start training teachers and staff how to address homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism before it becomes an issue. In NJ there is an organization called Answer that does workshops around these exact types of issues. Their web site is: hhtp://answer.rutgers.edu. I hope that Administrators will look into programs like this for their schools before it is too late for another student.

  2. Agreed, Beth. I just read the article and am posting some more thoughts - thanks for putting this out there!!!