Saturday, July 26, 2008

Newsweek, Take a Hike

The recent Newsweek cover story about the murder of Lawrence King is outrageous. Apparently the article’s author, Ramin Setoodeh, never got the “gender identity and expression aren’t always the same as sexual orientation” memo. (This indicates that Setoodeh managed to avoid any and all up-to-date queer, gender literature in researching this piece.) Setoodeh seems to have written the article in large part to indict and cast scrutiny upon Lawrence King’s gendered behavior: “[King] thought nothing of chasing the boys around the school in [high heels], teetering as he ran… Larry King was… a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon.”

Who knew that a single middle school student, and the victim of a murderous hate crime, had such power to shake the foundations of society? Setoodeh’s words carry an edge of paranoid fear that I’ve heard all too many times before; he sounds like so many men, straight and gay alike, who fabricate a (nonexistent) image of the terrifyingly feminine “male” in order to justify violence against male-designated, gender non-conforming individuals (particularly trans women). How many female-designated individuals in King’s middle school chase boys around and “teeter” in heels, wielding their sexualities “like a weapon”? Setoodeh doesn’t mention this, but apparently he doesn’t find that relevant in conversations about the “performance” of femininity. (If only Setoodeh could have seen the way I teetered the few times I was forced to wear heels in middle school, he might reassess his overly simplistic notion of authenticity.)

Blaming a fifteen-year-old’s femininity and flamboyance for his/her death does not encourage dialogue and prevent violent, transphobic hate crimes in schools. Setoodeh seems puzzled by the discrepancy between King’s death and his own observation of increased tolerance of gay people in the United States. He writes “California’s Supreme Court has just legalized gay marriage. There are gay characters on popular TV shows such as ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Ugly Betty,’ and no one seems to notice. Kids like Larry are so comfortable with the concept of being openly gay that they are coming out younger and younger.” Where does Setoodeh get his definition of “comfort”? And to whom is he referring when he says that “no one seems to notice” mainstream representations of gay people? Who knows.

Unfortunately, what “no one seems to notice” are the numerous murders of trans and gender variant people, particularly people of color, that have occurred in the past few months in the United States. In his rush to sugar-coat news and media representations of “gay people” – which, when examined closely, reveal themselves to be archetypes and caricatures of what straight people think gay people should look like - Setoodeh clearly missed those, too. Young people such as King are not the only gender non-conforming victims of violent crimes. Just two weeks ago, on July 17th, a trans woman named Angie Zapata was murdered in Denver. Sanesha Stewart, a trans woman who lived in the Bronx, was stabbed to death just a few months ago. The list of recent tragedies continues. (For more information, read the article “Queer, Dead, and Nobody Cares” at

What many people, Setoodeh included, haven’t observed is that increasing acceptance of “gay people” does not necessarily mean that anyone, adult or child, is becoming more aware of gender variance. Many self-identified gay individuals harbor intense and violent transphobia, as exemplified by transphobic gay and lesbian individuals like Janice Raymond and Jim Fouratt and the trans-exclusionary policies and sentiments that persist at many “women’s” events like the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.

Well-funded gay rights organizations routinely and unapologetically abandon transgender people. The HRC recently refused to include “gender identity and expression” in its nationwide push to protect LGBT people from employment discrimination. As justification for this omission, the HRC claimed that many unspecified “people” in the United States aren’t ready to respect transgender people’s rights, and therefore it’s better for the HRC not to advocate for them, either.

Suffice it to say, transphobia is prevalent in some gay and lesbian communities, and there’s a history to that. Since the 1950’s, and possibly earlier, gender non-conforming people have been denied seats at LGBT rights tables. The reason? Our supposed failure to assimilate to mainstream norms threatens the ability of wealthier, mostly white, college educated, gays and lesbians to access all of the resources they wanted for themselves. The Newsweek article applies that same, deeply hypocritical “logic” to label Lawrence King “troubled” and his behavior “harmful.”

Are schools prepared to tackle the topics of gender variance and trans-awareness? Unfortunately, most schools are as far behind in confronting gender variance as Setoodeh is. At my school, several colleagues and myself are trying to push for more dialogue around gender and gender expression; but it’s challenging when I can’t even share an article about King’s death with my students without being admonished by administrators and fellow teachers because they claim the topic is “too mature” for twelve-year-olds. I will say this much, though: A Newsweek article blaming a fifteen-year-old for his own death when trans and gender variant people across the nation (particularly trans people of color) are being killed left and right does not do a damn thing to help.


  1. The Newsweek cover story did not impugn or disrespect Larry King. It is impossible to fully grasp a story of this magnitude without understanding the issues behind it. In criminology, this is known as "victimology." Larry had 'issues' but that does not detract from who he was. Newsweek did a tremendous service by researching and publishing the story, as well as also giving it a place of prominence. All us deserve to learn as much about it as we possibly can before we fully form our judgements.

  2. Gender variance has always been a litmus test for homophobia.

    Lawrence King’s death was not his fault.

    Gender expression does cause irrational response in those people who feel threatened by any variation in gender behavior they subjectively perceive.

    As a child, I was taunted for being girl-like and labeled a sissy, a fag and a queer. I learnt early on of the cruelty, threats and physical violence those individuals threatened by my gender expression which did not meet their narrow definition of appropriate gender behavior were capable of utilizing. I also learnt how little protection from such attacks the private and public schools I attended provided me.

    This is why I have for many years supported safe school/anti-bullying legislature and education.

    One of the chief goals of radical feminism was to challenge these gender behavior rules and to expand the boundaries of what is acceptable gender expression to be inclusive of a very wide range of gender behavior for both male and female individuals.

    I have spent a lifetime fighting against the strict policing of gender expression because I believe it to be one the roots of both homophobia and misogyny.

    Your cheap shot attack on me does not negate either my belief or practice.

    Your attempt to label people like myself as transphobic because we see gender expression differently than you do is gender fascism at its most crude expression, To suggest that I or Ms Raymond would in any way not see Lawrence King as a victim of the kind of irrational hate and physical bulling is simply mean-spirited and wrong.

    I cannot speak for Ms. Raymond, but I believe that the passage of anti-bullying legislature is essential to protecting children in public education.

    I challenge you to cite anything that I have written that validates your wild accusation that some how I do not believe that Lawrence King was a victim of homophobia and gender expression repression.

    I do believe that sex identity should not be limited to a definition of gender expression and or subjective identify.

    In my view, it should be based on scientific evidence including but not limited to biological, hormonal and endocrinology data and not simply a person’s subjectivity.

    On this point, we may not agree, but that does not mean I do not support the right for any individual to control their body or for children to be educated in a safe enviorment

    While some activists have insisted that gender identity be included in any anti-bullying legislature, I do not. It is political definition, not a scientific definition. Language so fluid should not be codified in legal documents.

    Any adult or child should feel safe to be himself or herself and not be at risk because of their gender expression.

    I fight for that principle.

    Am I correct that we share this same goal?

    I stand with activists who fight for safe schools for all our children regardless of how OTHERS, including you, would label them or their gender expression.

    jim fouratt
    NYC 7/27/08

  3. Um, Jim?

    You said-

    "While some activists have insisted that gender identity be included in any anti-bullying legislature, I do not. It is political definition, not a scientific definition. Language so fluid should not be codified in legal documents."

    Think carefully now- then please explain the scientific definition of "the free exercise of religion"- pointedly vague terminology that has been codified in the US Constitution for over 220 years...?

    Similarly, would you apply your criteria equally to the decidedly un-scientific and fluid term "religion" that is codified as a prohibited basis for discrimination in employment and public accommodation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

    Sorry, you seem to be a reasonable person but this is a glaring inconsistency in your argument that fails under even the most basic logical scrutiny...unless of course you also think that a person's claim to be an adherent to any "religion" should also be based on "scientific evidence...and not simply a person’s subjectivity".