It's surprising, even though it shouldn't be, to me that one of the most mainstream news publications in the US, in 2008, would be much more interested in dissecting the fact that a fourteen-year-old murder victim bought a pair of high-heels than the fact that the fourteen-year-old who murdered him was obsessed with Nazis.
But that's just the case, as we can see in Newsweek's cover story on Larry King, the gender-bending boy who was shot to death out in California five months ago. Paragraph after paragraph is devoted to Larry's more flamboyant actions (the way he teased boys who were bullying him, the fact that he had a crush on a boy, that he wore make-up to school, that he asked a boy, the same one who ended up killing him, to be his Valentine just days before he was shot), but a mere two paragraphs go to the boy who killed him, mentioning that he was obsessed with Nazis but brushing it off with a quotation from his father that his son's obsession was not inappropriate.
The level of dissection of Larry's flamboyance and the lack of attention given to any of the other possible contributions to the shooting sends the message that Larry got what he deserved.
Larry is portrayed as having stalked, sexually harassed, and bullied Brandon into a corner where his only possible response was pulling that trigger. While most of the garbage is presented in quotation format and various permutations of "some say" speculation, Newsweek was driving the editorial voice here. Consider:
At 14, Larry told Greg he thought he was bisexual. "It wouldn't matter either way to me," Greg says. "I thought maybe some of the problems would go away if we supported him." But the therapist told Greg he thought that Larry was just trying to get attention and might not understand what it meant to be gay. Larry began telling his teachers that his father was hitting him. Greg says he never harmed Larry; still, the authorities removed Larry from his home in November 2007.
Since when do authorities just take kids out of their homes without an investigation? Couldn't the journalist have tried to confirm any of that?
The question of how the Brandon got the gun in the first place is also mentioned, but no investigation went into that end.
But if one starts with the assumption that Brandon pulled the trigger because of and only because of Larry's actions, then there really isn't much need to look any farther. If only that mean gender nonconforming boy had left Brandon alone, he wouldn't have had to have killed him:
The staff at E. O. Green was clearly struggling with the Larry situation--how to balance his right to self-expression while preventing it from disrupting others. Legally, they couldn't stop him from wearing girls' clothes, according to the California Attorney General's Office, because of a state hate-crime law that prevents gender discrimination. Larry, being Larry, pushed his rights as far as he could. During lunch, he'd sidle up to the popular boys' table and say in a high-pitched voice, "Mind if I sit here?" In the locker room, where he was often ridiculed, he got even by telling the boys, "You look hot," while they were changing, according to the mother of a student.[...]
And then there was Valentine's Day. A day or two before the shooting, the school was buzzing with the story about a game Larry was playing with a group of his girlfriends in the outdoor quad. The idea was, you had to go up to your crush and ask them to be your Valentine. Several girls named boys they liked, then marched off to complete the mission. When it was Larry's turn, he named Brandon, who happened to be playing basketball nearby. Larry walked right on to the court in the middle of the game and asked Brandon to be his Valentine. Brandon's friends were there and started joking that he and Larry were going to make "gay babies" together. At the end of lunch, Brandon passed by one of Larry's friends in the hall. She says he told her to say goodbye to Larry, because she would never see him again.
The school, which was described as "comfortable" at the time when Larry showed up, apparently turned into a madhouse on crack after a few months of Larry King.
Like Cathy Renna posted this morning, there are some positive aspects to this story. Newsweek gave the story the cover. It will create a big discussion, front and center, about these issues. It provided some scientific perspective. It lay the homophobia of many of these teachers and community members out on the table.
And Cathy's right: it would be much worse if all this were swept under the rug, if gender nonconforming youth and the violence against them were simply ignored by the media.
And if the question were "Did Larry King's sexuality cause his death?" then this article would be an interesting exploration of that question. It's just that, by asking that question, Newsweek is already letting Larry, and all other not-so-normal kids, down. Because the first question in these situations should be why and how this happened, followed by what we could do to prevent it. By focusing on only one aspect of this story (the one that's the most dehumanizing for the victim), Newsweek is giving Blame the Victim much more credit than it deserves.
But when the article talks about the school's actions, it gets pretty deep into what a certain vice principal did:
Joy Epstein was one of the school's three assistant principals, and as Larry became less inhibited, Epstein became more a source of some teachers' confusion and anger. Epstein, a calm, brown-haired woman with bifocals, was openly gay to her colleagues, and although she was generally not out to her students, she kept a picture of her partner on her desk that some students saw. While her job was to oversee the seventh graders, she formed a special bond with Larry, who was in the eighth grade. He dropped by her office regularly, either for counseling or just to talk--she won't say exactly. "There was no reason why I specifically started working with Larry," Epstein says. "He came to me." Some teachers believe that she was encouraging Larry's flamboyance, to help further an "agenda," as some put it. One teacher complains that by being openly gay and discussing her girlfriend (presumably, no one would have complained if she had talked about a husband), Epstein brought the subject of sex into school. Epstein won't elaborate on what exactly she said to Larry because she expects to be called to testify at Brandon's trial, but it's certain to become one of the key issues. William Quest, Brandon's public defender, hasn't disclosed his defense strategy, but he has accused the school of failing to intercede as the tension rose between Larry and Brandon. Quest calls Epstein "a lesbian vice principal with a political agenda." Larry's father also blames Epstein. He's hired an attorney and says he is seriously contemplating a wrongful-death lawsuit. "She started to confuse her role as a junior-high principal," Greg King says. "I think that she was asserting her beliefs for gay rights." In a tragedy such as this, the natural impulse is to try to understand why it happened and to look for someone to blame. Epstein won't discuss the case in detail and, until she testifies in court, it's impossible to know what role--if any--she played in the events leading to Larry's death.
If they wanted to present Joy Epstein as radical lesbian pushing a homosexual agenda above the welfare of students, they pretty effectively did that in this article. It goes back and forth on how this school wanted to do something about Larry, but the lesbian vice principal was standing in the way with all her talk about "rights" and "free expression."
I just wish that we could have started this discussion from there, started with the idea that Larry could express his gender has he pleased (within reasonable, not-gender-related limits) and then question why this happened. When the Columbine High School shooting happened, no one was asking if the popular kids that were killed could have prevented their own deaths if they were less out-spoken or drew a less attention to themselves.
And the shooters were investigated by the media, their parents asked again and again how their kids got guns and why they didn't notice their darker obsessions, and the image of those teenagers who shot their classmates wasn't pleasant or sympathetic.
But shoot a faggot? Well, maybe someone will ask the important questions. But, jeez, who cares how that kid got a gun? Larry was pretty much asking for it.
Update: An emailer just pointed out that the article is entitled "Young, Gay and Murdered," but King identified as bi, in his own words. I don't think that he had to be pinned down to one sexual orientation at his age, and the attack probably had more to do with his gender expression than his sexual orientation (although that can't be discounted either since he did ask Brandon to be his Valentine the day before he was shot). But if they're going to use his sexual orientation in the title, they ought to have used the one he used.
So, bi invisibility even when the person in question specifically identified as bi?