Death by Homophobia

Amid the publicity given to the shootings at Northern Illinois University, you may have missed the sad little story of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old Oxnard, California, eighth grader who was shot and killed in a school classroom by a fellow student. The shooting occurred following an earlier confrontation between King and other students over his behavior and manner of dress.

According to the Los Angeles Times, another student related that King, who said he was gay, “would come to school in high-heeled boots, makeup, jewelry, and painted nails—the whole thing,” and it was “freaking the guys out.”

King apparently regularly was harassed by fellow students. A student who described herself as one of King’s few friends said he told her that other students made his life at school miserable.

The murder seems to have elicited the usual witlessness from most observers. One woman told the Times, “What everyone wants to know is: Why did this happen? We don’t understand.” Well, lady, could it be, oh, I don’t know, maybe—homophobia?

Worse yet, the school superintendent stated that the school was wondering whether it should have done something different, or whether it was “just one of those terrible, unfortunate incidents that there’s not much you can do about.”

Would he have made the same comment if a white youth shot and killed the only black youth at school, one who wore dreadlocks, dark glasses, and hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with “Black Power” or “Thug Life,” and talked in black slang?

But no. School administrators affect denial that they have gay youths in their schools who are vulnerable to harassment and violence. Even if they know, most administrators are terrified to do anything about it. If they are not themselves homophobic, and some are, they are terrified of the reaction of parents and school boards if they try to take any gay-supportive actions.

Perhaps it is possible to ask a few questions. School officials were quick to lock down the school for several hours, but what did they do for the gay youth before his murder? Teachers who observed the ongoing harassment should have sent both youths to the guidance counselor to head off any violence.

Nothing excuses the shooting of a gay youth. But young King, after all, dressed in a way that he knew created a hostile reaction. Teachers and counselors should have advised him that it is fine to be gay, and self-expression has value, but in the real world, it has to be combined with prudence, and his behavior and manner of dress created unnecessary hostility and risk.

King reportedly was living in a foster home for abused children. But even there, shouldn’t someone have advised him against going to school dressed in a way that exposed him to harassment, and manifestly made his life miserable?

Ask yourself: What advice would you have given young King?

Seeing that trouble was a possibility, why did the school not sponsor a gay/straight alliance to create a support group for gay youths, and perhaps begin the arduous process of reducing heterosexual male homophobia? Will they start one now, perhaps named after King? Why do I doubt it?

Part of the problem is that King apparently was acting out his understanding of what it means to be gay. But I cannot think of any gay man I know who dresses in high-heeled boots, jewelry, painted fingernails, and makeup. Where did King get the idea that that is the way to express being gay? You have to wonder if the gay community’s lionizing of drag queen entertainers promotes that perception.

What King clearly needed was some other, less risky, ways to express his gayness. Heterosexual youths can assert their rapidly budding heterosexuality by teasing girls, beginning dating, making heterosexual sex jokes, etc. And, sadly, expressing hostility to gays is another way of doing so.

But what can gay youths do to express their homosexuality? We, along with parents and school personnel, very much need to find some ways. Participating in a gay/straight alliance, if there is one, would be one possibility. Doing school projects and term papers on gay issues and famous gays could be another. Would a gay Big Brother program for gay youths help? If these suggestions seem inadequate, e-mail me yours.

But a supportive school environment urgently is needed: Celebrating Gay History Month, holding schoolwide assemblies on gay issues, inviting gay sports figures to talk—that might impress those little homophobes.

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