July 21st, 2008
Newsweek has as its cover story an account of the tragic Larry King case. In case you haven’t heard about this, 15 year old Larry was shot and killed by a male classmate after asking him to be his Valentine. It has led to some violent debates around the issue of young people’s sexuality – with some claiming Larry’s case as a shocking landmark in gay history, while others arguing it’s not a gay rights issue but more about gun control and failing education systems.
Having read the detailed account from Newsweek I’m left feeling that while they have covered the bases there are still problems with the reporting. Perhaps that’s because journalists, like all the rest of us, are raised in a predominantly conservative society that at best feels uncomfortable tackling homosexuality, and at worst is homophobic. Which means when you come to cover a story about a sensitive and complex issue, subtle (and not so subtle) biases creep in.
Examples include an opening statement to the piece where Larry was described as dressing ‘flamboyantly’ and that he had ‘hit on a classmate’ – phrases that perhaps would not be used (or perhaps would not be so meaningful) if applied to a heterosexual situation. Larry’s actions are also listed – not only did he dress flamboyantly, it seems he wore women’s clothing, high heeled shoes (that he ‘teetered’ in) and sometimes more makeup than the 13 year old girls at his school. Clearly alongside describing the case there is a perhaps unintended subtext of blame – Larry dressed on occasion in female clothing and made no secret of finding boys attractive – so the shooting of him after telling another boy he found him attractive is suggested as an inevitable outcome.
Frequently within the piece Larry is referred to as being gay. This is despite lengthy references to his cross dressing and an acknowledgement that he wanted a sex change. A more accurate and helpful description would be transgender – and perhaps rather than seeing Larry as a gay boy the journalists might have explored whether Larry wanted to be a girl. Something he requested from his school when he wanted to be referred to as Leticia (teachers refused to do so).
Clearly this is a dreadful case with devastating effects on Larry’s family and friends. Blame is now being apportioned, with a teacher who supported Larry becoming one target (with her sexuality being partly criticised), while perhaps issues of school funding, managing bullying, teacher education, awareness of sexuality and above all gun control are being sidelined.
The Newsweek feature states “kids like Larry are so comfortable with the concept of being openly gay that they are coming out younger and younger”. A sentence which again carries the connotation that there’s something sinister going on. Most young people who are gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender/sexual are aware of their sexuality from a young age – in the same way as heterosexual kids are aware of their sexual feelings. In many cases young people may not acknowledge or give voice to these feelings because they are afraid to, do not know anyone else who is like them, or have noone they can talk to. We’re not seeing some epidemic of young people coming out as though there’s been some terrible influence on them to seem gay, what we’re seeing is some children feeling either able to express how they feel, or society beginning to wake up to the varied forms of sexuality teens have. I wonder if the same tone would have been used if Larry had been a girl who had told a boy she fancied him and got shot because he didn’t feel the same way about her.
It is difficult for many journalists, parents and educators to understand sexuality – particularly how our understanding of sexuality has progressed. Which is why discussions of this issue are often uncomfortable, stilted and unhelpful. Teachers, parents and journalists need support to understand that some kids are gay, some are bi, some are transgender or gender variant. We need to be able to talk about this in a clear, nonjudgemental and frank way.
The writers of the Newsweek piece have done well to bring a shocking story to the public’s attention and to try and cover all the angles. They could have done a lot better to try and understand sexuality in a more sensitive manner as it might have strengthened their coverage further.
One excellent resource that should be read by anyone with an interest in this area is Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s The Transgender Child which gives practical advice and information for parents and professionals about children and teenagers.
Sadly cases like Larry King’s will continue to happen so long as we muddle being gay with being transgender, and while we continue to apply negative connotations to behaviours that we wouldn’t see as a problem in straight kids.Tweet