Cathy Renna

Newsweek on Lawrence King: News or not?

Filed By Cathy Renna | July 21, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: coming out of the closet, gay hate crimes, gay kids, hate crimes against LGBT people, Larry King, Lawrence King, LGBT youth, media, Newsweek

This week's cover story in Newsweek - which we should all recognize is a HUGE deal given the elections, economy and other issues happening in the world - is focused on the two intersecting LGBT issues: the plummeting age of coming out and the horrific murder of Lawrence King. While nowhere near perfect (what journalism is?), this feature tries to explore larger issues related to the coming out experience for the current generation of teenagers. "Young, Gay and Murdered" is quite the provocative title but I believe that the writers and Newsweek were thoughtful and well intentioned in writing this piece. You may not agree.

The reality around this article is this: it had been in the works for a long time, partly because it began as a piece about the lower age of coming out. Full disclosure: I was working with this reporter on behalf of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, whose Family Acceptance Project is conducting groundbreaking research on LGBT youth and coming out. I also helped the reporter find several young people with a variety of coming out experiences via other clients. Then, in 2005, Time magazine came out with a cover story on gay youth and the piece was delayed.

Lawrence King's murder served as a way to write about this issue once again, this time with a tragic but timely news angle. Ryan's work has show the mean age of coming to now be about 13 - onset of puberty - when frankly, everyone realizes what turns them on, so it makes sense. Is our culture, schools, parents and others ready for it? I do not think so, not by a long shot. Things are better for sure, but in our paradoxical culture where youth are both over-sexualized in advertising and media and then expected to "behave" it makes for a messy mix for all youth.

As I said, this article is not perfect. Using the word "flaunt" about Lawrence's behavior is a real emotional trigger for most of us, and of course it would never be used for any other behavior but that of LGBT people. Many of the quotes from local individuals are very unforgiving - no one seems to recognize that both of the young men involved had troubles and issues - and the true blame lies with the school and our institutions that have not caught up with a generation of more empowered, proud and comfortable youth, LGBT and non-LGBT, who express themselves unapologetically.

As someone who has spent decades trying to help journalists understand the double standard that is placed on out community, particularly around the "gay panic defense," it was painful to read this article. But as a media activist is is hard to judge the messenger - especially since I have interacted with him. Journalists who provide an assessment of a situation or event - often through the judgments of other - does not make them judgmental.

I look forward to debate and discussion about this. Sophisticated coverage of issues this complex rarely get the kind of platform a Newsweek cover provides, it should be interesting.


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I have no opinion as to the intentions of the publishers. I'm Australian, and there are subtle cultural differences that confuse the issue.

What I do know is that from the comments, a substantial proportion of readers gained the impression that Larry King was stalking his murderer, and was guilty of sexual harrassment and even bullying.

Eric Georgantes | July 21, 2008 11:01 AM

To be perfectly honest, if I had only read the first few paragraphs and had no prior knowledge of this, I would also be under the impression that he was chasing around other boys, making unwanted advances on them, and one of them ended up shooting him.

Later on, it does talk about the hows and the whys of why he behaved that way, but I imagine descriptions of a boy with stilettos and nail glitter chasing around other boys sets off some negative connotations for some people.

I don't know; it just seems so focused upon his "flaunting" behavior that it isn't hard to see where people reading the article got that idea.

Cathy,

Thanks for bringing this to attention - i work at Edelman and am always wanting a bit more attention to the way media is covering LGBT issues on here.

I have to agree Zoe on the questionable editorial direction of the Lawrence King murder. However I really enjoyed the piece on the plummeting ages of youth coming out. I work with and belong to the metro Chicago PFLAG chapter and at every monthly meeting there are about 2 to 3 new families dealing with a son/daughter coming out. All of these teens are under the age of 16. Just yesterday I was speaking with a woman whose son, aged 13, just came out to her.

Now the topic of pre-teen dating of out children, and new online dating dangers, are a constant discussion in our group where as 7 years ago when i came out in HS it wasn't the case. It's interesting how fast things have changed.

Thanks,
Matthew

I have always had mixed feelings about the Harvey Milk School in NY on the premise that GLBT people shouldn't have to attend a separate school to be safe. Stories like this remind me that, in the real world, these kids need a sanctuary.

My first and strongest response is to applaud the story and the fact that it went as a cover story. So there are some issues with it but we can now discuss those issues in that much larger forum. So it has opened the door to asking while a straight kid winking or flirting is seen as fine but a bi, gay or lesbian kid is seen as flaunting. But without that door opened and the venue made available we would not have entrance to this forum. It will be interesting to see what letters to the editor they choose to publish.

"...a substantial proportion of readers gained the impression that Larry King was stalking his murderer, and was guilty of sexual harrassment and even bullying."

So this is reason for murder? Isn't that the impression that the "gay panic" defense is supposed to give?

Newsweek probably used the term "flaunt" in regards to Lawrence's behavior because the magazine is meant for the lowest common denominator of people - this being the group of people who think that any gay person who lives an honest life is flaunting themselves.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | July 21, 2008 1:18 PM

I worked at Newsweek as a reporter in the San Francisco bureau while I was in journalism school. My biggest criticism, and it's a serious one, was that the editorial staff in NYC decided what the angle for stories would be; any reporting that contradicted that angle never made it into the stories.

I haven't read the story in question here, but it sounds like the editorial policy remains alive and well.

What most grabs me about the Newsweek piece is the set of observations about middle school-aged youth. I live with two of them--my children--and have experienced first hand how utterly irrational they can be about the most minute details of life. Clothing, homework, nascent romances, text messages, social networking, school yard gossip. Never mind the big stuff: bullying, precocious sexual behavior, drugs, alcohol, and dangerous/damaging choices affecting the rest of their lives. I have come to understand that what every middle school-aged young person needs, more than anything else, are engaged, loving and very attentive adults, whether parents, teachers, coaches, ministers, family friends. Some one or two adults to help young people make choices that affirm their identities without harming themselves or other people. In other words, good judgement and reliable feedback to help guide a young person through this most turbulent and terrifying time of life. Larry and Brandon both lost their lives that day, and seemingly, without adults to intervene on the tragedy unfolding in front of them.

But as someone who's done some basic PR work, it's never a perfect story unless you've written it yourself.

Now I'm going to click over to read it and see for myself.

This story grabbed me from cover to denoument.

When I first read the headline, I was thinking, "without a doubt this was a hate crime".

As I read further, however, I started realizing that this tragedy could have been prevented with several bi-laws that are successful in other schools. I know, because I am a teacher that helps enforce these rules in a public middle school.

The first bi-law that we have is that all kids must adhere to a dress code: blue or yellow collared shirts, tucked in, a belt, black or brown shoes, and khaki slacks. I work in a working class school where some kids wear the same uniform 3 or 4 days in a row. It is, however, mandatory for a reason: We do not allow students to show off fashion trends, seductive clothing,gang colors, or antagonizing t-shirts, etc.

"Flamboyance" (a word used in Newsweek)is not tolerated by either sex. Bullying is not tolerated by either sex. Harrassment is not tolerated by either sex. Pupils at our school know these rules, and those who don't, learn them quickly.

This is not a case of freedom of expression. This is a case of allowing a student to make a mockery of an educational institution. This is a case of a student being allowed to be the "alpha" and creating a three-ring circus.

The principal and other teachers, without a doubt, perpetuated this behavior. Giving a dress to a student that is already loves antagonizing other students with his cross-dressing? This teacher assisted Brandon with pulling the trigger.

As for the real hate crime of Matthew Sheppard. Matthew Sheppard's murder was brutal, calculated, which entrapped a homosexual boy into a situation that he did not perpetuate. He never harrassed or was bombastic towards heterosexual males. He was an intelligent, successful student who attempted to spread tolerance and peace among those who drew the line between "sin" and "preference". He was a boy who was tortured without provocation. He, indeed, brought the law of "hate crime" to justice.

Bullies, regardless of sexual preference, as we have found with Columbine, are antogonists. They should, BY NO MEANS, be applauded or be praised for some sort of retribution. They, also, harm the structure and semblence of an educational institution. Students, such as these, in our school are usually suspended.

This is the end of my diatribe so take it for what you will. It is obvious that I am not a "gay basher" or require tolerance training. I do, however, enforce rules. Schools are not institutions for disruption or harrassment. This should not be tolerated by any student regardless of sexual orientation.


This is the end of my diatribe so take it for what you will.

Thanks for leaving a comment. I hope we do take this for what it is: proof that mainstream media outlets need to be responsible when it comes to representing these issues.

My take on the articles position on Larry flaunting was that the adults felt limited in there ability to stop him.Dress codes were violated and so was inappropriate behavior.The article does state that Larry seemed happier after being removed from his father and that was also when his cross gender dressing began.I don't see the story as necessarily blaming Larry's behavior for his death instead I see it blaming the actions of adults.Wether the Lesbian Vice Principle deserves some of the blame or not should only be decided after all the facts and her testimony has been made.Those accusing her for their inability to straighten out Larry should also face equal scrutiny.Amy

Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | July 22, 2008 3:01 PM

this article - and rightly so - has caused a lot of discussion, not just about the quality of the article (subjective and debatable) but also the issues. it will be interesting to see what larger media discussion this prompts, if any - usually a cover like this has the potential to spark other media (the pack mentality, as I call it) to "remember" this incident and cover it

the sad thing is that the last time a cover was devoted to an lgbt hate crime was Matthew Shepard - almost a decade ago - how many other lgbt people have lost their lives or been in some way harmed by prejudice in the past decade?

battybattybats battybattybats | July 23, 2008 12:11 AM

Anne. Thankyou for your considered comments.

I disagree with just about all of them utterly.
Let me exlain why in as equally a considered way as I can.

In Australia we have strict uniforms. Every school I went to (8 in total iirc we moved a number of times and I shifted school to avoid increasingly violent bullying at each place we moved to) had strict uniform policies. Often the uniforms had school logos on them.

Do I think that school uniforms cut down on disruptive behaviour and bullying? No, not one iota. I had to change schools to try to avoid repeated violent attacks in several towns in both primary and highschool.

Why did i suffer this violence? A number of issues. I wore glasses in primary school (along with the normal 'four-eyes' stuff because of the photo-active lenses I was criticosed for weeks for 'ruining' the school picture for not removing them and had them stolen and the arms twised off the next year so I couldn't wear them in the school photo), I was racially missidentified and suffered racism, I was bright and suffered anti-intellectualism, I did not share what was considered gender-related interests (football, cars etc) and had gender non-conformist interests (writing, reading, art etc all of which were considered 'girly') and I liked sci-fi themed covers for my stuff so I was persecuted for that too.

Non-conformity was considered a problem. Even the teachers participated in the verbal bullying of non-confomist students admonishing them for 'not fitting in'.

Any remaining self expression was suspect. Excercise book covers, lunch boxes, pencil cases, stationary, school bags, hair cuts (occassionally haircut rules had to be regularly changed to stamp out any popular new trends) all had the possibility to be considered 'disruptive'.

Strict uniforms, strict rules against 'flamboyant' self expression. I've lived it. It's soul-destroying. It stifles creativity. It punishes individuality. It oppresses entire groups of students. It encourages conformity of behaviour and of thought. It entrenches bullying, homophobia and transphobia rather than stamps it out.

There were still plenty of 'alpha' behaviour. The boys good at sports ruled. Often brutally. Often with the tacit support and approval of teachers. Effeminate boys, sensitive boys, intellectual boys, creative boys and headstrong girls, outgoing girls and sports-loving girls were bullied and crushed by a culture of rigid conformity to gender stereotypes.

Instead of being the solution I am 100% certain that strict uniform policies would be a disaster.
I have the scars to prove that uniforms do not prevent the bullying of the different but instead help to enforce it.

Instead teaching an appreciation for diversity, for consent and personal space and individual rights, for difference is, I am 100% certain, the only solution.

I just think that Newsweek's story is completely outrageous! I especially feel sorry for Joy Epstein. It is shocking enough that the support she gave to Larry would be seen as inappropriate, but it is utterly maddening that people would actually suggest that she played some sort of "role in his death". If she weren't a lesbian, she would never have been under such suspicion.

The Newsweek editor is a hypocrite when he accuses Larry of using his "sexuality as a weapon". Isn't that what we ourselves are doing when we dehuminize people for having a different sexuality than ourselves. It's like blaming a woman for her own rape, just because she dressed a certain way, or blaming someone who acts out against injustice, for "causing a disturbance", rather than blaming the cause of the injustice itself.

Dear Cathy,

At Unfinished Lives we’ve devoted quite a lot of thought to the Newsweek article, and after many readings we’ve wholeheartedly sided with those who see the Newsweek article in an unfavorable light. While you and others see a benefit to the high visibility of a Newsweek article featuring Larry King’s story (an opinion we respect very much, even though we see the issues differently), there are elements which make the article a liability to the entire LGBT community.

Newsweek’s editorial staff, and author Ramin Setoodeh, have produced a piece about the limits of tolerance. Through Newsweek’s lens, readers are led to conclude that Larry King made the mistake of overstepping a boundary that put his life in jeopardy. Essentially, the article seems to say, LGBT persons of all ages should know the limits to which they are free to be themselves or they risk Larry’s violent fate.

What the article fails to do is to say that murder is never justified under any circumstance. Never. No matter how much Larry King did, or did not, “flaunt” his sexuality, murder was not… and never could be… justified. The result is that Brandon McInerney (Larry’s assailant) received the larger share of sympathy in the article, while Larry himself was put under public scrutiny for his character and behavior.

We're truly glad for your perspective, and we’re grateful that you're providing a public forum at The Bilerico Project where all of us may discuss this tragedy. Otherwise, Larry’s voice might be lost amid a world of hurried days and rapid news cycles.

Respectfully,
The Unfinished Lives Project

Daniel Sebold | August 19, 2009 11:40 AM

There was much more gender bending going on in the schools back in the seventies: football jocks and weightlifters in pink polo shirts, gold chain necklaces, bum high shorts. Now all of this is considered shocking and homosexual flaunting if so much as one little boy dresses like this. The punnishment is death.

There is no room for creativity in such a culture.
I would suggest that America search its educational soul at what it has lost with its macho misogynistic and homophobic hip hop culture. Someone is behind this globalized fascist American dress code, destroying indivivuality and creativity. Murdering sissy kids--it's in vogue.