Coverage on LGBT Youth Stirs Debate

Both the Washington Post and Newsweek last week published articles about children who are coming out in middle school or high school, younger than ever before. Both focus on the dangers faced by these youth; Newsweek’s story, which made the cover, centers on Larry King, the eight-grader in Oxnard, CA, who was shot to death by a classmate.

The WaPo piece, by Theresa Vargas, is much more balanced. It offers perspectives from students in a gay-straight alliance (GSA), mentions lesbian students, and quotes Robert-Jay Green, executive director of the Rockway Institute, a center for LGBT research and public policy, Kevin Jennings, executive director of GLSEN, and Lindy Garnette, executive director of Metro DC PFLAG.

The Newsweek piece, by Ramin Setoodeh, focuses on how troubled King’s life was, and how much he “pushed” Brandon McInerney by flirting with him. It also contains the troubling statements:

What you might call “the shrinking closet” is arguably a major factor in Larry’s death. Even as homosexuality has become more accepted, the prospect of being openly gay in middle school raises a troubling set of issues. Kids may want to express who they are, but they are playing grown-up without fully knowing what that means.

“Playing grown-up”? Was King “playing grown-up” any more than any other teen going through the process of maturing and testing out various social interactions and ways of expressing himself? What bothers me about this is the hidden assumption that being LGBT is something only for adults, something we can switch on once we turn 18, i.e., a choice.

Let’s look at the summary at the top of the story, too:

A 15-year-old boy told family and friends he was gay. He dressed flamboyantly; he hit on a classmate. His murder made clear that issues of sexuality, at such a young age, can have heartbreaking consequences.

Oh, come on. Kids that age, LGBT and not, are defined by sexuality. (Not that they’re all having sex; they’re just all thinking about it.) Would the writer have said sexuality had heartbreaking consequences if it was a straight boy (or girl) who dressed distinctively and hit on an opposite-sex classmate? I have to think he would instead have focused more on what caused the murderer to take such drastic action. (He does explore some of McInerney’s troubled home life, but spends more time on King’s.) It wasn’t King’s sexuality that had the “heartbreaking consequences.” That’s blaming the victim. It was the fact that McInerney had a violent home life and had shown signs of being willing to use violence himself, but didn’t receive proper help, that he saw King’s attention as sufficiently threatening to warrant killing him, and that he had access to a firearm. Issues of homophobia and lax gun control, at such a young age, can have heartbreaking consequences.

Timothy Kincaid at Box Turtle Bulletin has even harsher words about the article and its author, whom he says has had other “awkward” moments when covering gay issues. Alex Blaze at Bilerico also says, “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.”

Cathy Renna at Bilerico, on the other hand, notes that making Larry King the cover story is “a HUGE deal given the elections, economy and other issues happening in the world.” She says the article is not perfect, but “I believe that the writers and Newsweek were thoughtful and well intentioned in writing this piece.” She has a point. She had also worked with the reporter a number of years ago to find sources for an article about the lower age of coming out. The piece was shelved but dusted off for this one, with Larry King as the focus.

It’s tough to say what the writer’s intentions really were. I understand the need to be a bit provocative in a piece, in order to get it read, and to put in parts that appeal to those who might not otherwise read the work. Let’s just hope the valid points did get through: 1) there are youth in our country who need help and are not receiving it (and by this I mean both McInerney and King, for different reasons); 2) youth are coming out earlier and if we don’t as a society support them, we’ll have more tragedies as a result.