First published at 365gay.com on August 4, 2008
A recent Newsweek article (“Young, Gay and Murdered”) about Lawrence King—the cross-dressing gay 14-year-old fatally shot by a classmate last February—has prompted many accusations of “blaming the victim.” In it author Ramin Setoodeh asks:
How do you protect legitimate, personal expression while preventing inappropriate, sometimes harmful, behavior? Larry King was, admittedly, a problematical test case: he was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon—it was often his first line of defense. But his story sheds light on the difficulty of defining the limits of tolerance.
For [many teachers and parents] the issue isn’t whether King was gay or straight—his father still isn’t convinced his son was gay—but whether he was allowed to push the boundaries so far that he put himself and others in danger. They’re not blaming King for his own death—as if anything could justify his murder—but their attitude toward his assailant is not unsympathetic.
Let’s start with the obvious. The murder of Larry King was wrong.
It’s tempting, and maybe prudent, to end there. Because anything else said, particularly anything critical of King’s behavior, will look like a “but”: “The murder of Larry King was wrong, but…”
No—the murder of Larry King was wrong, period.
There is, however, more to be said, not with a “but,” but with an “and.” So here goes.
By most accounts, Larry King was something of an obnoxious presence at school, engaging in behavior that at least bordered on, and probably crossed the line of, harassment. Assuming these accounts correct, Larry King should be blamed. Not for his own murder, obviously, but for some of the behavior that preceded it. He wasn’t perfect.
Yet there are many complicating factors. First, it is unseemly to speak ill of the dead, especially dead children, most especially dead murdered children.
Second, both King and his killer Brandon McInerney came from rather troubled backgrounds, and both were merely kids—factors that mitigate responsibility generally.
Third, some of King’s obnoxiousness was an understandable defense mechanism against others’ cruelty. (For example: tired of being taunted in the locker room, he got revenge by ogling the boys as they changed clothes.)
And fourth, any criticism of King will strike some people as homophobic or transphobic, as some of it certainly has been.
All of that said, one can criticize bad behavior without in any way suggesting that it warrants murder, much less premeditated murder. Such may be the case of Larry King.
The important thing now is not blame; it’s learning from what happened. Doing so requires a candid look at what went on and why, with an eye to reducing the likelihood of similar tragedies.
In assessing the case, Setoodeh focuses on whether Larry was allowed to push too far. He’s certainly correct that if teachers had reined in some of King’s misbehavior, he might well be alive today.
Isn’t that blaming the victim? Not in itself (though other aspects of Setoodeh’s treatment are admittedly troubling). To say that King’s misbehavior was causally connected to his killing is not to say that King was in any way morally responsible for his killing. (Technically speaking, even King’s showing up for school was causally connected to his killing: had he not been there, he would not have been killed as he was.) A causal factor is not the same as a justifying factor.
But King’s misbehavior wasn’t the only causal factor, and we must be careful not to ignore others. Among these was teachers’ discomfort in discussing GLBT issues, leading them to feel a false dilemma between “We need to let him express himself” and “We need to prevent disruptive behavior.” Freedom of expression never justifies sexual taunting, gay or otherwise, just as sexual taunting never justifies murder.
Moreover, there was teachers’ failure to rein in other students’ harassment of King—a causal factor Setoodeh scarcely considers.
There were other factors as well, including troubled family backgrounds for both youths, and McInerney’s access to a gun. Had any of these been absent, King might be alive today.
Most of all, let’s not forget McInerney’s apparent belief that it’s better to be known as a killer than suspected as a homo. Why did McInerney kill King? Perhaps the simplest answer is that he was embarrassed by King’s sometimes unpleasantly expressed crush on him. His “solution” was to shoot King in the head, twice, as the latter was sitting quietly in an eighth-grade classroom.
And that was wrong, period.