Sunday, July 20, 2008

A matter of survival

There is an in depth article about Larry King, the "gay" Junior High student who was killed by a classmate last year. The article raises a number of issues about gender and sexual identity. One thing the article notes is that the age at which young people come out is decreasing and is now 13 years with the parents finding out a year later.

I am not surprised at this given the more liberal and tolerant attitudes our society is supposed to have. The problem is that this tolerance is not uniform; lots of kids are very insecure about their sexuality and gender identity and as the article notes schools are not well equipped to handle these sorts of issues even when teachers and administrators have the best of intentions.

The article notes:

"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."

I am not going to try to second guess the school and parents on this one, but one thing GLBT kids need to learn at a young age is how to survive and that means being discrete. In my own experience, kids figure out who's different very early on anyway and in my day that meant a fair amount of bullying. So you learn to hide or "cover", to find a safe niche and bide your time. For me that meant a lot of time alone, being one of the smart kids knowing that some day I will be able to go to college, be an adult and then be able to do what I want. Of course that was a naive hope, but it at least kept me alive, though not entirely free of bullying. Kids after all, do know who is different.

I knew I was different and I knew who else was as well. For Larry, and for Brandon the kid who killed him, the system failed all the way around and it shouldn't have failed. Larry has become the poster boy for the need for tolerance; yeah tolerance is a great ideal and its great that queer kids have a vocabulary to express how they feel about themselves, vocabulary and concepts we didn't have in the 50's and 60's. In my day, the bullies had chains and knives, today they and confused kids of all sorts have guns. In my day kids had good old face to face gossip, today kids have "social networks" which can destroy a kid's standing with his or her peers instantly and deliver threats.

So I think it is a bit unfair of the article to blame the "shrinking closet" for Larry's death. On all levels kids are pushed into adult roles with out the skills to handle adult considerations. It's easy-blame the gay vice principle-blame the "shrinking closet" that empowers queer kids today when the problem really is much broader. Kids are not taught how to cope with bullies be they armed with guns, computers or use sexuality as a weapon.

Parents don't seem to be any more understanding of their kids today than in my generation. If the article is any indication, things are worse today. Survive, just get through, because if you do, things will get better.

"Larry's life was hard from the beginning. His biological mother was a drug user; his father wasn't in the picture. When Greg and Dawn King took him in at age 2, the family was told he wasn't being fed regularly."

"Like Larry, Brandon had his share of troubles. His parents, Kendra and Bill McInerney, had a difficult, tempestuous relationship. In 1993, Kendra alleged that Bill pointed a .45 handgun at her during a drunken evening and shot her in the arm, according to court records. She and Bill split in 2000, when Brandon was 6. One September morning, a fight broke out after Kendra accused her husband of stealing the ADHD medication prescribed to one of her older sons from her first marriage."

Larry had a hard road to travel. The article pegs him as gay but who knows if he was gay, or perhaps transgendered. Who really knows what path he would have chosen. Knowing you are different doesn't easily translate into understanding how you are different or what to do about it.

So don't use Larry as a poster person for a cause unless the cause is fixing a system that fails to help kids cope. Anti bullying efforts help. Straight-Gay alliances, yup go for it; greater tolerance of sexual and gender related issues, sure, go for it. What about Brandon? He needed help too. The tolerance message had not gotten to him, nor had any one taught him how to cope with Larry's behavior toward him.

The sad thing is this whole mess is going to to get litigated in the courts and used by all sorts of people with political agendas and there will be a whole bunch of people projecting their issues onto this case. I admit it is real tempting to do, projecting my desire for tolerance and acceptance of queer youth. But it was hard enough for someone such as myself to cope and I had psychic resources and support that Larry and Brandon did not have. What about them?

Maybe the best immediate message, the message I got which was survive, just get through it, and things will get better. Not politically correct advice for queer youth or any youth. After all, part of us wants kids to make the sorts of brave decisions we didn't always make when we were young. Come out, take a stand. We do want to help kids explore their identity. But I also want kids to able to survive and cope; maybe "just get through it things will get better" ought to be a part of what we do. Meantime we can clean up our own adult world so that things really will be better.

Other Links:

Here's a sad story of how attempts to deal with bullying can get derailed politically. Tip of the antennae to Pam's House Blend for this one.
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