Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Special Comment: Newsweek magazine and the Re-victimization of Larry King

by Stephen V. Sprinkle

 

If only journalists and their editors had a Hippocratic Oath to hold them responsible for the stories they tell about the dead. Medical doctors pledge, “First, do no harm.” If doctors proceed to do harm to their patients, then there is a professional society to hold them accountable. The editor of Newsweek, and the team who wrote the Cover Story on Larry King, “Young, Gay and Murdered,” for the July 28, 2008 issue have exercised no constraints on themselves, and unlike the backlash against Dan Rather’s reportage on President Bush’s military service record, there appears to be no one in the journalistic community willing to call their hand for re-victimizing an infamously murdered 15-year-old boy, Larry King. King, you will recall, was shot twice in the head by his alleged killer, 14-year-old classmate, Brandon McInerney.

I want to disclose fully. I am an out gay man who has been studying and writing on the stories of LGBT hate crimes murder victims. I am director of the Unfinished Lives Project that seeks to remember and honor the lives and deaths of women and men who have died violently because of whom others perceived them to be. Further, I am writing a book that will tell the stories of over twenty such LGBT people, and Larry King is one of them. I have spoken publicly at the Vigil for Larry King held in my hometown, Dallas, Texas. That is my “agenda”: to see that stories such as Larry’s are told in such a way that the society may encounter these murdered women, men and youths as human beings who are basically unremarkable from the rest of America, with the difference that as LGBT people, they belong to the last great group in our country it is still permissible to abuse.

Editor Daniel Klaidman, lead reporter Ramin Setoodeh, and team members Andrew Murr and Jennifer Ordoñez do not spell out their sexual orientations or their agendas for us to examine so that we can more fully evaluate how they tell Larry’s and Brandon’s stories. We are left only with their silence on these matters, antiseptic silence that suggests an objectivity that no one ever has when it comes to issues of society and morality. Journalists may have “trained subjectivities” they can bring to their tasks, but that is all they have, and to pretend anything else is dishonest. They do indeed have their agendas, and these agendas serve some end, but we are only left to speculate about what they may be.

The article is written from the angle that Larry’s story, being less “clear cut” because it is “more complicated than it had first appeared,” needs to be rescued from the LGBT people who are, in the words Setoodeh quotes from Larry’s father, using his son’s death as “a gay-rights issue, because it makes a poster child out of my son.” In brief, Setoodeh and his team write about Larry as “troubled,” “disturbed,” and quite possibly “a danger to himself.” The accounts of what growing up as a femininely-presenting boy of mixed race is like in grade and middle school are touched lightly, and the authors then go for their real goal: to pathologize Larry medically, suggesting that there was something sick about him. His diagnosis as ADHD is given, his history of therapy, and an assertion that runs throughout the article that Larry yearned for attention and didn’t know his own mind when it came to being LGBT. The authority for these statements is his father’s quotation of an anonymous “therapist” whose credentials to evaluate a gay youth are never given, and teachers most of whom by the authors’ own admission believed Larry to be a big problem. In contrast to the column space given to Brandon whose peccadilloes and flaws are presented minimally as the outworking of a troubled home, the dark star of the article is Larry who dressed provocatively, who cannot walk well in his heels, who sported glitter, spoke in a “roar,” was a “bully,” and sexually harassed Brandon and others in school. Setoodeh and his associates indict Larry without the benefit of dissenting voices. There is one mention of his being “gentle,” a gay stereotype. The accounts of classmates who claimed he was brave, unique, and nice are perfunctorily mentioned in the context of a school memorial service, leaving the unspoken assumption with us that memorials by grieving students are well meaning but shallow. The overwhelming assessment of the authors of the article is that Larry was a boy too hard for any parent or school to handle, who needed protection from others and himself like Britney Spears, and whose terrorizing behavior made teachers and students “not unsympathetic” to his killer.

The second irresponsible feature of the article is the way Joy Epstein, a lesbian, is put on trial as the alleged instigator of Larry’s outrages. She has an “agenda” of “gay rights.” Greg King, Larry’s adoptive father, is set over and against her, alleging that Epstein confused “her role as a junior-high principal,…asserting her beliefs for gay rights” in her dealings with his son. Even Epstein’s promotion to principal at another school because of her qualifications is portrayed as an attack on the King family. The lesbian school administrator is painted with a rather broad brush as a manipulating authority figure who is somehow the wicked puppet-master behind Larry’s excessive, needy narcissism.

The third and fourth irresponsible aspects of this article are the use of parentheses to soften the way Larry is indicted for his own demise, and the refusal to quote anyone who liked, taught or counseled him for Casa Pacifica. Editor Klaidman parenthetically whispers in his Editor’s Desk introduction to the Cover Story that, even though Larry’s behavior may have led to his death (nothing warrants his murder). The use of parentheses downplays the information encased in them. It is like an aside, and here it is used essentially to set aside the truth that should have been at the core of this article, not secreted away in punctuation: There is never an excuse for murder. Ever.

The absence of any voices from Casa Pacifica with the exception of a hearsay quote from Vicki Murphy is a failure of journalism on the part of the authors. Casa voices were not omitted in the cover story on the King murder published by The Advocate in its April 8, 2008 issue, and their omission in the Newsweek story raises the question of whether those people who knew Larry best in his last months have been silenced by attorneys, or were thought to have nothing to contribute that the authors wished to quote. The silence is provocative, and no reason for it is given. If Setoodeh spent five months rooting around Oxnard and environs, he surely could have written more than the scant, spare paragraph on Casa Pacifica in the article. If Casa Pacifica was the place where Larry was best able to explore his budding gay identity in security and acceptance, if indeed it was a time for him that “was the happiest of his life,” why leave it out? Why deal with the Ventura gay youth group meetings that were important during Larry’s residence at Casa in a single sentence? The interaction of the two main institutions in Larry’s life, Casa Pacifica and E.O. Green Middle School, is entirely left out, along with any insight on how this institutional interplay shaped the context of the murder.

The emotional impact of this irresponsible storytelling is that Larry King, the primary victim, the person who died with two bullets in his head, is actually the heavy in the Newsweek article. His killer, McInerney, who is undoubtedly the secondary victim in this tragic chain of events, is portrayed as confused and understandably violent toward this dangerous wild child. LGBT people are portrayed as agenda-driven and manipulative. Teachers, the superintendent, and the school board are treated sympathetically, and Casa Pacifica is essentially written out of the equation, along with the Ventura gay youth group Larry attended.

It is no surprise that Larry had his faults. LGBT hate crime murder victims are as noble and as ordinary as every one else. Even if the “pathology report” given about him was 100% true and accurate, what in any of this rises to the level of murder by two bullets in the back of the head in plain sight of all the youth in the classroom? Nothing. What is going on here is common in the treatment of the murders of LGBT people: discredit the humanity and character of the victim. Make bizarre behavior or drugs or a criminal record the lens through which the murderer is seen. Muffle the moral impact of the crime, downplay the hate crime aspect, and re-victimize the victim. After Satoodeh and his associates got done with Larry King, there was little left to mourn.

The Newsweek journalists and editors behind the “Young, Gay, and Murdered” story framed their article and selected their sources carefully to make a point about the equation of sexual harassment with male feminine-presentation and gender-variance in middle schools. This is not a neutral or objective piece, and it was not ultimately about Larry King at all. It was about changing the subject from a brutal school murder to “the limits of tolerance.”

When major articles invoke an inquiry into “the limits of tolerance” as the reason to publish them, we must ask whose sense of tolerance and which accounts of the range of acceptable expression dominate the story. The “tolerant” mercies of heterosexists are cruel to gay folk. California is stereotypically presented as the liberal incubator of gay rights by the authors of the Newsweek article. No one has paused long enough to ask how many murders and gay bashings lie behind these policies and laws in the Golden State. There have been so many, in fact, these laws were crafted and enacted to protect a vulnerable population from physical harm and a whole catalogue of discrimination. People are still being killed for being gay in the Bay Area, in Sacramento and environs, and in L.A. The report of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs for 2007 showed that one of the most alarming increases in anti-LGBT violence in the country took place in Los Angeles—100% in one year. The point is that limits of tolerance cannot be invoked if there is no place in America where tolerance is a leading virtue. However that may sound, it is true. LGBT people are treated as second-class Americans, and it is somehow permissible in this country for the sexual majority to impose “acceptable limits of tolerance” upon people whose lives they do not understand.

Larry King was a boy whose life is held up to a level of scrutiny his journalistic judges could not withstand themselves. If the “gay activists” are guilty of using Larry as a justification for their purposes, the Newsweek team is no better. The context in which to understand Larry King’s murder is not just the school culture of blue-collar Oxnard. It is the nationwide context of violence against teenage boys who present femininely in a dangerous world of fragile, macho egos. 15-year-old Larry King died brutally in the same two-month period of 2008 during which 18-year-old Adolphus “Beyoncé” Simmons in North Charleston, South Carolina was shot by a teenage assailant as he carried out his trash, and 17-year-old Simmie Williams, Jr. was gunned down by unknown assailants in Fort Lauderdale, Florida while he was wearing a dress.

Setoodeh and his team are irresponsible for a more basic reason than framing their story with too narrow a context. They took their eyes off of the two points of reference essential for telling a true story about what happened that morning in E.O. Green Middle School’s computer class. They took their eyes off of the back of Larry’s head, and off of Brandon’s hand wrapped around his pistol.

Larry King brought a Valentine card to school. Brandon McInerney brought a loaded pistol. After all the whys and wherefores of the case are debated, these are the undisputed facts, and no responsible journalist may ever forget them.

Stephen V. Sprinkle
Director
The Unfinished Lives Project

 

 

Read this response by Alex Blaze, or this Box Turtle Bulletin article by Timothy Kincaid, which also question Newsweek’s journalistic approach. For another perspective, read this Bilerico post by Cathy Renna that provides a different opinion about the Newsweek article.

July 24, 2008 - Posted by | Blame the victim, California, gun violence, Hate Crime Statistics, Heterosexism and homophobia, Latino and Latina Americans, Media Issues, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, School and church shootings, Social Justice Advocacy, Special Comments | , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I certainly read all of this. I was asked to by a comment on my blog. I was a teacher of this child.

    I did not read the Newsweek piece this way, no.

    I certainly am reading your concerns. I am so glad that away from our area others are so concerned about his life. Often I work with such difficult issues feeling that children are really forgotten. I think it would be allowed for me to tell you he actually was gentle. I would use that to speak of the young child I taught.Without any connotation. I would describe my son, same age, the same. A student I was extremely fond of, a singer, happily very involved with all the things we did in his year in my class. At that point in time I did not consider his orientation nor was I really to do that until this came to be. I transferred and was gone from the school a number of years so I didn’t see things really through time.

    I am sorry to say that I thought the article was saying he was at risk in an intolerant community. Where a school is not up to the levels to see things that involve the issues here into boundaries that make it fully safe for a vulnerable child.

    I maybe read with a different lens.

    I am going to say that the child was a tragic loss and that this has has been like nothing in my life. I have taught in poverty schools 28 years, dedicated my life to this. He was one of the many kids that I knew both changed my life positively and who had so much to bring to our world. Not a day or hour goes by that I’m not just absolutely in utter sadness and despair over his loss.

    Sarah Puglisi

    Comment by Sarah | July 26, 2008 | Reply


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