Facing Up to Youth Sexuality Is Critica

BY NATHAN RILEY | It could have happened here. The killing of a junior high school student in Oxnard, California took place in liberal Southern California in a school with anti-bullying programs and counselors.

The state senator who represents the city is Sheila J. Kuehl, the first openly lesbian or gay member to have served in the California Legislature. Neither students nor officials had problems with acknowledging that Lawrence King wore make-up and high-heeled boots. Students said King was gay; adults were more circumspect. The Rainbow Alliance held a vigil sadly memorializing another victim of homophobia. Oxnard is part of the liberal mainstream.

The aftermath of the slaying had its moving moments, especially when the students held a peace march at E. O Green Junior High School, the school King attended. One student expressed the wish he had gotten to know King better. Other students voiced respect for his courage in coming out even though he knew he would face bullying. One administrator acknowledged that teaching tolerance to eighth graders is a challenge, but another recognized a weakness in the programs. Diversity training focused on racism and sexism, but slighted homophobia as a topic of concern.

Oxnard is a predominately Latino city of nearly 200,000 north of Los Angeles. Diversity is a serious matter for these school children and their parents. It is the basis for a social contract that permits neighbors to live in harmony. This is the first such shooting in the history of Ventura County.

Nobody is hardened to crime or feels hopeless. They are connected to their schools. One-quarter of the student stayed out of school the day after the shooting last week, but by the next day attendance was back to normal. Nonetheless the question remains what could have been done to prevent this killing.

The answer in part is to take on homophobia more aggressively, but there is also the matter of ageism. The failure to recognize the sexuality of youngsters in the first years of puberty can have lethal consequences.

In a telephone interview, Carolyn Laub said Lawrence King's death at 15 was “a wakeup call for schools across the nation to pay attention to anti-bullying and anti-bias programs.” The state director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network in California, Laub said that 45 percent of the public high schools in the state have such groups, but barely more than a dozen junior high schools do.

Yet more and more adolescents are discovering they are lesbian or gay as they enter puberty and that's when they are in middle school. The sexual feelings are powerful and hard to manage, whether a student is gay or straight.

Laub's GSA Network helps schools establish gay-straight alliances. These clubs “provide a safe place for students to discuss their gay and trans feelings or come to terms with gay family members and for straight students to be supportive and educate their peers.”

Would such a club have prevented the shooting? Of course nobody can ever answer that question, but Brandon McInerney, the 14-year old accused murder, is said to have threatened King before the shooting. Many students knew about the threats, but so far there is no specific evidence that teachers or administrators knew how far the situation had deteriorated.

McInerney has been charged with intentionally shooting King and the slaying is classified as a hate crime. The charge suggests that the police gathered hard evidence that McInerney intended to shoot Lawrence King and did it because he was gay. It's not unreasonable to suggest that had a gay-straight alliance existed allies would have been at the ready to warn those in a position to intervene.

This is more than idle speculation; a key goal of GSAs is to encourage students to file complaints. A school is hard pressed to deal with homophobia if it receives no complaints.

A few years ago I did a story about a high school GSA in New York State. It didn't have a program for children under 14, administrators assuming that the school board and parents weren't ready to deal with homosexuality at this young age. The Lawrence King murder demonstrates it is time to ask the ostrich to pull its head out of the sand and recognize that sixth, seventh, and eighth graders know what sex is and that they know what gay is.


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