Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Narratives in the Lawrence King Case

[TW: violence, gender policing, victim blaming]

I've been struggling with what to say about the various reports I've seen regarding gay teenager Lawrence King's alleged behavior toward the teen who murdered him.

Previously, I noted reports that the defense seemed to be putting forth some version of a "Gay Panic Defense," asserting that the murderer's violent crime should be excused, or was justified, because of King's alleged romantic advances toward him.

Last week, The LA Times provided more details about these allegations. Before I delve too much into the article, I think it's important to note that I'm agnostic as to whether King engaged in the behavior described. I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. All I can do with the information I have is to observe some notable aspects of the conversation.

In The LA Times article, Catherine Saillant reports:

"One teacher after another has testified in the murder trial about their deep worries that King's feminine attire and taunting behavior could provoke problems — and that E.O. Green Junior High administrators ignored them.

It wasn't just that King, 15, had begun wearing makeup and women's spiked-heeled boots, witnesses testified. It was that he seemed to relish making the boys squirm at his newly feminized appearance and was taunting them with comments like 'I know you want me.'

....The trial testimony, and defense arguments that school officials mishandled the situation, highlight the struggle that many schools face: how to protect the civil rights of gay and transgender children while addressing the tensions that the issue can cause on campuses."

Okay, so I see some really problematic framing of the issue going on here. While perhaps protecting the "civil rights of gay and transgender children" "causes" tensions, it's also true that anti-gay/anti-transgender hatred, gender policing, and sexual harassment cause tensions. By not mentioning these other causes of tension, it is somewhat implied that those who oppose such civil rights are not causes of tension. As though it is only the advancement of civil rights that is the big troublemaker here.

Another relevant fact would be to mention whether or not the teachers testifying about King's alleged "taunting" were witnesses for the defense. Defense attorneys have narratives to construct that will mitigate their client's guilt. Again, I have no idea if King taunted his killer, but that storyline does closely parallel the LGBT Predator narrative that many people are all too willing to accept uncritically.

Similarly, was there any particular reason King was allegedly taunting the other boy, or was it For No Reason At All? By possibly only including the defense's narrative of what happened, a story emerges where King was not a victim of homophobia and transphobia, but was actually a bully. Yet, does it have to be just one or the other? Inherent in the cycle of violence is the reality that many people will play the role of both victim and aggressor throughout their lives. Can't we hold multiple thoughts in our head that both sexual harassment and trans/homophobia are wrong and not deserving of vigilante murder?

The article continues:

"Dealing with a student who is exploring gender identity can be difficult, especially in the middle school years when students have differing levels of maturity and may be confused about their own identities, experts say."

Here, we are led to identify with the Normal People, who might find it difficult to "deal with" a student "exploring gender identity," as opposed to identifying with, say, the teenager who might be finding it difficult to deal with how others are reacting to hir gender identity. How different the statement would be if it read:

"Dealing with unaccepting classmates and teachers can be difficult for students who don't conform to conventional gender roles, especially when other students and teachers have differing levels of maturity and may be confused or intolerant about transgender and gender identity issues, experts say."

Also, what does it mean to be a "student who is exploring gender identity"? Doesn't most everyone explore gender identity, stereotypes, and performance to some degree? Don't the issues tend to pop up when the student is exploring gender identity in a way that is not in conformity with the (thanks Twisty) Global Accords Governing The Proper Roles Of Men And Women?

But, it was this statement that really stood out:

"Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is illegal, but teachers sometimes believe that they are not trained on how to deal with those issues when they crop up, said Joel Baum, education director at Gender Spectrum.

'We hear a lot from teachers who feel handcuffed because they don't know how to respect those rights and create a safe space for children who aren't comfortable with it,' Baum said."

Wait, so our goal is to create "safe spaces" for children who "aren't comfortable" with the idea that LGBT and other gender nonconforming kids shouldn't be discriminated against?

While I of course agree that all schools should be safe spaces from sexual harassment, I wonder what exactly a "safe space" for kids who don't agree with LGBT rights would look like. And why is this article conflating sexual harassment with LGBT rights- as though LGBT people are pushing for gay people's "civil right" to sexually harass people of the same sex? Given that discrimination is illegal and there are good reasons for that, why is it seen as laudable to carve out special spaces for the kids who think discrimination is okay?

The idea of a "safe space" for anti-LBGT kids is strange to even imagine: "Hey Tommy, is that... purple you're wearing today? You need to leave this room. Your gender nonconformity is making me feel unsafe. I might punch you."

I mean, really? For, within the article, some teachers also testified about how they "warned" King not to wear make-up and how he allegedly would "parade" around in high heels. (Question: Would a boy wearing high heels ever be described as doing anything other than "parading" or "prancing"?) While the principle admirably stated that King could wear any clothing he wanted that didn't violate the dress code, at no point does the article note that the school personnel "warned" other kids not to make fun of him for doing so.

You know, for as much as some people talk about how awful it is for "Muslima" to Be Forced To Wear Burqas and such, our Totally Enlightened Western Gender Rules seem to differ only by a matter of degree with respect to what people can and cannot wear as men and women and "get away with it."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let's say for a minute that the allegations of King's behaviour are completely correct. Let's say that a boy is completely creeped out by this guy who is coming on to him, won't stop flirting, harasses him, says things like "I know you want me." Huh, sounds awfully familiar. Would that work as a defence for a girl who shot a guy behaving that way towards her? And does that behaviour happen often?