Larry and Me

14 Feb

I wrote this piece for a school assignment in 2008 shortly after the murder of Larry King, an openly gay eighth-grader, by a fellow classmate. This Valentine’s Day, the two-year anniversary of his death, I’d like to share it as a reminder of the hate that persists in the face of love and in memory of this brave young boy.

This year on Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend surprised me with a rose before school; that night we got to share our beloved mashed potato pizza and exchange presents.  But fifteen-year-old Lawrence King wasn’t so lucky—he was declared legally brain dead and taken off life support.

King, better known to his friends and family as “Larry,” had been shot in the head—twice—two days earlier by a classmate in a computer lab at E.O. Green Junior High, a middle school in southern California where both Larry and his killer, Brandon McInerney, attended eighth grade.  Initial reports stated that the motive was unclear, but appeared to stem from some sort of personal conflict between the boys.  It didn’t take police long to figure out what had actually happened, however.

Larry had recently come out and begun to wear make-up, girl’s jewelry, and high-heeled boots with his school uniform, which was “freaking the guys out,” according to another student.  Larry quickly became the target of bullying, facing daily homophobic taunts and slurs from a group of male classmates that included Brandon McInerney.  Larry’s harassment continued for months before he started to “retaliate” with innocent flirtation, an attempt to make some of the boys uncomfortable.  Shortly before his murder, Larry was heard remarking that Brandon was cute.

I’ve never felt comfortable around other guys.  Even when I was a little kid, I knew I was different: I talked like a girl and I couldn’t catch.  So, naturally, in elementary school I sat with the girls at lunch and played with the girls at recess.  There were moments of self-loathing, even then, a nagging feeling that I was not quite right, but for the most part it wasn’t so bad.  Sometimes the boys in the grade above me would make fun of my voice and, though it hurt my feelings; I reasoned that it was normal for older boys to tease younger ones.

When I told my parents I was gay when I was twelve, they urged me not to come out—not yet, anyway.  My mom warned me that my peers might, and probably would, be cruel.  Somewhat naïvely, I insisted that my friends were loyal, and with their support I was sure that I would be able to handle anything.  Besides, it’s not like it’s the ‘50’s, I told them.

And I was right about that—in the ‘50’s, “gay” was probably not the single most invoked insult in school, nor the most commonly used synonym for “lame,” as it is today, and as it was when I started coming out at the end of sixth grade.  After telling my parents, I confided in two friends on a bus ride home from school, then a few others during long, convoluted phone conversations or in notes passed between classes.  By the time I started junior high, it didn’t matter who I’d actually told myself.  Everybody knew.

Though the majority of my female friends were “okay” with my sexuality, it was not enough.  I needed support—someone who I could talk to about coming into my own as a young gay man, someone to listen and try to understand exactly what I was going through.  And at twelve and thirteen, none of them were really ready to do that.

But the boys were worse.  Over the span of two years, my male classmates called me “faggot” countless times, asked me out as a joke at least four times (always in a very public and humiliating way), and followed me around the school hallways, exaggerating my effeminate voice, loudly lisping and shrieking that ith tho fabulouth!

Like Larry, I never told.  I never went to the administration for help, never reached out to a teacher.  I just withdrew, hanging out with the girls who had stood by me and developing an instant fear and resentment of every straight guy I met.  I now distrusted male heterosexuals on principle; I would never let myself be taken surprise by another one of their jeers or practical jokes. In eight grade I applied to the theater program at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, a mecca of open-minded free spirits, and when freshman year rolled around, I was able to completely isolate myself from my Simsbury peers, mentally if not completely physically.  Self-segregation.

RIP Lawrence "Larry" King. 1993-2008.

And it worked for the most part—many of my closest friends are gay or lesbian, and the rest are female artists, many of whom are minorities themselves.  I am truly happy with the people I have chosen to surround myself with, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything.  But that said, I recognize how my self-protective, preventative attitude towards straight men has been a handicap: to this day, I do not have single straight male friend. I have acquaintances of course, co-workers and classmates with whom I’ve developed a casual, if superficial, rapport.  But no true friends, not the kind you call up just to say hey and go out with on the weekends.  And while some of the blame certainly falls on the state of the straight male population, some of it falls on me, too.

I distinctly remember when the boys started to grow up—sophomore year.  For the first time in years, athletes and generally manly men, some of the same who had tortured me in the not-too-distant past, would turn and talk to me in class.  Usually it was just small talk about the homework or a joke about the teacher, but it was something. And while a part of me rejoiced, happy that I could stop being an outsider, I resisted.  The defenses I had built for myself were so complex and so comprehensive I couldn’t dismantle them.  So when the rest of the boys in my grade started to grow up, I didn’t.

When I read the story about Lawrence King in the paper, it got to me.  The first thing I thought was that could’ve been me.  Larry’s death really could have happened anywhere—Oxnard, California is a middle-class, generally liberal beach community, not a small town in the rural South or Midwest.

But what bothered me more was the feeling that I was somehow culpable.  Indirectly, maybe, but culpable nonetheless.  I survived junior high three years before he didn’t, and I never attempted to change anything while I was there.  All I wanted to do was save my own skin and isolate myself, get away from the problem and ignore it.  I was selfish.

I keep thinking that if I had been stronger, and tried harder to make friends with straight guys, I could have done something.  I could have taught them that gay people are human, too, point out that while not all gay men are the picture of masculinity, they are some of the bravest people I know.  It takes a lot of courage to come out, to spread your arms and open yourself that way, to make yourself that vulnerable.  By letting guys get to know me, I could’ve taken away some of the fear of the unknown.

I don’t delude myself—I know that even if I had done all of these things, Larry would probably still have died.  The butterfly effect of my positive change couldn’t have moved that far that fast.  But like I said, Larry could have been anyone, anywhere.  He could have been a student at the middle school I attended, and that is a terrible, terrible weight.

I didn’t write this to make anyone feel sorry for me, or guilty for everytime they’ve ever said that’s so gay, or even made fun of a gay person.  I usually try not to be too righteous; I don’t think people respond well to being condemned for their inattention or inaction.  And though I’m certainly not ashamed to be gay, nor do I mind speaking publicly about my sexuality, it’s difficult for me to talk about the hard stuff.  I don’t like to dwell on the painful parts of my life and I normally avoid it.  But I have a responsibility.  To myself, and to Larry.


One Response to “Larry and Me”

  1. sophisms February 14, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    Thanks for writing this and reminding us of the responsibility we share to honor and learn from Lawrence King’s memory.

    Let’s keep an eye out for kids in Iowa’s public schools, where GOP legislators are trying to remove sexual orientation and gender identity from an anti-bullying bill. In a November survey, LGBT students still felt unsafe in schools and reported an increase in physical violence. Although Iowa passed the anti-bullying legislation in 2007 (and gay marriage last year!), “more than half of the survey respondents did not know what the Iowa Safe Schools law is, and that roughly 72 percent did not feel that their school had adopted such a law.”

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