Blaming the Victim

Ramin Setoodeh’s Newsweek cover story, ‘Young, Gay and Murdered’ is a sore disappointment. It reveals how our society still blames the victim for the deadliest kinds of homophobic violence and views hir overt ‘otherness’ as a provocation, rather than a legitimate expression of gender and sexuality. While murder victim Larry King recently become a sentimentalized martyr for the LGBT rights movement, Setoodeh tries to show that ‘the reason Larry died isn’t as clear-cut as most people think.’ He suggests that the victim brought the violence onto himself by stretching ‘the limits of tolerance’ and ‘push[ing] his rights as far as he could’. Larry ‘was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon’ - therefore, we should avoid turning him into a poster-child for the LGBT movement. He is not the right kind of victim.

In what ways did Larry play with ‘the limits of tolerance’? How did he provoke his attackers? According to the article, he was extremely effeminate, wobbling around in brown Target stilettos and knee-high pink boots. He would often ‘sidle up to the popular boys’ at lunch and say, in a high-pitched voice, ‘Mind if I sit here?’ And when he was tormented in the locker room, he would get even by telling the boys that they ‘looked hot.’ His relationship with his eventual killer, however, was considerably more intense. Larry ‘really liked’ Brandon McInerney. He would often stare at him and follow him. At one point, he told a close friend that him and Brandon had dated, but broken up. On Valentine’s Day, Larry played a game with a group of friends, in which each of them had to go up to their crush and ask them to be their Valentine. Larry, of course, asked Brandon, who was promptly ridiculed by a group of boys. Setoodeh portrays this as the ‘tipping point’ for the killer, as the moment when Brandon decided murder was the solution. Later on in the article, he uncritically cites school officials as stating that Larry ‘bullied’ Brandon. Setoodeh also unquestioningly quotes Larry’s father as saying that he believed his son ‘sexually harassed’ the killer.

If Larry was a ‘girl’ (in the conventional sense), would any of his actions be considered bullying or sexual harassment? Would he have been pushing any limits? Would there be anything out of the ordinary about a ‘girl’ staring at her crush, making up stories about him, or asking him to be her Valentine? Clearly, if we imagine for a second that Larry was female, nothing he did could plausibly be considered ‘sexual harassment’. His actions would be viewed as ‘normal’ teen behavior, hormones acting up, or the runaway effects of a first crush. Larry King’s tragic story is, thus, not a parable about queers ‘pushing the limits of tolerance.’ Rather, it demonstrates the horrifying extent of heterosexual privilege. It shows how queers are not allowed to do everything that straight people can, and that their self-actualization can be brutally curtailed at any point. It is also a story about how deadly homophobia really is: beneath the taunts and petty locker-room harassment lies a more serious, life-threatening hatred.

We cannot allow ourselves to keep blaming the victim; we need to stop assuming and legitimating heterosexual privilege. Following Setoodeh’s logic, Larry should have been ‘on the down-low’, he should not have defended himself from homophobic abuse, and he should have refrained from acting on any of his crushes. While any ‘reasonable adult’ would have probably done this, to badger a child into stifling hir identity is cruel. Larry tried to live a queer life to the fullest, but he was brutally cut off because of homophobic social norms. Unfortunately, all LGBTQ people face this risk. Believe it or not, we all have a gun to our heads.

Nevertheless, if there is anything to learn from Setoodeh’s article, it is that homophobia rarely affects only queer people. It has an impact on most people that are associated with them. The day that Larry came to school in knee-high pink boots, his brother complained to school officials that he was getting taunted for being gay (kids believed that, since Larry was definitely gay, his brother must be gay too). Larry’s killer was himself the victim of homophobic abuse. On the day that Larry asked him to be his Valentine, Brandon was made fun of intensely by his group of friends. However, it was certainly not Larry’s responsibility to ‘tone down’ his behavior in order to ‘save’ others. The real culprit is the homo and transphobia that is rampant in our society. It is only with the undermining of those ‘phobias’ that we can hope to eliminate gender and sexuality-inspired hate crimes.

***For More Information***
The Internet is currently brimming with Larry King news. You can find the official memorial website here. For more information on homo and transphobic violence in general, check out the following site from GenderPAC. Also, this website has a really useful list of ‘heterosexual privileges’. Finally, for an incisive analysis of heterosexual privilege, have a look at Adrienne Rich’s seminal essay, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.’

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