I didn’t really have a lot of fears growing up. Granted, it was the early ’80s in south Orange County, but I don’t really remember feeling afraid (except of the dark). Maybe it was the time, or the place, or my parents’ sheltering me. Maybe it was my white skin or my mainstream clothing.
As I got older, I never really stuck out from the crowd. I’ve always been a saucy little smartass, but that’s classroom (or, now, work) behavior; it doesn’t impact the way I look. And I can always “play” straight-my propensity to wear skirts or heels or frilly shirts doesn’t exactly scream “lesbian” in the same way that, say, short hair and a hockey uniform does.
Fitting in, though, isn’t always so simple, and especially not for people who figure out who they are at a younger age. Take, for example, the high schooler determined to be an artist-paint on the clothes, freakish knowledge about art history. This usually isn’t the profile of that kid you borrowed notes from in chemistry class-it’s the person who stood out because of a uniqueness in affect. It’s hard to be different, but it’s nearly impossible when you’re a kid.
A kid like Lawrence King, for instance. The Oxnard junior higher liked to draw and paint, and one Christmas he and his mother crocheted scarves for American troops in Afghanistan. At 15, he loved insects and planted a passion fruit vine because it would attract butterflies. He also told people he was gay and wore feminine accessories to school. On February 12, 2008, he was shot in the head by a 14-year-old classmate, Brandon McInerney. Lawrence had asked Brandon to be his valentine.
The Los Angeles Times interviewed students at the junior high in the aftermath. “[Lawrence] would come to school in high-heeled boots, makeup, jewelry, and painted nails-the whole thing. That was freaking the guys out,” an eighth-grader told reporters.
Whether or not anyone was “freaked out” by how Lawrence looked and behaved, what clicked in Brandon’s psyche that made him pull out a gun, put it to a classmate’s head, and pull the trigger? Hate, bigotry, disgust? How did he learn that it’s okay to enact violence on people he doesn’t understand or like?
The truth is, hate has a way of crawling into the crevices of everyday life. Take Malibu High School, where earlier this month the names of seven African-American students were written on a bathroom stall next to the note, “On April 14th : boom” (April 14 is the date of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination). According to the Times, of the school’s 1,300 students, 80 percent are white and 2 percent are black.
Or there’s the altercation between a gay man, Satender Singh, and a Russian immigrant, Andrey Vusik, last July near Sacramento. According to reports, Singh and some friends were out celebrating his promotion at work when Vusik, angered by Singh’s dancing with male friends, punched Singh, whose head hit a concrete walkway. Four hours later, Singh was dead. Vusik fled the States and currently is a fugitive.
How can we re-teach people that violence (excuse the cliche) is not the answer? It’s so deep-seated in our consciousness and so part of the human experience that, quite frankly, I haven’t the foggiest. I do know, however, that differences will always be present and that somehow we need to figure out how to coexist despite them. A recent study by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) revealed that schools with policies that protect students from harassment based on sexual or gender orientation “reported the lowest level of mistreatment.” Or, as Ellen DeGeneres put it during her talk show, “When the message out there is so horrible that to be gay, you can get killed for it, we need to change the message. : It’s okay if you’re gay.”
I don’t think Lawrence King was a saint; I’m not idolizing him as how every gay youth should behave. But from this we can learn that we can’t hate people for who they are, and we can’t hit them or shoot them because they make us uncomfortable.
On February 13, Lawrence was declared brain dead. His organs were harvested on the 14th, saving many lives on Valentine’s Day. That’s one hell of a valentine, if you ask me.