The AP On Bullying And Blame

LarryKing-BrandonMcInernyA fascinating AP survey of the last year's anti-bullying sentiment appears in today's Washington Post. It's a well written, balanced, succinct piece of work, and it's probably doomed to aggravate a lot of people. 

Writes the AP:

Federal laws clearly uphold students’ rights to express sexual orientation — boys, for example, are legally allowed to wear skirts just as girls can wear pants — and obligate schools to provide all students with a safe environment, but problems tend to arise on a social level, often outside the classroom.

The California trial of 17-year-old Brandon McInerney, charged in the 2008 classroom killing of 15-year-old Larry King, showed how a school fulfilled the law by upholding a boy’s right to wear makeup and high heels, but grappled with the social fallout — bullying of King and King’s response, which was to aggressively flaunt his sexual orientation, including flirtatious and harassing comments to boys.

One of them, McInerney, then 14, is accused of shooting King to death in a classroom. After an August trial ended in a hung jury, prosecutors now plan a second trial.

Testimony from several teachers showed they struggled to cope with escalating tension between King and his bullies, while also respecting his civil rights.

Read from one POV, this reportage is just good common sense. Out gay kids are more likely to get teased than closeted ones. Teased kids, possessing egos like the rest of us, may well respond to teasing with aggression. Tensions may escalate, violence may be done, and some sensitive soul will inevitably wonder if the coming out was worth the trouble.

Read from another POV, the AP story comes perilously close to victim-blaming.

This line has been straddled before, and much less sensitively — notably in a famous Newsweek story from 2008. In that story, full-time Newsweek writer and freelance gay-baiter Ramin Settodeh described Larry King's relationship with Joy Epstein, an assistant principal at his school:

… as Larry became less inhibited, Epstein became more a source of some teachers' confusion and anger. Epstein, a calm, brown-haired woman with bifocals, was openly gay to her colleagues, and although she was generally not out to her students, she kept a picture of her partner on her desk that some students saw …

… she formed a special bond with Larry, who was in the eighth grade. He dropped by her office regularly, either for counseling or just to talk — she won't say exactly. "There was no reason why I specifically started working with Larry," Epstein says. "He came to me." Some teachers believe that she was encouraging Larry's flamboyance, to help further an "agenda," as some put it. One teacher complains that by being openly gay and discussing her girlfriend (presumably, no one would have complained if she had talked about a husband), Epstein brought the subject of sex into school …

… William Quest, Brandon's public defender, hasn't disclosed his defense strategy, but he has accused the school of failing to intercede as the tension rose between Larry and Brandon. Quest calls Epstein "a lesbian vice principal with a political agenda." Larry's father also blames Epstein. He's hired an attorney and says he is seriously contemplating a wrongful-death lawsuit. "She started to confuse her role as a junior-high principal," Greg King says. "I think that she was asserting her beliefs for gay rights."

Stomach-churning though it may be, that's all straight reporting. The AP story is more free-form, and the writer was at far greater liberty than Settodeh to curate ideas and quotes at will. As a result, it reads more like an attempt by a rational person to participate in a conversation that, so far, has been largely ceded to certain sects of literate homophobes. How misguided, the writer seems to wonder, is the perceived dogma that it's a good idea for all 14-year-olds to come out, at all times and in all plces? And if that dogma exists, how much havoc has it wrought? Towards the top of the AP story, the writer includes this graf:

"A lot of people have the idea that coming out as soon as possible will make themselves feel more comfortable," said Raymond Ferronato, a 16-year-old gay junior in Antioch, Calif. "I tell them come out when you’re ready to come out, and only do it when you’re safe."