Larry King was an openly gay 15-year-old who was shot dead by one of his middle-school classmates. Could the school have done anything to stop it?
That is the question NEWSWEEK tackled in "Young, Gay and Murdered," the cover story this week. The article drew a massive response online--more than 4,000 comments were posted through the week. Many responded to reporter Ramin Setoodeh's assertion that Larry "was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon."
Yes, he was a flamboyant kid who wore high heels and makeup. But many commenters felt this characterization suggested that Larry deserved to die. "It's a sad thing that the story isn't about how our society could create such a diabolical, cold-blooded, 15-year-old-child killer," writes CaraWinter of King's assailant, Brandon McInerney, who has been charged with first-degree murder and a hate crime (McInerney's public defender has not disclosed his defense strategy, but has said the school should be blamed for failing to step in amid rising tensions between the two boys.) "Instead, it's a story about how Larry was 'disruptive' in school, taunting and 'harassing' other kids, wielding his sexuality--implying he provoked his own murder! It's lunacy, and it's disrespectful of the poor, dead child." Hundreds of others agreed that NEWSWEEK's story, which was billed as a "a tale of bullying, sexual identity and the limits of tolerance," placed the blame on King and the reaction he received at Oxnard, Calif.'s E. O. Green Junior High School. "This was an innocent young man trying to find his identity and fit in, the same issue that many of us struggled with in our youth," said Tishalyon.
While some saw the story as a saga of self-discovery, others viewed it as a tale of sexual harassment--in which King's taunting of McInerney, including rumors of a relationship as well as a valentine, crossed the line. "Larry was a bully and was allowed to get away with it because the school officials were fricking afraid to confront him because he said he was gay," wrote Divadawn. "It saddens me that the end result was death and I'm not condoning what Brandon did, but I'm also not condoning what Larry and the school officials did." Other readers wrote that "Larry should have been admonished for sexual harassment," and that given McInerney's declining grades and recent classroom disruption, "the adults in this situation should have been watching Brandon like a hawk."
Jody Huckaby, the executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, who released a statement on our story, echoed that idea: "California has a strong anti-bullying law that specifically includes our gay and transgender kids," he writes. "But it is how adults--both parents and educators--ensure the law is carried out, and that teachable moments are seized, that makes all the difference in the world." There is something to be learned here, he argues, from the death of Larry King and its coverage by the magazine. "We need to give our children the room, and the safety, to be who they are," he adds.
It seems that whenever the magazine undertakes a story involving homosexuality, many readers are quick to argue that sexual identity is a choice and that religious doctrine should have been invoked. But in King's case, we also received responses from commenters who sought to separate out the issue of homosexuality from the debate: "If a girl who was extra flirtatious, incredibly forward and very aware of her sexuality, was shot to death by a guy who didn't want her attention, would we be considering [her] a victim, or blaming her for [the] murder[?]" wrote Seabasstin. "A better analogy would be a black kid who was perceived as 'too uppity' and got shot by a white kid," adds KevinVT. "And then Newsweek writes a story about it being, OK, really, because he was acting too black, because one of his principals was a black woman, and because the African American community found the situation to be evidence of racism."
Maeve Fox, the prosecutor in this case for the Ventura County District Attorney's Office, wrote that the NEWSWEEK story was "rife with inaccuracies" due to its use of anonymous sourcing. "Much of what these anonymous sources whisper into the ears of a complicit reporter will undoubtedly evaporate when and if they are called to stand," she wrote. When our reporter called to ask if she could tell us what we got wrong, Fox declined to identify any specific errors, saying her job prevented her from doing so. But she admitted she didn't know that the school district's lawyer had asked teachers not to talk to journalists. While Fox thought the anonymous sourcing was unnecessary, Setoodeh says his story would have been impossible to tell without it.