Little Lawrence King was queer. Not just in some identity politics way, but literally. Despite the innocence of his round, brown cheeks and puppy dog eyes, the kid was a threatening oddity at his Ventura County junior high school. Either because he was brave or naïve, or because he just couldn't help himself, Lawrence reveled in the fact.
By all accounts, Lawrence delighted in the beauty of defying gender rules. He wore jewelry and lipstick, playfully changing up the colors from day to day; he strutted about in black, high-heel boots. And he had the audacity to admit he was sweet on one of his male classmates. That one act of vulnerability—a banal mainstay of middle schools everywhere—cost 15-year-old Lawrence his life. According to friends and news reports, the object of his affection walked into a computer lab Feb. 12 and shot Lawrence in the head.
National gay youth advocates are now valiantly trying to get the nation to recognize Lawrence's death, to draw an emotional line from the 1998 murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard to this latest attack. It's an appropriate linkage: Both Matthew and Lawrence share a profile of youthful innocence that is in stark contrast to their violent deaths. But America has witnessed dozens of equally grisly anti-gay murders and violent attacks since Shepard's killing. These executions are routinely ignored—and I have always suspected that's because, like Lawrence, the victims rarely share Matthew's blonde hair, blue eyes and college education. Nonetheless, they reveal a brutal reality lurking below the surface of our nation's increasing "tolerance" of gay people.
I live in New York, and in this metropolitan area alone we've had a startling level of gay bloodshed in recent years. There was 15-year-old Sakia Gunn, a black teen who was stabbed to death in 2003 at a Newark bus stop, after she rebuffed a guy's flirtations by outing herself and her friends as lesbians. And there was 19-year-old Rashawn Brazell, whose dismembered black body the cops found scattered around Brooklyn in February 2005, his limbs shoved into a plastic bag and tossed onto the subway tracks, his torso similarly deposited in a recycling plant near the East River waterfront. They never found his severed head, or his killer.
The victims are not all teens. There's 29-year-old Michael Sandy, whom three white guys lured into a rendezvous by posing as a single gay man on a chat site in October 2006; they jumped him and chased him into highway traffic, where he was struck and killed. Then there's 27-year-old Dwan Prince, who was stomped into a coma at a Brooklyn bus stop because, in his attackers' words, "he came at me wrong." And just two days before Lawrence was gunned down in the computer lab for having a crush, 25-year-old Sanesha Stewart was stabbed to death in the Bronx, reportedly by a date who discovered she was transgender.
That's all just in the New York area — and just a handful of the cases. In 2006 alone (the most recent data available), the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs counted 11 people murdered for being gay around the country. The organization's tally is considered a vast undercount, as it culls only incidents in the dozen or so states in which it has chapters. But the group's research is enough to make clear that anti-gay murders are far more commonplace than we acknowledge as a society.
The victims are easily dismissed because they rarely evoke adjectives like "angelic," used so often to describe Matthew Shepard. Instead, in reporting on Sanesha Stewart's murder, the New York Daily News described her as "a 6-foot man in high heels and lipstick" and speculated she was a hooker. No wonder such a bizarre creature got itself killed, the report seemed to suggest.
We shrug off this sort of casual defining of gay lives as freakish in all corners of our society, from media to politics to schools. In 2005, a schools advocacy group, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, surveyed just over 1,700 gay high school students. Eight out of 10 reported hearing words like "faggot" and "dyke" used "often" or "frequently" at school by other kids. Nearly a fifth said they heard it from school personnel as well. Two-thirds reported being harassed themselves because of their sexual orientation, and nearly half said they got picked on because, like Lawrence, they didn't act appropriately boyish or girlish.
All of this goes on with impunity: Just 16 percent of the kids said staff "frequently" did something when they overheard hearing homophobic slurs or harassment.
Even more common than explicit slurs are phrases such as "that's so gay" and "you're being queer." They aren't directed at homosexuality itself but are simply meant to identify something as particularly bad— gayness and queerness representing awful enough ideas to be catchall adjectives for anything unwanted. These putdowns are widely considered innocuous, but the kids who are actually gay and queer find them difficult to dismiss. Two-thirds of students in the survey felt stung by the remarks. Overall, 64 percent said they simply felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.
According to Lawrence's classmates, he had every reason to feel unsafe as well. He'd been moved around between gym classes because he got picked on, one friend told a local paper. "Every corner he turned around, people were saying, 'Oh, my god, he's wearing makeup today,' " another classmate told the Los Angeles Times. Lawrence's ability to stand up and be himself, despite being defined as an outcast for it, was nothing short of heroic. When we all ignore efforts to stomp out that sort of heroic existence—whether it comes in the form of bullying or murder—we are complicit in the act.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.