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On Monday, police in the small, liberal town of Oxnard, CA, declared last week’s school shooting of a 15-year-old boy to be a hate-crime, motivated by the victim’s sexuality. The boy, Lawrence King, recently came out as gay to his peers at his junior high school. A few weeks later, a classmate shot him dead.
On the face of it, the Oxnard shooting is another tragic case of a gun-toting kid with inappropriate access to a deadly weapon. But this incident has implications beyond gun control laws (California’s are some of the nation’s strongest). The killer, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney, murdered King not because he had access to a gun, but because King had declared his “abnormal” sexuality both explicitly and, allegedly, by dressing and acting in what was perceived to be an inappropriately feminine manner.
Residents expressed shock and horror, both at the sudden presence of such a gruesome hate crime in their midst and, most of all (and understandably), at the age of those involved.
The incident is faintly reminiscent of one of America’s most notorious hate crimes, the 1993 murder of Brandon Teena. An adult when he was murdered, Teena had endured bullying throughout his life for his gender transgressions. Born female he began, at a young age, to identify and live as a man. When an adult he moved to the small Nebraska town of Falls City, hoping to live peacefully as a man and, perhaps at some point, to undergo sex change surgery. Teena dated women and befriended guys successfully, until a couple of his friends discovered his secret. Aghast at the affront to their masculine sensitivities and their hitherto manly friendship, two of Teena’s friends beat and raped him. A week after he reported it to police (upon the encouragement of his girlfriend, who remained loyal throughout), they shot him.
Immediately afterwards, journalists, trans theorists and feminists jumped on the incident, and the details emerged under the eyes of a morbidly fascinated public. Teena was often erroneously referred to a lesbian, who had taken on a male identity to avoid the stigma of dating women as a female. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the reaction was how, in the wake of a murder prompted by the urge to punish the transgression of gender roles, no one could resist the urge to somehow fit Teena into some kind of explainable category.
Both Teena and King broke the rules by embracing an unacceptable identity. But the problem is not our intolerance of transgressive identities so much as our need to insist upon a categorical interpretation of the individual’s personal life. No fifteen-year-old—or any adult for that matter—should ever have to declare his sexual identity, because he should be free to explore his personal preferences without undue reference to questions about his identity or essence.
Of course, it’s hard to indict individuals like Teena or King for embracing a particular gender role or orientation. But it’s unfortunate that the notion of a hard-and-fast sexuality has made its way further down the age spectrum, to the point where a boy just past his 13th birthday can pick up a gun and murder a member of the “wrong” sexuality.
Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, told the New York Times that “more and more kids are coming out in junior high school and expressing gender different identities at younger ages.” He suggests that this trend indicates a greater degree maturity on the part of adolescents. His error is to mistake the use of adult sexual categories for maturity.
Conservatives often bemoan the loss of childhood innocence, over-sexualization and teenage promiscuity (the last of which has in fact seen a decrease in recent years). Instead, we should bemoan the loss of childhood formlessness, that is, the loss of individualistic perception and its replacement by an adult brand of group-think, whereby a collection of facts automatically leads to a rule. Certainly, in a more child-like, fluid, and flexible society, social dynamics would be more confusing, but they would also be more free, fulfilling, and exciting.
Juliet S. Samuel ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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