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An Invisible

An Invisible


LGBT youths victimized by hate crimes are now being targeted as much for their gender expression as for their sexual orientation. GenderPAC's Riki Wilchins examines this underreported phenomenon.

As we mourn the tragic slaying of 15-year-old Lawrence King, few of us realize that his death is part of a growing epidemic that is claiming the life of another gender-nonconforming young person every couple of months.

His killing has been universally termed a "gay hate crime" of unique violence, but there is reason to doubt both these claims, which obscure a larger truth.

King's killing was far from unique. GenderPAC, the organization I head, has long tracked crimes against gender-nonconforming people. By our count, 59 such people have been murdered since 1995. The most recent victim, Simmie Williams Jr., was shot and killed February 22 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Like Larry, most victims were biologically male but presenting femininely. And most perpetrators, all males, attacked others their own age: Almost two thirds of the known assailants attacked victims within five years of their own age.

And like Larry, they were young: Almost one third of the victims were teenagers. As more young people see gender as the next frontier and test the boundaries of gender transgression, more are dying.

But there are some things about this horrific killing that really are unique, beginning with the fact that so many people are hearing about it. Only about 20% of the fatal assaults GenderPAC documented generated anything like the kind of sustained mainstream media coverage King's killing received.

Second, authorities in the King case labeled the killing a hate crime. Three quarters of the hate-crime cases GenderPAC tracked were not so classified, often despite clear evidence of bias.

Third, King's assailant was caught. If you fatally assault a young person because of his or her gender expression, odds are on your side that you'll get away with it: In 54% of the cases GenderPAC tracked, the assailants are still free -- versus only 31% for homicides nationally.

The vast majority of these killings appear to be attempts by young males to enforce codes of masculinity and punish gender transgression through extreme violence. This does parallel the King case.

Eighth-grade classmate Michael Sweeney was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying that King "would come to school in high-heeled boots, makeup, jewelry, and painted nails -- the whole thing. That was freaking the guys out." Though the Times reported that in the days before the attack King had made it known he had a crush on McInerney, doesn't it seem likely that McInerney was motivated not just by King's self-proclaimed gayness but by his gender expression as well?

But there is this weird kind of erasure in the gay community around gender. When a gay kid is attacked, it's a "gay hate crime." Somehow gayness is never really about gender, unless it's transgender, and then of course it's not gay.

Well, this young generation is about to trample the carefully manicured hedges we've grown between orientation and gender. They neither see nor observe the bright-line distinctions between L, G, B, and T -- forever discrete and distinct -- that we have worked so hard to maintain.

Our assailants are enraged by how we look, act, and dress -- our gender. We camp it up; we wear high-heeled boots or even mascara. Like frail, blond Matthew Shepard, we fail to be paragons of masculinity, or like 15-year-old Sakia Gunn, we go out at night dressed like boys.

Even when homosexuality is per se at the root of a killing, what is fear and loathing of homosexuality for most males but dread of losing one's masculinity, dread of all that is seen as weak or feminine?

This gender hatred is one reason so many of the assaults have been so spectacularly vicious. Half the young victims GenderPAC has documented since 1995 were attacked with some combination of shooting, bludgeoning, and stabbing. Many were assaulted further even after the victim was clearly dead.

Perhaps this gender hatred is also part of what lies behind King's killing. His assailant planned the attack in advance and shot him twice in the head. These are the actions of an assailant who wanted to not just kill but annihilate, to obliterate something that offends him so deeply, the only response is brutal rage.

How can we combat this kind of hatred as a community until we fully understand and acknowledge its roots?

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