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A Gay Teen's "Bad

A Gay Teen's "Bad


On February 12 a gay eighth-grade student in Oxnard, Calif.. lay in a pool of his own blood in his school's computer lab as his attacker, a classmate, ran out of the room and off campus. John Ireland explores the undeniable feeling that Lawrence King took the bullet for every gay teenager.

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On Tuesday morning of this week, an eighth-grade student in Oxnard, Calif., sat in front of a monitor in the school computer lab. Within a few minutes, he would lie dying on the floor in a pool of his own blood as his attacker, a classmate, ran out of the room and off campus.

Unlike most boys his age, Lawrence King did not seek to blend in. Many of us remember junior high as our most harrowing years of peer pressure and social uncertainty, no matter what crowd we fit into -- nerd, jock, pep squad, orchestra, or somewhere in between. At 15 years old, King dressed effeminately, wore makeup and fingernail polish, and told people he was gay.

School officials knew that King had been bullied. They had attempted, unsuccessfully, to contain and prevent the tension on campus that followed him around. A police spokesman said there had been, between these two students, some "bad blood..."

Puberty is a time when boys learn about the young men they will become. Junior high is a crucible of adult forces. It's a microcosm of society with built-in artificial boundaries designed to give a taste of responsibility but governed by adults who can step in when the preadolescent brain is overwhelmed -- when it is overruled by more base instincts.

While teachers and texts introduce the lessons of free speech and individual freedoms, the children experiment with behavior, identity, and appearance in a thousand different ways. They sense and feel out the edges between comfort and discomfort, eventually finding the bounds that will define their character. Enforcement comes in the form of strict rules, visits to the vice principal's office, and after-school detention.

When I heard about King's murder, I was struck by the undeniable feeling that, in a way, he had taken a bullet for me. When I was in middle school, I knew I was gay, but I buried it deep inside. I skillfully deflected teenage crushes, whispers in the locker room, and dates to the prom. I moved far away for college, hoping that an East Coast Jesuit Catholic university experience would set me straight.

It didn't. In fact, my carefully crafted naivete allowed me to miss the dire consequences that my "out" gay brethren had endured around me all along. Nobody had guessed that I was gay, and I was able to escape detection because the more effeminate guys caught all of the trouble.

My senior year, at 21, I lost my celibate focus. I fell head over heels in love with a classmate. Right around Valentine's Day, I was asked to organize my college blood drive. I delivered the compelling pitch, "Giving blood is giving the gift of life," to everyone I met, and passed around sign-up sheets, spreading the word far and wide with a fervor unmatched by previous organizers. I booked the first appointment and marched into the office to give my best, my blood. I learned a hard lesson before I could even roll up my sleeve and make a fist.

"Have you had sex with a man since 1977?" asked the nurse, holding the collection syringe in one hand and an iodine swab in the other. I sat there in silence as I searched to understand what I was feeling -- shame. As she stared at me, waiting for a response, I got the message. They did not want my blood. My embarrassment crystallized into anger -- my blood, what makes us all human, was worthless, maybe even poisonous. Society's messages may seem harmless, but they can cut deep. Such messages add to the culture of fear that surrounds gay people. And those pressures are intensified for adolescents.

The Valentine's season is always awash in red. Boxes filled with chocolates, cherry lipstick kisses on love letters, and velvety roses exchanged between lovers. Whether we get it at 15 years old or much later as an adult, the message is red-hot. Every gay person remembers his first corrective message -- being gay is not OK. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. The lucky among us get bruised. Some of us get killed.

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A Gay Teen's "Bad

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