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Not surprisingly, North Carolina is not on the leading edge of change when it comes to both hate crime legislation and an anti-bullying statute.

They shoot gays, don't they? 

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Even before last winter, Lawrence "Larry" King, an eighth grader at E.O. Green Junior High in Oxnard, Calif., had it rough. His classmates in the school, north of Los Angeles in Ventura County, routinely picked on him. "Hey you gay kid, you want to wear lipstick?" one of King's friends recalled of the taunting. Another classmate told the Los Angeles Times, "You'd hear, 'Faggot! Hey faggot!' That was happening in every class."

For King, who had been adopted and then recently removed from the only family he knew by child protective services, every day must have been a nightmare.

Friends say that the anti-gay slurs and vitriol only grew worse as the young man began to come out more visibly, wearing make-up and girls' boots with his school uniform. It's also alleged that the slightly built young man began hitting on, that is to say flirting with, Brandon McInerney, a fellow eighth grader, known as one of the "cool" guys in school as well as a "real jerk."

McInerney's life had been stained by violence and turmoil. His father allegedly shot his mother in the arm, shattering her elbow, and each of his parents accused the other of drug addiction and physical assaults before finally divorcing. By the time he reached junior high, the worst seemed behind for McInerney, who often spent his afternoons studying martial arts and training for the Young Marines, a service program whose mission is "character building, leadership, and promot[ing] a healthy, drug-free lifestyle." To many, it seems McInerney was an enigma.

King told friends that the Young Marine was "cute," and he may have asked, even dared, McInerney to be his valentine. Boys being boys, McInerney's friends started to joke that he, too, must be a fag. The students recalled that McInerney told King to "fuck off," or something close to that. Later that same day, McInerney mentioned to one girl "that he was going to kill Larry," a classmate recalled for the Times.

On Feb. 12, a month after King turned 15, he came to school at 8:30 a.m. as usual, and as the other students unpacked their lunches and books, McInerney put a gun to King's head and fired two shots. Upon arrival at the hospital, King was declared brain dead and kept on life support until the day after Valentine's Day so that his organs could be properly donated.

Ventura County prosecutors alleged the killing was a "premeditated hate crime," one of a growing number of such crimes against LGBT people. According to the FBI's most recent statistics, bias crimes against gays made up 16 percent of all reported hate crimes in 2006—or 1,195 documented incidents. This is an increase: In 2005, bias crimes motivated by sexual orientation composed 14 percent of all documented incidents.

Many LGBT advocacy groups claim that the actual numbers are much higher because victims are often fearful of reporting crimes and many of the police agencies participating in data collection provide unreliable information. For instance, a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 191,000 hate crimes occur annually; however, in 2006, the FBI's reported number of all hate crimes in the United States was 7,782. It is unlikely that the number decreased so precipitously during that time.

In 2006, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights organization, told the media: "Sexual orientation remains the third-highest recorded bias crime in our country, which underscores that anti-gay hate crimes are a very real problem nationwide." In North Carolina, sexual orientation accounted for nearly 20 percent—or 10 of 66—of all reported bias-motivated criminal incidents, behind race and religion, according to a 2004 study release by Partners Against Hate, a project of the Anti-Defamation League.

click to enlarge Sean Kennedy was 20 when he was murdered outside a South Carolina bar last year; his killer got three years. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE KENNEDY FAMILY
  • Photo courtesy of the Kennedy family
  • Sean Kennedy was 20 when he was murdered outside a South Carolina bar last year; his killer got three years.

Closer to home, 20-year-old Sean Kennedy was murdered about a year ago outside a gay bar in Greenville, S.C., by then-18-year-old Stephen Moller, who called Kennedy an anti-gay slur and then punched him in the head so forcefully that he broke his face bones. Kennedy fell; the resulting impact killed him. Leaving the scene, Moller called one of the victim's friends, saying, "You tell your faggot friend that when he wakes up he owes me $500 for my broken hand."

Two weeks ago, Moller, whose murder charge had already been reduced to involuntary manslaughter, was sentenced to three years in jail for Kennedy's killing. He received credit for the seven months he had served. According to a Greenville, S.C., newspaper, Moller's attorney, in arguing for the shortest possible sentence, told the judge that jail time would "only hurt him" and that "there are some bad people in that place, and he's going to be exposed to things he's never been exposed to."

It's not for me to rain on anyone's gay pride parade this week, but many LGBT people, including myself at times, have spent the past month in a state of pink triangle euphoria. Our collective high first erupted after the California Supreme Court paved the way for same-sex weddings in mid-May and then, again, after New York Gov. David Paterson allowed that out-of-state lesbian and gay marriages would be recognized by the state as it does any other union.

Last week's spate of lesbian and gay weddings throughout California, and the non-stop news coverage, has only intensified the collective pent-up emotion—and rapture—within our community. After the California court announced its monumental decision last month, I received a barrage of e-mails like these: "This is one of the biggest victories the Gay and Lesbian rights movement has seen in our entire history." "We won!!!! We won!!!!"

On a similar note, Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, wrote in her blog recently: "The past two weeks have been the most exhilarating and exhausting (in a good way) of my entire life. I am at turns elated, joyful, anxious, hopeful, nervous, determined and thrilled. One moment it feels like the past 14 days have flown by and the next it feels as if this landmark decision was announced months ago."

All true, but at the same time the LGBT community—as well as the larger community—must realize that our collective work is far from done, not only on the marriage issue, but also when it comes to fairness and equality for LGBT people in so many other areas: custody cases, employment discrimination, school protections, asylum cases, as well as anti-bullying protections and hate crimes.

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Download PDF (115 KB) - Hate Crime Laws in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, North Carolina is not on the leading edge of change, indeed we're far from it, when it comes to both hate crime legislation and an anti-bullying statute. While 32 states now have some sort of anti-gay bias provisions, our region fares the worst in this regard. Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina do not have any statutory protections for hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile, the federal hate crimes bill, known as the Matthew Shepard Act in memory of the slain 21-year-old, has stalled after passing both houses of Congress.

Here at home, there's been much talk but no final decision on what is formally known as The School Violence Prevention Act and, informally, as the school anti-bullying and harassment measure. Introduced in the N.C. House in April 2007 by two Democrats and two Republicans, the bill, now with broad bipartisan support, "would require schools to adopt strong policies against bullying and harassment, including bullying based on 'gender, gender identification or expression, ... [and] sexual orientation.'"

According to Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality NC, the largest LGBT rights advocacy group in the state, "We're still waiting for the House to concur with the Senate changes. It's on hold."

Why is it on hold? What is so controversial about this measure that the North Carolina Family Policy Council and other conservative groups have flexed their collective muscle in continuing attempts to defeat it? According to the NCFPC's Web site, "the bill would create a specially protected status on the basis of their actual or perceived 'sexual orientation' or 'gender identity or expression.'"

Says Palmquist: "All it would do is require schools to have policies to protect students against acts of bias." It's key to highlight that the bill does include provisions for bullying based on race, color, religion, national origin and so on. Basically, the NCFPC simply wants to white out any protections having to do with and for LGBT people. Maybe I don't get it, but that seems like creating "a specially unprotected status" for LGBT youth.

Before I started the research for this essay, I'll admit I didn't fully understand the implications of bullying and harassment on my community and, even more importantly, the tie between the former and hate crimes. To be sure, like all too many gay boys, I was beaten up (some blood, nothing broken, not too bad) when I was in junior high. It taught me two simple lessons: Don't flaunt it, and stay out of the line of fire. "Boys will be boys," I've long thought.

Palmquist disagreed with me, and now I think he's right: "Not only is bullying causing students to drop out or to turn to drugs or alcohol, it can also lead to more violence like the Lawrence King case," Palmquist explained in a recent interview.

Palmquist is not alone in his thinking. Shannon Gilreath, a law professor at Wake Forest University and author of Sexual Politics: The Gay Person in America Today, told me "97 percent of students hear homophobic remarks in the schools and, as a result, 80 percent of gay youth report some kind of social isolation."

Bad enough, but Gilreath pointedly added: "Physical violence begins with bullying, name calling and homophobic remarks. When nothing happens to someone [for making slurs], it escalates to violence."

He was quick to remind me that in both the Larry King and Sean Kennedy cases "there was quite a history of anti-gay speech before the incidents occurred."

The proposed anti-bullying act in North Carolina would only require schools to have some policies in place to protect students. Currently, Palmquist says that many teachers and administrators "look the other way." That certainly seems to have been the case at E.O. Green Junior High, the school Larry King attended.

One of the late boy's friends, a 13-year-old, told the Los Angeles Times: "A lot of teachers knew stuff was going on.... I guess they just didn't want to be involved."

On the Los Angeles Times' site, bloggers posted more than 600 comments within days of the murder. One volunteered what she thought should have happened: "What they can do is educate [the teachers] and their staff about safety in the schools; they need to learn how to recognize a tragedy in the making and stop it before it gets this far." Another added: "This is a prime example of how far back hate crimes start. These kids are only 14 and already are acting much like the rest of the world."

I've now learned that it's not that big a jump from anti-gay bullying to LGBT hate crimes and, in that sad light, it came as little surprise to me when Palmquist explained that the Safer Communities Act, a North Carolina bill that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected classes in the existing hate crime statute, had been killed in Raleigh.

Palmquist and I talked the day Stephen Moller received less than 30 months of jail time for the murder of Sean Kennedy. South Carolina, like its sibling to the north, has no statutory protections for LGBT people. Said Palmquist: "It's another case of letting boys be boys—with no one held accountable. This is why inclusive hate crimes legislation is so important. It sends a clear message that these kinds of cases do need to be taken seriously." He added: "There's very little enthusiasm for [our] legislators to take on this issue. It's not seen as a good political opportunity."

Ten years have passed since the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard on a country lane outside of Laramie, Wyo. Just how far have we come? It's clear that Shepard's murder transfixed the nation and galvanized fair-minded folks on the coasts as well as the heartland. Yes, you can turn on the television and see Ellen, reruns of Will & Grace, and The L Word in living color. Yes, gays and lesbians in the Golden State can now marry as our brothers and sisters do up in Massachusetts. But, let us not be overwhelmed by emotion or blinded by joy. As long as our schools are not safe for our younger brothers and sisters, none of us is truly safe.

One of the Southern California bloggers left these words behind: "How long will [the Larry King] story make the headlines? I fear that this will all be forgotten. Will America ever learn? Lawrence was not the first child to have been killed because of his sexuality." Nor, sadly, will he be the last.

Steven Petrow is the past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and is currently working on a memoir of coming out. He lives in Chapel Hill.

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