Two gay U.S. teenagers have been brutally killed since Feb. 12, apparently because of their sexual orientation or gender variance.
Exodus Youth — a Florida-based ex-gay project that claims to uphold the welfare of sexually struggling youths — has responded to the killings, thus far, with official silence. But in the meantime, an Exodus Youth staffer and Exodus executive have, on a personal blog, given their nod to legislation that would prevent public schools from acknowledging that gay youths even exist. And in Maryland, the ex-gay political group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays responded to the killings with silence while continuing to support a battle against local transgender-tolerance legislation.
Simmie Williams Jr., 17, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was shot and killed early on Feb. 22 in a location that is said to be a popular hang-out for transgender persons; the killers are being sought, their motives as-yet unknown. Williams was openly gay and was dressed in feminine clothing at the time of the shooting.
Previously, Lawrence King, 15, of Oxnard, Calif., was shot in the head in a classroom by an alleged bully Feb. 12 after reported altercations over King’s sexual orientation and gender-variant clothing. He was declared brain-dead two days later and his organs were harvested for donation. In the wake of that killing, pro-tolerance and anti-violence vigils were held locally and nationally.
Police are treating both incidents as possible hate crimes.
The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale interviewed Williams’ mother:
“I gave him $2 for the bus and he never came back,” said Denise King, who lived with her son west of Fort Lauderdale. “He was a quiet person, kept to himself. He had a lot of friends. He wasn’t a troubled child. He was a happy person.”
At the same time, being black, gay and dressing in women’s clothing made Williams “a minority within a minority within a minority,” said Grant Lynn Ford, dean of Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, a church that ministers to gays, lesbians and their families.
Sometimes people picked on Williams, but he knew how to brush it off, his mother said.
Williams had signed up Wednesday for Job Corps, a federal government program designed to teach students vocational skills. He planned to get his GED and then go to culinary school, his mother said.
“That’s what he really wanted to do. That’s all he talked about,” said King. “He spent the whole day with me yesterday, played with his nephew and cooked dinner.”
Then he left the house Thursday night to go to Sistrunk, where the family lived at one point, she said. A few hours later, he was dead.
These incidents are just the latest in a decades-long pattern of violence against gay youths. In an effort to understand and thwart the violence, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network has conducted research about violence against gay and transgender youths, particularly in U.S. schools. Among GLSEN’s findings (courtesy of The Washington Blade):
- In the study From Teasing to Torment — a study of all students, not just sexual minorities — only 78 percent of LGBT-identified students said they felt “Very Safe” or “Somewhat Safe” compared to 93 percent of non-LGBT students. Only 40 percent of LGBT-identified said they felt very safe in school.
- GLSEN’ 2005 National School Climate Survey, nearly two-thirds of the approximately 2,000 students surveyed said they felt unsafe in their school because of their sexual orientation.
- Nearly one in five LGBT students — 18 percent — reported being physically assaulted in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
- 22 percent of those assaulted did not report the assault, usually because they felt faculty would do nothing about it or because they feared negative repercussions for taking action.
- Less than half (43 percent) of students who reported the assault said that telling school personnel when they were harassed or assaulted made a difference.
Amid this climate of fear and violence, the ex-gay political network Exodus International has ridiculed efforts to reduce tensions through Days of Silence and Safe Schools programs. Instead, Exodus joins fundamentalist groups in calling antiviolence programs “propaganda” that are intended to reinforce homosexuality and gender variance.
In response to the latest killings, Exodus and its antigay youth program have expressed no official concern whatsoever.
Worse, Exodus executive vice president Randy Thomas and Exodus Youth activist Mike Ensley — writing on Thomas’ personal blog — gave their nod to legislation in Tennessee that “forbids any instruction or materials discussing sexual orientation other than heterosexuality in Tennessee’s elementary or middle schools.” Such a law could easily be used to silence the same youths who are being verbally and physically assaulted and to prevent schools from acknowledging or discussing these youths.
Luckily, this legislative effort failed: Critics, including some Tennessee legislators, said the bill was not needed and would put the state Legislature in the business of dictating school curriculum — decisions best left to professional educators. Hedy Weinberg of the ACLU also said the measure would violate constitutional rights to free speech.
Exodus Youth believes that gay and gender-variant youths need Jesus, not antiviolence programs. Critics respond that Jesus is of little use to a youth once he or she has been killed.