I recall the feelings of hatred and fantasies of revenge I harbored
as a teen-ager in the rural Hudson River Valley, where certain classmates
tormented me because they thought I was gay. The arrival of my adolescence
was urgently convincing me that when bullies called me a faggot,
they were right. My good grades, the leads I got in school plays,
and the encouragement I received for artistic ability could not
compensate for the fear I felt as my sexuality became more and more
Those memories return to me each time I hear that yet another teen-age
boy has taken a gun into a high school and opened fire, leaving
his community terrorized and bewildered. I do not feel bewildered.
The memory of my own revenge fantasies, Bosch-like in their terror,
return to me vividly, even now, 30 years after my days at Van Wyck
Junior High School.
Needless to say, when I heard on April 20, 1999, that Eric Harris
and Dylan Klebold
two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, had
gone on a shooting spree, killing 13 people and wounding 23, I was
stunned. But my shock was underscored by a disquieting sense of recognition.
I immediately wondered if Harris and Klebold were gay. Nowhere in
the early reporting was the possibility even mentioned.
Not since Clarence Darrow defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb,
who gratuitously killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks for a thrill in
1924, has there been a case of murder by a pair of adolescent boys
so bizarre and intriguing to the nation as the massacre at Columbine
High. All the boys came from lives of privilege and saw themselves
as outsiders, superior in significant ways. Like Leopold and Loeb,
Harris and Klebold were said to have a unique and dangerous chemistry
between them; they would never have done alone what they did together.
Both pairs had a relationship in which one was dominant––Loeb and
Harris––and the other passive. Still, in both cases, the boys were
clearly full partners in the assault. Among other details, forensic
evidence confirms that Harris and Klebold were responsible for a
nearly equal number of murders.
Videotapes made by Harris and Klebold reveal that they were very
concerned about hurting their parents with what they were about
to do, especially Klebold. (Leopold and Loeb were similarly concerned
about their families' reactions, especially Leopold). And it is
fascinating that although he made the famous tell-all videotape,
Klebold still took time to erase his computer's hard drive immediately
before the assault on Columbine. Leaving nothing to chance, the
technologically sophisticated boy obliterated all traces of these
files. In view of everything he told on the tape, what could he
have been trying so meticulously to hide?
Though the boys left an extensive record of their thoughts and
plans, the personal details of their friendship remain a mystery.
Unlike Leopold and Loeb, Harris and Klebold did not survive their
crime. The extensive details of the Leopold and Loeb relationship,
wherein Loeb consented to sexual activity with Leopold in exchange
for partnership in increasingly violent crimes, are not to be found
in the Harris and Klebold story.
Gradually, however, in the days and weeks following the shootings,
some details about what had motivated Harris and Klebold began to
emerge. Depending upon who you were, it seems, Columbine High School
could be an oppressive place. It was not until August 1999, fully
four months after the Columbine attack, that Dave Cullen of Salon
reported: "Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had endured repeated harassment
due to rumors they were gay. Jocks especially taunted the pair with
epithets like 'faggot' and 'homo.' "
I read the phrase over and over and over and began to wonder about
other boys at other schools. The details were surprisingly easy
- On February 2, 1996, 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis killed a teacher
and two students at Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake,
Washington. He had been taunted by school jocks who said he was
- On October 1, 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham killed two students
and wounded seven others at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi.
He had often been called "gay" by classmates.
- On December 1, 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal killed three
students and wounded five others at Heath High School in West
Paducah, Kentucky. He had actually been called "gay" in the school
newspaper. His mother was distressed at the lack of concern among
school authorities when she complained.
- The pattern has held in the attacks subsequent to Columbine
as well. In March of this year, after continuous torment by school
mates, 15-year-old Charles "Andy" Williams, a boy reportedly preoccupied
with Harris and Klebold, opened fire at Santana High School in
Santee, California, shooting 15 students and adults and killing
two. He had been derided by classmates for being a "skinny faggot."
After the massacre at Columbine High, the Littleton community and
the media all but
ignored any motivations for the crime, easily dismissing the killers
as "monsters" in need of no explanation, and focusing almost exclusively
on the survivors. The possibility that a culture of intolerance in
idyllic Littleton might have contributed to the tensions at Columbine
was quickly countered by stories of how Christian faith had helped
heal the community. The eagerness to promote this view even extended
to out-and-out distortion.
Video surveillence of Eric
Harris and Dylan
Klebold at Columbine High School.
Nearly everyone knows the story of Cassie Bernall. While pointing
a gun at her head, Klebold supposedly asked Bernall if she believed
in God, and the girl bravely answered, "Yes." She was summarily
shot, becoming a martyr. Bolstered by details that Bernall was formerly
a troubled teen who had threatened to kill her own parents, the
story was recounted in the best-selling book She Said Yes: The
Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall written by her mother,
Only it never happened. Emily Wyant, the only surviving witness
to Bernall's murder, was with Bernall, looking into her eyes when
Klebold slammed his hand on the table under which they were hiding,
said, "Peekaboo," and without exchanging a word, shot the girl.
Bernall's murder was tragic, yes, but not the inspirational pro-Christian
martyrdom that it was to become. Yet Right-wing fundamentalist groups
have used the story to recruit teen-agers into Christian youth groups
from coast to coast. The Rocky Mountain News continued to
run stories promoting She Said Yes as a factual account for
five months after they learned it was fictitious, stopping only
after Cullen reported the true story.
Right-wing leaders were quick to light on the possibility that
the Columbine killers were gay, with little or no prompting. The
Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas sent out a media alert
saying, "Two filthy fags slaughtered 13 people at Columbine High";
the Rev. Jerry Falwell described Klebold and Harris as gay on Geraldo
With rumors circulating that the two boys were gay, the Denver
gay community has been reluctant to speak up. Their dilemma is obvious.
If the killers were gay, and tormented for it, that proves homophobia
is destructive. On the other hand, depicting the killers sympathetically
could lead to a backlash against the gay community. Gay people are
disarmed, unable to stand up for the murderers, even though doing
so might prevent future murders. The right, meanwhile, can point
to the killings in a way that could encourage further repression
and abuse of gay teens.
There are those who seem to be saying that if a kid eventually
turns violent, it proves that he deserved any bullying he may have
suffered. Many argue that all teen-agers get called "gay" and "faggot,"
that the words are as common as hello or good-bye. But persistent,
focused torment of an individual because the epithet is perceived
to be true is another matter entirely.
Persecution of gay high school students, and students perceived
to be gay, is endemic. A 1998 survey of 58 high schools conducted
by the Massachusetts Department of Education revealed that 22 percent
of gay respondents had skipped school in the past month because
they felt unsafe there. Thirty-one percent had been threatened or
injured at school sometime during the previous 12 months. A recent
study in Iowa indicated that the average high school student in
Des Moines hears about 25 anti-gay remarks each day. And in June,
Human Rights Watch released a 203-page report, which suggests that
gay teen-agers in U.S. schools are often subjected to such intense
bullying that they are unable to receive an adequate education.
The report says that the problem affects as many as 2 million school-age
Still schools typically act as if this phenomenon does not exist.
Human Rights Watch reports
that school officials usually ignore such harassment, that tormentors
are often not held accountable, and that, in some cases, school
officials have even encouraged or participated in the abuse. Beth
Reis, a principal researcher of a study of school-related anti-gay
violence in Washington State, observed that harassment, if not ignored,
is typically dismissed as "teasing." Sometimes the victims are advised
that if they insist upon being openly gay, they have to expect such
treatment. Joyce Stanton Mitchell reports in College Board Review
that a survey of the nation's 42 largest school districts indicates
that 76 percent do not provide teacher training on issues facing
gay students. Indeed, teachers ignore instances of anti-gay harassment
97 percent of the time.
Human Rights Watch also documents instances of physical violence
against gay teens. Such occurrences are routinely reported, but
seldom pulled together in a way that would reveal a pattern. For
instance, California teen-agers lobbying for a bill specifically
banning discrimination against gay students, sponsored by state
Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), reported being spat upon and beaten.
In 1999, Jonathan Shapiro, 18, and Matthew Rogers, 20, reportedly
used a pocket knife to cut the word "HOMO" into the back of a 17-year-old
junior at Northfield Mount Hermon School, a private school in Massachusetts,
because the boy liked the British rock band Queen, whose lead singer
Freddie Mercury died of AIDS complications in 1991. "Rogers called
it a gay band," said local Police Chief David Hastings.
Reis' study of anti-gay violence in Washington State, which was
conducted by a group of public and private agencies called the Safe
Schools Coalition, chronicled eight anti-gay motivated gang
rapes on boys and girls. In one case, a school cheerleader reported
being forced to watch while a lesbian friend who had kissed her
at the prom was raped and urinated upon by the cheerleader's boyfriend
and his friends. The attack allegedly occurred in a storage building
on school grounds, but was never reported to school authorities.
The increase in campus gay-baiting is happening at the same time
as an increase in the number of gay student support groups, such
as Gay-Straight Alliances
(in which gay kids can find support while still being ambiguous
about whether they are gay or merely sympathetic), and an increase
in lawsuits pursued by those who have been victimized. The shootings
at Columbine High School have directly and universally altered the
landscape of these events.
In December 1999, for instance, the Boston Herald reported
that a Sandwich, Massachusetts high school student, who had been
expelled for making death threats just days after the Columbine
High shootings, filed a $75 million lawsuit, claiming that his classmates
had made school "a living hell" for him and that school officials
had done nothing about it. "The boy, who was 16 at the time," reported
the Herald, "snapped after 18 months of jeers and taunts from kids
who called him fat and gay." Whether the boy is gay or not, in the
"don't ask, don't tell" world of teen-agers, he understandably claims
not to be.
The "Littleton" connection was made in March 2000 in Toronto, when
it was reported that an eighth-grade student had been arrested for
allegedly making a "kill list" with the names of five schoolmates
on it. Police came to the school and arrested the teen, charging
him with five counts of threatening others. He was suspended from
school indefinitely and forbidden to go near the five male students
named on his list. The immediate response of the school principal
was to assert, "our response is to take it seriously and follow
The list, however, was not unmotivated. According to the Toronto
Star, the 14-year-old boy's classmates said that he "had been
the target of teasing, with some kids calling him 'gay.' " Toronto
District School Board chairwoman Gail Nyberg told In These Times
that the bullies were reprimanded and sent to counselors. Nyberg,
however, has battled conservative groups over her efforts to ban
anti-gay language from the Toronto schools. "Opponents have argued,"
Nyberg says, "that if we protect gay teens now, in a year we'll
be writing laws protecting those who 'wear glasses or have pimples.'
And in Washington State, Gov. Gary Locke and some of his fellow
Democrats have been scrambling to resurrect a measure intended to
stop bullying in public schools. The bill was derailed after the
Washington chapter of the Christian Coalition denounced it as a
gay rights measure, arguing that the legislation denied Christians
the right to vocalize their abhorrence of homosexuality.
Is it any wonder, given the realities of society's attitudes toward
gay people, that gay
teens are generally invisible, as opposed to their notoriously demonstrative
heterosexual peers? Yet clues to their existence abound.
Teen killers Nathan Leopold
and Richard Loeb
with their attorney Clarence Darrow in 1924.
Look at the nation's youth suicide rate. Gay males account for
more than half of male youth suicide. A pivotal 1978 study by Alan
P. Bell and Martins Weinberg of Indiana University first indicated
a suicide rate among homosexual males 14 times higher than that
of their heterosexual peers. Study after study reconfirms this result.
A recent study of 750 males ages 18 to 27 years in Calgary, Alberta
revealed that homosexual males comprised 62.5 percent of suicide
Here in Buffalo, I read recently about a boy from a local Catholic
high school, an excellent student, star of school musicals and the
well-loved son of an affluent family. The accompanying photo showed
a handsome blond youth with a sparkling smile. The story was about
his suicide. My antennae went up. I knew his drama teacher and called
her. "Why?" I asked, and she responded, "We all think he was gay."
The whole notion that gay teen-agers exist disturbs some people.
Gay teens themselves are not immune to societal hate and repulsion
of homosexuality. This is specially true for those growing up in
intolerant environments. Some direct that hatred inward. As a society
we apparently are more comfortable with gay teen suicide than we
are with gay teens. How different the attitude becomes when such
hatred and repulsion is not directed inward.
In 1999, at the time of the shootings, Columbine High School had
no services geared toward gay youth and had never had an openly
gay student. Aricia La France, a Mennonite youth worker in Littleton,
says that one lesbian student told her she had been in class with
Klebold when he protested to the teacher that another student had
called him a "fag," and the teacher replied, "But you are, aren't
This story may be apocryphal. But interviews with Columbine students
indicate that the possible homosexuality of Klebold and Harris is
used to confirm that they were freaks or monsters--not to open the
dialogue on tolerance and diversity. The implication is that the
abuse the pair suffered in life is justified by the deed they finally
Ben Oakley, a sophomore from the soccer team, told Salon's
Cullen that students picked on the boys "all the time," because
they were in the Trench Coat Mafia, a clique of Columbine misfits
who wore black trench coats to school. "The majority of [the Trench
Coat Mafia] were gay," Oakley said. "So everyone would make fun
These observations were reiterated by several self-described jocks
from Columbine High who told unsubstantiated tales of the boys and
their Trench Coat friends taking showers together, or "touching"
each other or holding hands and groping in the school corridors.
Friends of Klebold and Harris insisted that the boys were heterosexual,
and using the naēve logic of adolescence, cited the fact that both
had taken dates to the prom as "proof."
The truth may never be known. The boys probably had not sorted
the issue out for themselves. Still, a kind of consensus has developed,
fueled by persistent rumors in the Denver gay community that at
least one of the boys was gay. Whatever the case, the fact remains
that Littleton is a very bad place to be gay.
LaFrance knows this to be true. She and her husband Ray opened
a teen haven in a coffeehouse setting called "The Place," in Littleton
in July 1999, following the Columbine shootings. They expected to
serve about 200 youngsters. During their 18 months of operation,
the number reached 1,300. Remarkably, a survey identifies 20 percent
of the teen visitors as "gay," 12 percent as "bisexual" and about
20 percent as "minorities." Located in a strip mall, their neighbors,
including a fundamentalist Christian church, abhorred them. "The
basic theme was total acceptance and tolerance," explains LaFrance.
"If you pick a fight or call somebody a fag, you're out of here!"
LaFrance has worked with violent kids for 15 years. In the context
of Columbine, her apparent sympathy for the bad guys made her immediately
unpopular. Given the Christian tenor of the town, so did her comfort
with homosexuality. "Those who liked us called my chief volunteer
and me 'Will and Grace.' The church next door called us 'the hell
LaFrance recalls when one boy, who was sitting on the steps of
The Place smoking, heard some other kids saying, "you faggot this
and you faggot that." He asked them to stop, explaining, "because
I'm gay." That evening when he went to his car he found it vandalized,
the seat urinated on, and a Bible page left for his edification.
"He is a really together kid, and he just seemed to shrug it off,"
she says. "Not every kid could do that."
Indeed not. Especially not in rural and suburban America, where
support for gay teens is scarce. A gay teen-ager who moved from
Littleton to urban Denver told Cullen of his experiences coming
out as gay in eighth grade at Deer Creek Middle School, which feeds
students to Columbine. "One year everyone loved me," he said. "The
next year I was the most hated kid in the whole school." Jocks were
his worst tormentors, he said. He described one in particular who
pelted him with rocks, wrote "faggot" and "we hate you" on his locker
and taunted him him in the hallway with: "I heard the faggot got
butt-fucked last night."
"It gets to the point where you're crying in school because the
people won't leave you alone," he said. "The teachers don't do anything
about it." The boy attempted suicide several times that year, and
eventually spent time in a mental hospital. "It can drive you to
the point of insanity. What they want to do is make you cry. They
want to hurt you. It's horrible. I hope that the one thing people
learn out of this whole thing is to stop teasing people."
In the interview, the boy didn't condone what Harris and Klebold
did, but said he understood what drove them over the edge. "They
couldn't take it anymore, and instead of taking it out on themselves,
they took it out on other people. I took it out on myself. But it
was a daily thought: 'Boy, would I really like to hurt someone.
Boy, would I like to see them dead.'"
Anthony Chase is a freelance writer in Buffalo, New