The Chronicle

Younger generation listens to the tolerance, ignores the bigotry

Just what is it they are afraid of? The question occurs to me whenever I hear of assaults on homosexual men and women. It occurred to me last month when some young Wyomingites, apparently motivated by anti-gay bias, beat Matthew Shepard to death.

And it occurs to me now that Matthew "Alex'' McLendon has been driven out of his Carrollton, Ga., high school for dressing-and apparently for "being"-like a girl.

You know the sad case of Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, who was lured from a local bar, pistol-whipped and left tied to a fence outside Laramie. He died without ever regaining consciousness.

Now let Dan Sewell of the Associated Press tell you about 15-year-old Alex:

"Patrick Nelson had heard there was a cross-dressing boy enrolled at his high school. But darned if he could figure out just who it was.

"'I looked for him the first couple weeks. The honest truth-I didn't even know,' Patrick said.

"One day, he was talking about the mystery to a friend, who smiled and pointed to the pretty blonde at the desk next to his. 'I said, "No way, that's too weird!''' Patrick recalled. 'Then I thought about it, and I said, "So what's so weird about that?"'

"Plenty, it turns out, at least in the minds of the people who run the small, private Georgian Country Day School. After a meeting of the school board, Alex was given an ultimatum: Withdraw or face expulsion.

"Not for cross-dressing, of course. Not even for being gay. Alex says he's not homosexual. No, the boy was cited for wearing a tongue ring. Maybe it was just coincidental that he'd been called on the carpet earlier for his dress, makeup and hairstyle.

A classmate and friend in whose home Alex occasionally had spent the night said her pal (whom she still thinks of as female) was good-natured and harmless, not causing any sort of problem. 'She got along well with everybody. She wasn't trying to change anybody to be like her or anything.'

"The friend's mother, a drama teacher at the school, said she popped unannounced into her daughter's room the first couple of times Alex stayed over, just to be on the safe side.

'"They'd be sitting there doing hair, or painting nails, and I said to myself, "This is a girl,"' she said.

"Alex would pretty much buy that description. He says he's 'about 95 percent girl. I just look like a girl and I dress like a girl. It wasn't anything flamboyant, not sequins or anything.'"

Granted, Alex's aberrant dress might have posed a problem for school officials trying to maintain a dress code, it strikes me as a problem that could have been handled in a high school of 50 kids. That is, if anyone wanted to handle it. Instead, the officials reacted as though to a threat, and I ask again: What could they have been afraid of?

What are gay-bashers afraid of? What are the benevolent, let-us-fix-you, born-again homophobes afraid of? What are those of us who consider ourselves enlightened, but who still get a little uneasy in the presence of the obviously gay, afraid of?

Surely we don't fear for our physical safety; we don't imagine that people like Matthew Shepard or Matthew McLendon are going to beat us up, or rape us. We don't think they are going to tempt us into homosexuality. I don't even see how we can look at some girlish boy-and I see them as young as two or three-and see "sin." What are we so afraid of?

The fear may be waning. Shepard is dead, of course, and one Wyoming man was heard to say that, as a gay man, he should have expected such treatment. But the outpouring of students at the University of Wyoming shows another-I suspect more typical-view of things.

Similarly, while officials of the Georgian school were having their conniptions over young McLendon, the boy's schoolmates were rallying to his defense. Most members of his class-including some of the boys-wore bows in their hair as a token of protest, until the principal ordered them removed.

Can it be that we are, in spite of ourselves, raising a generation of young people whose heads are on just a little bit straighter than our own? Can they have been listening to the tolerance we preach and ignoring the bigotry we try to mask?

The Georgian Country Day School handbook admonishes the students to accept "diversity in opinion, culture, ideas, behavioral characteristics, attributes or challenges.''

You suppose those kids actually take it seriously?

William Raspberry is a Knight professor of the Practice of Journalism. His column is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers' Group.