JANUARY 7, 2000 • HOUSTON VOICE
Who cries for Jesse?'
>- Continued from Page 1
But gay groups refute charges that not condemning the sado-masochistic behavior practiced by some gay adults, as well as some heterosexuals, amounts to condoning sexual
"I have two words to completely obliterate that argument: consenting adults," said
Cathy Renna, community relations director
for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against
Renna said that GLAAD is overall pleased
with the way the national media has
responded to criticisms like LaBarbera's,
"but although the religious right is trying to
say this ts some sort of gay conspiracy, not a
single gay organization was involved in
shaping this story one way or another.
"If there is some kind of pro-gay media
conspiracy, can someone explain to me the
amount of coverage we saw of Jeffrey
Dahmer and Andrew Cunanan that
focused obsessively on their sexual orientation and not their crimes?" Renna asked.
Headlines frequently described both
Dahmer and Cunanan as "gay killers," she
noted, placing their sexual orientation before
even the acts that put them in the news.
Hate crime or sex crime?
While Matthew Shepard's death, and the
vigils and outcry that followed, drew
immediate national media attention,
Dirkhising's murder initially drew mostly
regional media attention, except for an article in the conservative Washington Times,
which described the killing as "the result of
homosexual rape and ritual."
But supporters of groups that have
adopted the cause have slowly brought the
case into a national spotlight, mainly
through repeated letters to the editor
demanding that crimes "committed by
homosexuals" get as much attention as
those "where homosexuals are victims."
Some local newspapers have joined the
fight, including the generally conservative
Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Ga.
"Of course, the Dirkhising murder got little notice outside of Arkansas because it
would have been 'politically incorrect,'" a
Nov. 15 editorial argued. "There's absolutely
no excuse not to report murders that might
upset homosexuals. The liberal notion that
they occupy the moral high ground in the
murder sweepstakes is ludicrous!"
Still, national mainstream media outlets
that have responded to the criticism,
including Time magazine's web-site and
the Washington Post, have agreed with gay
groups that the Shepard and Dirkhising
killings—beyond both being tragic and
involving gays—are substantially different,
explaining the difference in coverage.
Shepard's murder, they argue, is a hate
crime, perpetrated by heterosexuals against
someone simply because he is homosexual,
while Dirkhising's is a sex crime, something that unfortunately happens far too
often for every case to make national news.
"The most salient difference between the
Shepard case and this one ... is that while
Shepard's murderers were driven to kill by
hate, the boy's rape and death was a sex
crime. It was repulsive, unconscionable—
and the predictable pastime of perverted
criminals," wrote Jonathan Gregg, associate
editor of Time magazine's web-site in a commentary posted on-line in response to letters.
"It was the kind of depraved act that
happens with even more regularity against
young females, and, indeed, if the victim
had been a 13-year-old girl, the story would
probably never have gotten beyond Benton
County, much less Arkansas. (There is, of
course, a double standard there)," Time
argued. "Matthew Shepard died not
because of an all-too-common sex crime,
but because of prejudice."
The tremendous public outcry of fear
and anger generated by Shepard's death
also fueled the increased news coverage,
Washington Post ombudsman R. Shipp
wrote in a Nov. 14 editorial.
A hate crime like Shepard's murder or that
of James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged to
death in Texas, is "a special kind of killing"
that "tells a segment of American society that
its physical safety is at risk," Shipp wrote,
quoting previous Post editorials.
"Arkansas authorities have not characterized the Dirkhising death as a hate crime,"
she said. "Matthew Shepard's death
sparked public expressions of outrage that
themselves became news. That Jesse
Dirkhising's death has not done so to date is
hardly the fault of the Washington Post."
Even smaller regional papers covering
the crime, and the law enforcement officials
investigating it, have agreed that comparing Shepard and Dirkhising is somewhat of
a false parallel.
"Journalists in Northwest Arkansas are
in a unique position to evaluate the controversy, because the Dirkhising case was and
is a high-interest story to our readers,"
wrote the Northwest Arkansas Morning News
in a Nov. 7 editorial titled, "Differences in
two cases: death of boy not a hate crime."
"There are those who want to believe in
some sort of wide-ranging media conspiracy designed to engage sympathy for certain
groups of people, including homosexuals,
... [but] like most conspiracy theories, this
one crumbles under the weight of the
facts," the paper said.
"Shepard was killed because he was a
homosexual. This is a sex crime, but it is not
a hate crime, and I think to compare it to
the Shepard case is comparing apples and
oranges," Benton County prosecuting attorney Brad Butler told Reuters.
Butler said he believes it is "wrong" for
groups to use Dirkhising's death to voice
their political and religious views. "These
crimes are just the acts of two degenerates,
sick people," he said.
Pedophilia or gay?
While national gay organizations have
been quick to distance themselves from
Dirkhising's murder, the case nevertheless
Gay groups say coverage of Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrew Cunanan—murderers who were branded
'gay serial killers' in many press accounts, putting their sexual orientation before their crimes—
refutes claims that the media is biased towards gays.
raises thorny questions about the dangers
of linking homosexuality and pedophilia,
as well as when an accused criminal's sexual orientation is relevant to a story.
"The reality is that homosexuals are far
more likely to be predators than they are to
be victims," David Duke, a nationally
known "white civil rights activist" wrote in
a press release describing Dirkhising as "a
child who was literally raped to death by
two male homosexuals."
By focusing on the sexual nature of the
crime, anti-gay groups are trying to play on
fears that all homosexuals are pedophiles,
GLAAD's Renna said.
"I am sure that when they heard about
this, it was the first thing they thought of,"
she said. "But if you look at all of the
research, the vast majority of people who
commit child sexual abuse are identified as
heterosexual men who are usually related
to the children they abuse."
"In my experience, there certainly can be
gay or lesbian people who prey upon children, but the numbers are far, far greater for
heterosexuals in that regard," agreed Dr.
Barbara Rubin, an Atlanta psychologist
with many gay clients who also works as a
court psychologist for Fulton County.
A case like the Dirkhising murder "opens
things up for manipulation on the part of
those who want to portray gays and lesbians in an inaccurate light, to suggest that
here is an example of what two gay men are
out there in the world doing, and the statistics don't bear that out," Rubin said.
"The truth is, there can be gay people who
commit heinous crimes, but that doesn't
mean gay people equal heinous crimes, and
that is what is worth talking about," she said.
In the Dirkhising case, most media outlets
appear to be understanding of that distinction.
"A red herring worth addressing at the
outset is the failure to distinguish between
homosexuality and pedophilia, which creates a false parallel" between the Shepard
and Dirkhising murders, Time argued.
"A double standard would be in effect
had the media ignored a situation where
two gay men killed a straight man for being
straight. But sex with children is a crime
regardless of the sexes involved, and is not
synonymous with homosexuality," it said.
Initial Associated Press reports on
Dirkhising's murder did not describe the
two accused killers as gay, although later
reports quoted investigators who described
the two men as "roommates" and "lovers."
When to identify an accused criminal's
sexual orientation, like when to identify
someone's race, can often prove a difficult
issue in news rooms. Most media advocates
agree that such identifying characteristics
should only be included when they are
clearly relevant to the story, like revealing a
suspect's race when the person is still at-
large and a physical description is necessary.
In the Dirkhising case, HRC's Besen said
he believes it is appropriate for news
reports to note the two men's relationship,
so long as it is not portrayed as the reason
they allegedly committed the crime.
"It is relevant that the media should
report they were dating and they were gay,
in that their relationship to each other is relevant," he said. "But this is not a 'gay issue'
and there shouldn't be a 'gay angle' to it
anymore than there is a 'straight angle'
when it is a young woman who has been
"It has to do with molestation and child
abuse, not sexual orientation, and 1 don't
really see how a gay angle fits into this
story other than to sensationalize it," Besen
said. "Nobody looked at the O.J. Simpson
case and tried to find the straight angle."
Most pedophiles are primarily sexually
attracted to children, sometimes of both
sexes, with few adult relationships, so you
can't necessarily assume that someone who
molests a child of the same sex should be
labeled "gay," Rubin said.
The same holds true for cases of same-sex
sexual assault involving adults, she noted.
"The issue of rape is really about power
and control versus sex or sexual attraction,"
she said. "From my treatment experience
with folks as outpatients and in running a
psychiatric hospital, you can't pigeon hole
it that way. Rape is way more an issue
about rage and control over others as
opposed to linking it to sexual orientation."