22 June 2014
The other day, I heard about it: One 14-year-old boy stabbed a classmate in front of a Bronx junior high school. Both were scheduled to step up to the podium and graduate this week. Instead, the boy who was stabbed is lying in casket and the boy who stabbed him is in a jail cell.
I’d heard that the stabber was so bullied that, on the day he stabbed his classmate (who was once his friend and skateboard buddy), it was the first time he’d been to school in weeks. He could barely leave his apartment; other kids—some of whom didn’t even attend the school—came to his building specifically to taunt him and even to make death threats.
Knowing nothing about him, or the other boy, I immediately thought the bullying had to do with his actual or perceived sexuality or gender identity. I hope I don’t seem as if I’m gloating when I say I was right. At the time, I don’t know why the thought entered my mind. But now I think I know why it did.
You see, I experienced a pretty fair amount of bullying myself all through school, practically from the first day I can recall all the way through college. Every single incident included homophobic and misogynistic taunts. I was called “fag”, “queer,” “fairy” and all of the old standards. Relationships were invented between me and shy, lonely boys who were not considered terribly masculine and with whom I just happened to talk one day or another. Sometimes those alleged liaisons were also used to label me as a girl, or more precisely, a non-male. (Little did they know!) Of course, when anyone was seen as female—whether or not he or she actually was—it was not in a flattering light, even if the girl was seen as sexually attractive, or at least available. The “c” word was one of the nicer labels attached to those born with XX chromosomes.
And, I’ll admit, I did a bit of bullying myself, including one pretty serious incident. I’ve told a few people about it; most explain it away as “self defense” or a reaction to peer or other kinds of pressures I experienced. While their intentions might be benign or even protective, I have never tried to so rationalize the bullying I committed.
By the same token, I will not try to use the bullying Noel Estevez experienced to rationalize, let alone justify stabbing Timothy Crump, any more than I would accept the taunts, beatings and other harassment a former partner of mine experienced in his childhood and early adult life as an excuse for the abuse he committed against me. However, my experience has also led me to understand, I believe, why Estevez acted as he did.
So have the stories I’ve heard from friends, acquaintances, current and former co-workers and students and others who were taunted, threatened, beaten and otherwise harassed—sometimes to the point that they dropped out of school and ran away from home. Every single one of their taunters was motivated by homophobia, misogyny (in the case of girls who were, or were perceived as, lesbians) or what we might today recognize as transphobia.
Nearly everyone who has worked with or studied young people who’ve committed violent crime recognize that the stabbings, shootings, beatings or other forms of brutality they inflict on others are almost invariably impulsive and instinctive. Those with a more scientific orientation than mine might accuse me of being over-simplistic, but I think there is a very common-sensical reason: A fourteen-year-old simply doesn’t have the skills, emotional and intellectual resources—or, I suspect, even the body chemistry—to deal with blows, whether they’re physical or emotional, the way some of us learn to deal with assaults on our dignity and persons when we’re forty.
That is the reason why I think it’s so wrong to charge Noel Estevez as an adult. I know lots of people will say, “Well, if he’s old enough to kill, he’s old enough to pay for it.” I wholeheartedly agree. However, locking up such a young man with older men who’ve killed more than once or who started their criminal careers before his mother was born will do nothing to make him pay whatever debt he can pay for taking a classmate’s life. It will also do nothing to help him deal with the impulses on which he acted; in fact, being incarcerated with career criminals will only make him more likely to respond to the next affront with violence has as much chance of ending in his own death as that of his attacker.
However, treating Estevez as a juvenile might at least give him access to whatever help he needs in dealing with the traumas he’s experienced. Some have said he acted in self-defense; I don’t think anyone portrayed him as a crazed homicidal maniac. Given the sort of environment and treatments he needs, it’s unlikely he’d ever commit such an act again, even under the most extreme duress, including homophobic death threats.