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As the Columbine High School community — and the rest of the country — struggles to understand the reasons behind Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s Tuesday killing spree, more facts are emerging about the nature of the harassment they suffered at the hands of their classmates.
One rumor that refuses to go away is that the two were gay — a story that led many to abuse them in life, and now, denounce them in death.
“They’re freaks,” said Ben Oakley, an angry sophomore from the soccer team, visiting the memorials in Clement Park for the first time Thursday. “They were in the Trench Coat Mafia, and that’s something around our school that we consider freaks.” He said students picked on the pair “all the time.”
“Nobody really liked them, just cause they …” He paused, then continued. “The majority of them were gay. So everyone would make fun of them.”
Several self-described jocks volunteered similar rumors Wednesday and Thursday. “[A friend] used to tell me how they would take showers together,” a member of the football team said. “He told me most of them were gay.”
Other students reported sightings of the pair, and other Mafia members, “touching” one another, holding hands or groping in the hallways. But the stories were generally vague, secondhand and never from students who personally knew members of the group. Oakley’s reply when asked to clarify what he knew was typical: “They would touch each other in school. People have seen them. One of them last year went up to a kid I know and did that,” he said, demonstrating a crotch-grab on himself. When asked whether he was referring to Harris and Klebold specifically, he admitted, “I don’t know,” then added, “People in the group.”
The media has mostly ignored the gay rumors, although on Tuesday the Drudge Report quoted from Internet postings claiming that the Trench Coat Mafia was a gay conspiracy to kill jocks at Columbine, a claim with no apparent basis in fact. A few newspapers have mentioned the gay rumors in passing. The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Mike Smith, a senior point guard on Columbine’s state championship basketball team, saying jocks taunted the pair by calling them gay. “They were ones you’d make fun of,” Smith admitted.
And according to Thursday’s Drudge Report, which was still hyping the gay angle, the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel quoted another student saying the Trench Coat Mafia was widely viewed as gay. “Boys would hold hands in the halls sometimes,” sophomore Jon Vandermark told the paper. “They were called freaks, homos and everything in between.”
Not a single friend or acquaintance of Harris and Klebold confirmed the gay rumors. All either denied the story or said they had no idea about the sexual orientation of either student. “It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said senior Melissa Snow, who had known Klebold since middle school, but only had limited contact with him this year, since he joined the Trench Coat Mafia.
Several students expressed anger at the jocks for spreading rumors to defame the two in death with the same slurs that dogged them through life. Dustin Gorton, a good friend of Harris and Klebold, was particularly outraged. “I think it’d be really funny if you tried to tell their girlfriends that they were gay,” he said. Gorton, a brawny 6-foot senior dressed in camouflage pants, said prom pictures had been taken with Harris and Klebold and their girlfriends, but hadn’t been developed. He promised that the media would never see the pictures, or find the two young women.
“You’re never going to get those names. [The girlfriends] are so far hidden, and they are so screwed up right now,” he said. Gorton described himself as a “nontraditional jock” who played Doom on the Internet with the two killers, as well as baseball with a team outside the school. He said he was not a member of the Trench Coat Mafia.
Whatever the truth about Harris and Klebold’s sexual orientation, it’s clear that “gay” is one of the worst epithets to use against a high school student in Littleton. Eddie, a sophomore who recently moved from Littleton to Denver, said he knew firsthand the kind of ostracism Klebold and Harris suffered due to rumors they were gay (Eddie’s name has been changed because of his vulnerability to retaliation). He grew up in Littleton and came out as gay in eighth grade at Deer Creek Middle School, which feeds students to both Columbine and nearby Chatfield High School (where Columbine students will return to school, on a staggered afternoon session, when classes resume, likely sometime next week).
“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, Eddie said, and he described one in particular who pelted him with rocks, wrote “faggot” and “we hate you” on his locker and confronted him in the hallway with taunts like: “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.” Eddie attempted suicide several times that year, and eventually spent time in a mental hospital. “People don’t realize how mean kids are. 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.”
Eddie doesn’t condone what Harris and Klebold did, but said he understood what drove them to it. “I think that those two kids were tormented, and finally one day they just snapped. 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.’ If you don’t get help for it, you’ll always think that.”
Like gays, Goths in Littleton are finding themselves ostracized now, due to reports Klebold and Harris were into the Goth scene. On Thursday, Andrew Mitchell, a frail-looking young Goth from nearby Lakewood High School, showed up at the memorial site dressed head to foot in black. He was a striking sight, all alone, shivering in the foot of fresh snow: black on black on black, pale white skin, his black hair long on top, shaved skin-close on the sides; a silver and blue ribbon of support for the victims on his lapel. He received a chilly reception. The grieving crowd left an empty perimeter of at least 10 feet around him.
When asked “Why are you here?” he replied, “To pay my respects to the people here.” But he also had a plea for those dismissing the killers as aberrant psychos. “Picture these kids,” he implored. “For years being thrown around, treated horribly. After a while you can’t stand it anymore. That’s not to say that they were right to do what they did. They were completely wrong. There’s nothing right or proper about it. But there are reasons for why they did it.”
At that, a reporter twice his size got in his face. He chastised Mitchell for his comments, which he said “would just devastate the family members of those killed.”
“Picture a 17- or 18-year-old going through hell,” Mitchell retorted. “The hell of their life for four straight years. I understand it. When you get to a point where you have no one in the world to turn to, and I guarantee that’s how they felt, they felt there was nothing they could do.”
Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."More Dave Cullen.