Gay leaders fear Littleton backlash

Police, the media and the Christian right continue to track reports that at least one of the killers was gay.

Published April 27, 1999 1:30PM (EDT)

Gay leaders across the country are concerned about a backlash as law enforcement officials, the media and the Christian right continue to track reports that at least one of the Columbine High School gunmen was gay.

Salon News reported last week that 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," but friends insisted that the young men were straight. They said both men took dates to the prom, and police recently reported that Klebold's girlfriend may have purchased one of the guns the pair used in their shooting spree, which killed 15 people, including the gunmen, and wounded 20.

But this week sources said the rumor is circulating within the gay community, too, and some now believe that at least one of the killers might have been gay. A source at Equity Colorado says local gay leaders have been told by the sheriff's department to "lay low" and avoid responding to rumors while the facts about the killers' sexual orientation, and other possible motives, are investigated.

Right-wing leaders might not let the gay community lay low, however. The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., sent out a media alert saying, "Two filthy fags slaughtered 13 people at Columbine High." Rev. Jerry Falwell described them as gay on "Geraldo Live." This weekend, gay leaders anticipated a possible confrontation with Rev. Fred Phelps, the notorious Westboro leader who frequents gay-related national events with anti-gay picket signs and sloganeering. Phelps was rumored to be traveling to Littleton from Kansas for Sunday's memorial service for the victims. The rumor increased tension about the possibility of a public backlash against the gay community in the wake of the killings, but Phelps apparently did not show.

Denver gay leaders refused to comment on the rumors about the Littleton killers. But Cathy Renna, Director of Community Relations for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in Washington, says, "It's an issue. Matter of fact, we had a meeting about it this morning. It's reached a critical mass. It's something obviously we want to respond to." No formal response has been prepared yet, but GLAAD's acting communication director, Ben Stilp, accused the Christian right of trying to "scapegoat" the gay community, and says sexual orientation should matter no more than being left-handed as the nation responds to the crime.

"It's of great concern, obviously, to our community," Stilp said. "A number of organizations have been really concerned about how it's going be played out in the media. Because we can already see it's being used by and exploited by the Christian Coalition."

Denver's gay community faces a troubling dilemma as it tries to decide how to react to the rumors. If one of the killers was gay, and tormented for it, it could seem like the ultimate proof that homophobia has dire consequences: A young gay man was driven to mass murder by the harassment he suffered at the hands of classmates. On the other hand, depicting one or both of the killers sympathetically could seem like blaming the victims, and could lead to resentment of the gay community.

It's clear that Littleton, at least, is not an easy place to be gay. Dozens of sources told Salon News that, to their knowledge, not a single Columbine student is openly gay, while at nearby Chatfield High School, known as slightly more liberal, there are some "out" gay students. One discouraging factor could be the strong presence of evangelical Christianity, which has been such a remarkable comfort to many in the Columbine community since this tragedy, but could no doubt be alienating to young gays.

Colorado itself has a mixed history on gay rights. The cities of Denver, Boulder and Aspen all passed groundbreaking gay rights ordinances, but in 1992, state voters struck them down by passing Amendment 2, which banned "special protection" for gays, by a 53-47 margin. But Amendment 2 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1996. Last November, voters in Fort Collins overwhelmingly rejected a gay rights ordinance less than a month after Matthew Shepard died in a hospital there.

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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