AndrewSullivan.com | March 22, 2001
WHAT HAPPENED on September 26, 1999, to 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising can only be described as evil. Two men who had become friendly with Jesse and his family invited the boy over for the day. According to prosecutors at the trial now under way in Bentonville, Arkansas, the two men drugged Jesse, tied him to a bed, shoved his underwear into his mouth to gag him, added duct tape to silence him, raped him for hours using a variety of objects, including food, and then left him in such a position on the bed that he slowly suffocated to death.
Unless you frequent rabid right-wing sites on the Internet or read The Washington Times, you've probably never heard of this case. The New York Times has yet to run a single story about it. The Washington Post has run only a tiny Associated Press report--and an ombudsman's explanation of why no further coverage is merited. Among certain, mainly gay-hating right-wingers, the discrepancy between the coverage of this case and the wall-to-wall coverage of the similarly horrifying murder of Matthew Shepard proves beyond any doubt that the mainstream media is guilty of pro-gay bias.
Do they have a point? My first, defensive, reaction was no. And reading the accounts from some right-wing outlets, any gay person would be defensive. Some on the far right clearly want to use this case to raise vicious canards about gay men. They want to argue that this pedophilic rape-murder is representative of the "homosexual lifestyle" and to wield it as a weapon against the notion of gay equality and dignity as a whole. A similar argument was made recently by Mary Eberstadt in The Weekly Standard, a magazine that never misses an opportunity to demean and disparage homosexuals. In two lengthy articles she asserted that pedophilia is an increasingly prominent part of gay life and is condoned by gay leaders. For Michelle Malkin, writing in the right-wing Jewish World Review, the Dirkhising case is evidence of Eberstadt's thesis: "The defense of gay pedophilia has metastasized deep and far into the national conscience."
This is ugly nonsense. There's no credible evidence that gay culture is more accepting of pedophilia than it was, say, 20 or 100 years ago. On the contrary, while pedophilia has always been a vile undercurrent in some gay circles (as in some straight circles), the vast majority of homosexuals are rightly horrified by the sexual abuse of children.
But, difficult as it may be to admit, some of the gay-baiting right's argument about media bias holds up. Consider the following statistics. In the month after Shepard's murder, Nexis recorded 3,007 stories about his death. In the month after Dirkhising's murder, Nexis recorded 46 stories about his. In all of last year, only one article about Dirkhising appeared in a major mainstream newspaper, The Boston Globe. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ignored the incident completely. In the same period, The New York Times published 45 stories about Shepard, and The Washington Post published 28. This discrepancy isn't just real. It's staggering.
In The Washington Post, a news editor argued that the paper covers only crimes that are local, inflame local opinion, or have national policy implications. The Shepard story was news in a way the Dirkhising story wasn't because it "prompted debate on hate crimes and the degree to which there is still intolerance of gay people in this country. It was much more than a murder story for us." But wasn't the media's instant blanket coverage part of the reason for the debate? If the Dirkhising murder had been covered instantly with the same attention to gruesome detail, wouldn't it, too, have prompted a national conversation?
You might argue that the Shepard murder was a trend story, highlighting the prevalence of anti-gay hate crimes. But murders like Shepard's are extremely rare. In 1997, a relatively typical recent year, the FBI identified a total of eight hate-crime murders in the United States. The number that were gay-specific was even smaller. Most years, two or three occur at most. How common is a rape-murder like that of Dirkhising? In 1999 there were 46 rape-murders nationwide. If you focus not on the rape-murder aspect but on the fact that Jesse was a child, there were 1,449 murders of minors. There are no reliable statistics on how many of these murders were committed by homosexuals, but let's generously say 5 percent. That's a paltry 72 cases. In other words, the murders of Shepard and Dirkhising are both extremely rare, and neither says much that can be generalized to the wider world. So why the obsession with Shepard and the indifference with regard to Dirkhising?
The answer is politics. The Shepard case was hyped for political reasons: to build support for inclusion of homosexuals in a federal hate-crimes law. The Dirkhising case was ignored for political reasons: squeamishness about reporting a story that could feed anti-gay prejudice, and the lack of any pending interest-group legislation to hang a story on. The same politics lies behind the media's tendency to extensively cover white "hate crimes" against blacks while ignoring black "non-hate crimes" against whites. What we are seeing, I fear, is a logical consequence of the culture that hate-crimes rhetoric promotes. Some deaths--if they affect a politically protected class--are worth more than others. Other deaths, those that do not fit a politically correct profile, are left to oblivion. The leading gay rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign--which has raised oodles of cash exploiting the horror of Shepard's murder--has said nothing whatsoever about the Dirkhising case. For the HRC, the murder of Jesse Dirkhising is off-message. Worse, there's a touch of embarrassment among some gays about the case, as if the actions of this depraved couple had some connection to the rest of gay America. Don't these squeamish people realize that, by helping to hush this up, they seem to confirm homophobic suspicions that this murder actually is typical of gays?
The irony is deepened by the fact that Jesse may well have been gay himself. He trusted his gay neighbors; he worked with one of them at a hair salon; his mother let him stay at his neighbors' place on weekends; it's even conceivable that at the beginning he went along with some part of their sexual game, as defense lawyers have argued. But he was also a child, in no position to consent to anything of this nature--a child who needed the support of his elders, not their monstrous betrayal. It's difficult for me to fully express my fury at this kind of behavior. For a young, impressionable boy like this to be used for sick sexual predation is an outrage to any homosexual who remembers being young or who has ever seen the need for guidance and support of a young gay soul. That some gay activists seem not to have experienced the same punch in the solar plexus that they felt when they heard of Shepard's murder is a sign of the moral damage that identity politics has already done. It has inured us to simple matters of good and evil. All that matters now, it seems, is us and them.
© 2001 Andrew Sullivan