Oasis

Guest Column

The short and tragic life of a neighborhood 'sissy'
By Victoria Brownworth


Tonight, kids will be going door to door in Halloween costumes. There will be the usual high-pitched shrieks of laughter and shouts of ''Boo'' as children run through the streets, bags of candy swinging.

In Middletown, Del., neighbors caught up in the excitement of the holiday may actually stop thinking about 9-year-old Steven Wilson for a while. For Karen Wilson, the boy's mother, the pain of hearing the happy voices of other children may be almost unbearable. Her son won't be among the revelers. Her son is gone for good. The shrieks she hears in the streets outside may make her wonder again what the last moments of her son's life were like. May make her want to scream out her own anguish.

It's been two weeks since little Steven disappeared; two weeks since he was murdered not far from the apartment complex where he lived. Fifteen-year-old Lamont Harden has been charged with the murder.

Police say Harden has confessed. But that is only part of the story of the short and terribly sad life of Steven Wilson. The rest of the tale is just as grim.

Steven wasn't like other boys. He had a learning disability, he was shy - a loner, his mother told reporters when he was still missing. And he liked to play with dolls, with girl's toys.

''They teased him a lot,'' said one neighbor who admitted her child was among his persecutors.

''He would hide in my house,'' said one of his baby sitters.

Steven was afraid of the children in his neighborhood. Afraid of the taunts, afraid of being ''picked on,'' afraid of how being different had made him a target.

Steven was right to be afraid.

There was shock in Middletown when Steven's little, battered body was found in a nearby creek. There was horror a few days later when police announced Harden's arrest at a town meeting and told a packed hall how brutal Steven's murder was. But while Steven was missing, and in the days afterward, as Harden and other children were questioned about his murder, the mothers of Middletown worried: Had their children been involved in the boy's death? Because apparently they had all been involved in the daily torture he endured in life. Several mothers admitted their fear; others found it difficult to believe Harden committed the killing alone.

''Steven didn't go with people,'' said one mother, adamantly.

Whether or not Harden had accomplices who helped him fracture Steven's skull in several places, break his jaw, crack his teeth, viciously rape him and drown him in the creek, we may never know. But if Steven hadn't been a ''sissy'' who liked to play with dolls, if he hadn't been the target of nearly every child in the neighborhood, perhaps he would not have become the victim of murder.

Homophobia has many guises. A boy who likes girl's toys or clothes gets taunted, hit, assaulted or raped. The perpetrators often say they were trying to teach the victim a lesson, teach him the difference between masculine and feminine. Perhaps that's what Harden wanted to do to Steven. Perhaps the kind of ''games'' the neighborhood children played with Steven - taunts, bullying, violence - just got out of hand and he was killed.

Harden will be tried and likely convicted. But while what Harden stands accused of doing to Steven is certainly the most awful of the many crimes committed against this child, there were many others. There was a climate in Middletown that made Steven afraid every day of his short life. And that climate may have contributed to his death; made Harden believe no one cared what happened to Steven, that his death was no one's loss. The climate in Middletown has changed since Steven's murder; mothers say they are afraid, but don't say of what. Something happened in this small town, but it could have happened anywhere. This Halloween night, a ghost hovers over Middletown. His name is Steven Wilson, and he's seeking the justice and peace he never found in life.


Victoria A. Brownworth's column on gay issues appears every other Tuesday in the Philadelphia Daily News. Reprinted with permission.
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