The mainstream media have yet to confirm the details from independent media and the blogosphere, but there’s enough convergence of information to conclude that Dorothy Dutiel and May Kieu, both 15, were understood by their peers as a dating couple. It appears they had known each other most of their lives, and had dated for two years, though May’s family denies awareness of their relationship as romantic. Whatever each of their truths might have been, evidence suggests that Dorothy felt “rejected” the night before the fatal incident; she said as much and posted a couple of “good-bye” messages on social media in the hours before the shootings. At the time of this writing, I infer that Dorothy fatally shot May and then herself, leaving behind a note that police found when they arrived.
So, even as we can exhale relief that this incident wasn’t a homophobic hate crime or misogynist killing in the traditional sense, we’re left with the grief of the loss of these two young lives, the horror of lethal intimate violence and suicide, and the predictable symbolic framing of lesbian and gay people as crazy, twisted, and immoral. We’re also left to prepare for the fallout of that stereotyping and how this apparent intimate murder-suicide will affect the emotional and physical welfare of an already vulnerable LGBTQ youth population.
How can we make sense of this situation, as we understand it now? And how can we respond skillfully?
First, we must recognize that intimate partner violence, sometimes called domestic violence, happens across social groups, and across the lines of race and class and sexuality. It happens in teenage couples and it happens in queer couples. It happens in teenage queer couples --- and in teenage heterosexual dating pairs. In general, same-sex female couples in abusive relationships tend to exhibit less physical violence than both opposite sex and gay male couples, but the emotional abuse in toxic lesbian relationships is devastating nonetheless. Even so, as in Arizona, physical violence does sometimes take place. One reason these fatalities will have so much salience is because incidents like this among women is so unusual. Ironically, an exceedingly rare incident will likely be used to over-generalize gay craziness, just as rare acts of violence by people of color are used to promote white anxiety, racism, and xenophobia.
Second, cultural heterosexism, homophobia, and sexism underwrite both hate crimes against LGBTQ people and toxic dynamics in queer relationships. Invalidation, invisibility, cultural prejudices, and pressures to conform to heteronormative patterns of dating and coupling all contribute to various kinds of invisibility and stress on relationships. For youth in particular, when parents and family refuse to acknowledge or support a same-sex relationship, the possibility of turning to family for guidance and help with navigating the relationship in healthy ways is diminished. Many queer youth, facing rejection and invalidation from their families, seek stability and sustenance from dating partners, putting enormous pressure on those relationships. When a relationship ends, whether because of cultural pressures or because of the normal life cycle of relationships, the impact may be felt even more acutely than might be the case for youth who can turn to parents and family for comfort and coaching on how to let go, recover, and prepare to love again.
Third, easy access to guns puts all of us ---all of us--- at risk of harm from people with poor impulse control or impaired judgment, including many teenagers still learning how to self-soothe their way through periods of angst and anger and self-doubt. Without a gun in the mix, might one or both young women still be alive this Valentine’s Day?
What can we do to prevent more tragedies in the wake of the Arizona incident?
- Discuss it with young people. Give them space to talk about their emotional reaction to the story in the news. Open conversations about healthy relationships and toxic relationships, non-violent problem solving, how to recognize healthy behaviors and toxic behaviors in friendships and dating relationships, and how to address concerns. This applies across sexuality and gender groups.2. Recognize that the Arizona incident reflects both larger cultural patterns of toxic control in intimate relationships *and* unique stressors facing LGBTQ people. So: intimate violence and patterns of emotional abuse happen across all groups; queer folks are not immune to this any more than straight folks. Challenge attitudes that suggest this incident reflects any special sort of gay or lesbian pathology.
- Promote greater acceptance of queer relationships by parents, schools, communities. Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US, homophobia, heterosexism, discrimination, and hate crimes against us persist. The greater acceptance and visibility our relationships have, the more social support they enjoy, the easier it will be for people in same sex relationships, teenagers included, to recognize toxic dating and partnership situations, to seek support, and to exit.
- Whether you are in same-sex or opposite sex relationships, model healthy love, attachment, and boundaries in your own life. Support youth in learning relationship and emotional skills so that they are not flying blind as they attempt to create their own relationships. If you are in a toxic relationship, transform it or end it.
- Work for gun control. Work for queer visibility and inclusivity and to help LGBTQ youth have hope for their futures. Support community and school programs that teach non-violent conflict resolution and relationship skills.
In the coming days, as a narrative about this presumed murder-suicide emerges, it will be an oversimplification to pathologize queer folks or to excavate the perpetrator’s mental health or family history; that narrative will neglect the epidemic of both intimate partner violence across social groups in this country, and the social price everyone pays for sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia. Nothing will bring back May or Dorothy or the unique potential they had to make contributions to the world. By looking deeply at the dynamics underlying their tragic deaths, however, we can take action to prevent similar devastating losses.