MEMO: Victoria A. Brownworth's column on gay issues appears every other Tuesday in the Philadelphia Daily News, alternating with Mubarak Dahir's. THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF A NEIGHBORHOOD 'SISSY'

Tuesday,  October 31, 1995
Column by Victoria Brownworth

MEMO: Victoria A. Brownworth's column on gay issues appears every other
Tuesday in the Philadelphia Daily News, alternating with Mubarak Dahir's.


    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.