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Oct 07 2013

Disposable Children: Whiteness, Heterosexism & the Murder of Lawrence King

lawrenceking-12

By Sikivu Hutchinson

It isn’t until the end of the new HBO documentary film Valentine Road, the gut-wrenching chronicle of the 2008 classroom murder of 15 year-old Lawrence King, a homeless gay youth of color, that the viewer learns the significance of the film’s name.  Valentine Road is the location of King’s Oxnard, California grave, the final resting place of a caring, intelligent child whose death became a lightning rod for a racist homophobic heterosexist nation ill-equipped to see much less affirm King’s personhood.  Place is a central character in this film, which dubiously frames King and white working class “boy next door” murderer Brandon McInerney as bookends in an American tragedy set in multicultural Oxnard.  The film opens with a collage of the moments leading up to King’s execution in a classroom at E.O. Green Middle School.  We are treated to the sterile interior of the school, the gray tyranny of the computer lab where King was shot at point blank range, the blood-soaked floor that cradled King’s head after the slaying.  Throughout the film King is represented in still photos, in the blurred fleeting footage of a campus security camera, in whimsical stylized animation that attempts to capture King’s transition from Larry to Letisha/Latonya (which friends say was her preferred identity before her death).  The recollections of schoolmates, teachers, social workers and a foster parent touch on her fragility and kind-heartedness, yet in many of these testimonies her emerging identity is reduced to the “ungainly” performance of “cross-dressing”, crudely applied makeup, and awkward high heel boots.  It is clear that King’s “inappropriate” gender expression was construed by the school as an embarrassment, a behavior problem that school administrators sought to contain with vapid compliance memos which downplayed the culture of structural violence against LGBTQ youth.

While King’s narrative plays out in fragments, the narrative of 14 year-old McInerney is vividly nuanced. The product of a violent home, McInerney’s drug-addicted mother and homicidal gun-toting father appear as deeply flawed yet loving.  When he is cross-examined after the murder by a police detective he is treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity.  When his case is taken up by two “juvenile justice” advocate attorneys enraged that he may be tried as an adult, the female half of the duo expresses her devotion and undying love for his so-called beautiful spirit.

In this regard Valentine Road ably, perhaps inadvertently, captures how the criminalization of people of color shapes American presumptions of white innocence.  Despite McInerney’s apparent fondness for Nazi paraphernalia and use of racial slurs to refer to black classmates, prosecutors dropped a hate crime charge against him.  His defense team trotted out the repugnant “gay panic” defense (which was prohibited for use in criminal trials under a 2006 California law named after Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen who was brutally murdered in 2002) egregiously portraying McInerney as a victim of King’s unrelenting sexual harassment. Unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the jury in McInerney’s first trial deadlocked.  Some of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter and others for first-degree or second-degree murder.  After the mistrial, the filmmakers shot telling footage of white female jurors expressing sympathy for McInerney over pastries in a spacious suburban kitchen.  In their minds King was clearly the aggressor; the dark sexual predator whose moral deviance sent the troubled young white boy into a (justifiably) murderous tailspin.  Indeed, at least one of the jurors mailed prosecutors Religious Right propaganda excoriating the “abomination” of King’s sexuality and the injustice of “poor Brandon’s” plight. And in a show of motherly solidarity, the white female jurors even display “justice for Brandon” slogans.

In order for white hetero-normativity and heterosexism to flourish, violent masculinity must be fiercely protected by white women.  The recurring theme of straight white innocence is one of the film’s most powerful subtexts.  At every turn McInerney is humanized and contextualized; redemptively positioned as a son, boyfriend, brother, lost boy, conflicted student and victim of abject circumstances that were beyond his control.  As per the national narratives of so many young white high profile murderers—from the Columbine shooters to Newtown killer Adam Lanza—we are carefully guided through McInerney’s world and made to “understand” his emotional turmoil and “damaged” psyche.  While McInerney’s family members testify to his horrible upbringing the filmmakers do not include interviews (save for one that was conducted with a short term foster parent) from King’s family members, guardians or adoptive parents, Gregory and Dawn King.  The film never attempts to place King’s homelessness, her foster care status, biracial cultural background and history of sexual abuse in the broader context of systemic disenfranchisement of queer and trans youth of color. We learn from a classmate’s passing reference that King was “part-black” and that she strongly identified with and perhaps saw herself as an African American girl.  Yet the implications of her biracial ancestry are never seriously explored with respect to the jury’s biases.

Aside from Dawn Boldrin, the instructor (who was subsequently terminated) who attempted to counsel and mentor King through her transition, many of the adults at the school policed and pathologized her behavior.  Throughout the film, King’s queer and trans Latino classmates comment on the impact of her murder and how it influenced their own courageous struggles for empowerment.  In one of the film’s most glaring oversights, it is unclear what, if anything, the school and district did in the aftermath of King’s murder to address the culture of institutionalized racism, homophobia and transphobia that contributed to her death.

After the outrage of the mistrial, McInerney eventually received a 21 year sentence for murdering King.  He will be released at the age of 39. One of the final scenes shows him rejoicing in juvenile detention with his family after receiving his high school diploma—a beneficiary of the criminal justice system’s devaluation of black queer and transgender lives.  Despite the advocacy of Larry King’s friends there is still no monument to or recognition of King at E.O. Green Middle School.

 

Valentine Road begins airing on HBO tonight.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Wow…I don’t know if I could even watch that film, given the nature of the events around the killing; reminders of my own past dealing with anti-trans and anti-queer violence against me. Thanks for writing about it, though. It’s good to have more attention drawn to violence against queer and trans* people, particularly POC.

    Do we know what pronouns King preferred? I would generally use feminine pronouns for someone in that place in that particular transition unless they had otherwise indicated.

  2. 2
    blackskeptics

    Thanks Caitie, I struggled with this because there was a lot of ambiguity about preferred pronouns in both the film and other literature that I’ve seen on both Lawrence’s life and the case itself. In the film some of Lawrence’s friends state that they believe he might have most identified as trans but continue to use the male pronoun to refer to L. Because “he” was so young and there were never (to my knowledge) any published interviews from Lawrence’s own perspective it was difficult to ascertain which pronouns to use. Yet, given that Larry most clearly and strongly identified with Leticia/Latonya at the time of his death I am editing this piece to reflect that.

    1. 2.1
      CaitieCat, getaway driver

      Thanks for hearing me about it – honestly, I don’t know which King would have preferred, and I hope it didn’t come across as an accusation, I really was just curious whether you had some information one way or the other, because I like to respect people’s choices, and I figured you would have done your homework, cause um, yeah, you. So I have no position on changing it, and would totally support whatever conclusion works for you as the writer.

      And now I feel weird because it sounds to me like I’m suggesting you need my approval for anything, which obvs you don’t. Urk. Awkward girl is awkward. But thanks for hearing and responding.

  3. 3
    Holden

    I am a prototypical white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, English-speaking male. I watched “Valentine Road” last night, and I am still seething. The lack of justice for Larry was bad enough, but the affection draped upon his murderer makes me want to hurl. My mouth dropped open when the jurors said that all young boys like to doodle Nazi symbols (Ah…no, we don’t. In fact, we find that to be freakin’ psycho). One juror said that the killer was “solving a problem,” and I got that feeling that she felt he should be commended for that, as clearly she thought the existence of a transgender Latino was a problem that needed to be solved. The one teacher’s outrage that a march led LGBT groups occurred outside of the school after the murder was unbelievable. Even the students couldn’t believe how quickly the faculty wanted to act as if nothing had happened.

    I have no direct experience with the criminal justice system. I do, however, strongly believe that if the killer had been black or Latino, the jury would never have thought, “Oh, he’s so young and adorable,” and they would have come back with a murder verdict in a matter of minutes. Also, those lawyers would not have flown across the country to defend him pro bono.

    I guess 21 years is better than nothing, especially since it looked like nothing was what the killer would get. Still, this case proves that no matter what jargon we hear, people are still not considered equal under the law.

  4. 4
    suzywert

    Both of these children were victims. Adults failed them by not educating them on the dangers of intolerance. Parents and teachers, who are supposed to be responsible for educating children are sometimes not educated or comfortable with their own feelings on these issues. Children do not have the life experience or self control necessary for dealing with these social issues. Adults can only draw from their life’s experiences or what they’ve seen or read. It’s a slow evolutionary process. In the best of scenarios, we will all learn from this loss and be better educated to see that it doesn’t happen again.

    1. 4.1
      Latisha

      The right to live and love should not be an evolutionary process! It is a human right afforded to all at birth. The only reason we stay stagnant in regards to these issues is because there is not enough of us taking a real stand against these pathetic social constructions. In fact, the civil rights we people of color have today were not just handed out one day, they were fought for against many years of resistance!!!! We are all products of our sociocultural context. Everyone can be called a victim. Clearly, Larry King is the greater victim. He was being trashed even after his death. This documentary did not do him justice. Even though Larry King had endured and suffered so much, he had a great spirit. He was killed because of his beautiful spirit…because he dared to live as an equal.

      At let me just add, as a woman I have numerous men say offensive, humiliating things to me. We know what it feels like to be sexually harassed by the time we are 11 years old. Yet we don’t shoot boys in the back of the head because they say sexual things to us.

      1. blackskeptics

        Right on. Eloquently put, thank you.

      2. forestdragon

        Though we may be tempted to at times. :p

  5. 5
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    In order for white hetero-normativity and heterosexism to flourish, violent masculinity must be fiercely protected by white women.

    QFT.

  6. 6
    culuriel

    I hate “gay panic defenses”, and not just because it’s a last minute cop-out so killers can make themselves look like the victim. No. First, the victim is the kid laying in a pool of his own blood. Period. Second, it’s nothing but straight guys granting themselves a privilege they would never extend to straight women. After all, if straight men are “allowed” to kill others who supposedly sexually harass them, wouldn’t women be allowed to do this? Wouldn’t LGBT people be “allowed” to kill anyone who called them the f-word, then? It’s a desperate ploy to get the courts to recognize that straight men should never have to pay any consequences for their own homophobia.

    1. 6.1
      smrnda

      That’s a very good point. I haven’t compiled stats on the issue, but the ‘gay panic defense’ fans seem to be the same type who complain that women overreact to unwelcome sexual advances.

      The other issue is, I know heterosexual men who have been approached by other men in a sexual or romantic way, and they just said they weren’t into guys. Simple as that.

      It is a clear double standard, the way that it’s acceptable to shoot young Black males who *look scary* (for some reason I just think a Black kid with a hoodie on looks like someone trying to stay warm) but it’s somehow wrong when Black males run from cops. Let’s you know who the law works for in this country.

  7. 7
    scribbles14

    Regarding the comment above:

    “Both of these children are victims”: But only one of them is dead.

    and:

    “Children do not have the life experience or self control necessary for dealing with these social issues”:
    But I hope it doesn’t require extraordinary life experience or self control to realize it is Wrong. To. Kill. Classmates.

    Talk of teachable moments, or slow, gradual improvements, is ridiculous in the face of the spectrum of disgusting abuse faced by way too many LGBTQ kids right *now* as they simply try to go to school.

    We need to go a lot further than platitudes and anti-bullying posters. Frankly, anti-bullying programs should focus first on teachers, not students. School staff MUST examine their own conduct and prejudices. If administrators and teachers are openly telling LGBTQ kids that they are “sick,” as (for example) my kid was told in middle school, their classmates will consider them fair game. This is just common sense. The people charged with creating safe spaces must themselves be safe for LGBTQ kids to be around.

    Sadly, it is far easier for administrators and teachers to preach tolerance at a couple of anti-bullying assemblies a year, and consider their job as done.

  8. 8
    weldonribeye

    Good post. Wish I had seen it sooner. I hope you’ll excuse a little pedantry:

    Valentine road is in Ventura, not Oxnard.

    King was living at Casa Pacifica, a residential facility for abused and neglected children in Camarillo, so “homeless” is a bit of a stretch.

    Prosecutors dropped the hate crime charge only after the first trial resulted in a mistrial. Having followed coverage of the trial at the time it was occurring, I got the impression that their dogged pursuit of the hate crime allegations may have caused the jurors to lose focus on the murder charge. The prosecutors seemed to feel rather strongly that it was a hate crime, but elected not to pursue it for the second trial in the hopes they could get something to stick. Ultimately, McInerney pleaded guilty to second degree murder, so there was no second trial.

    Also not sure where Holden (#3) got the impression that the lawyers flew across the country for their pro bono work. They drove up from L.A.

    I’d provide links to articles in the Ventura County Star to support all of this, but their archives are only open to subscribers.

    1. 8.1
      Barbara Dale

      I watched this movie this morning. I thought it was a hate crime by definition related to sexual orientation. “Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/hate_crimes/overview). With that being said, i also felt sorry for Brandon. Both kids had a “hard life” to put it mildly. That doesn’t excuse murder. Larry is dead. Brandon will eventually be free. Hopefully, he will be rehabilitated in prison and become a productive member of society. Hopefully, this movie will spark some interest and some realization that children (i feel they both were children) are very susceptible to influences around them. They are a product of nature and nurture. I do not feel the crime was race related, but homophobic. It was a sad movie on all counts. I do feel it was biased in favor of Brandon. I would have liked to have seen more about Larry’s family, his funeral, anything. I hope that Brandon and all the others effected and affected will use this not to promote LGBT issues but to help reduce violence and most of all HATE.

  9. 9
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    l. Having followed coverage of the trial at the time it was occurring, I got the impression that their dogged pursuit of the hate crime allegations may have caused the jurors to lose focus on the murder charge

    Which just further points up the blistering bigotry on the part of the jury, being as this is pretty much the classic exemplar of a hate crime.

  10. 10
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    When his case is taken up by two “juvenile justice” advocate attorneys enraged that he may be tried as an adult, the female half of the duo expresses her devotion and undying love for his so-called beautiful spirit.

    So much wrong in this story – which I followed superficially at the time – that is new to me.

    This statement in particular exemplifies the gross deficiency of my paranoid cynicism.

  11. 11
    Kristine Apodaca

    My god.
    I just now finished watching this movie, and it makes me ASHAMED to be white, blond and blue-eyed. I’ve never seen such a travesty. “Save Brandon?”. Save us all. That so many people can justify this blatant racist, sexist bullshit fills me with absolutely shocked RAGE.

  12. 12
    j connell

    i have just watched this doc and i’m seething .there is one thing that bothers me more than anything and that is the fact that we still have educators who think that the behaviour of bigoted confused un educated pupils have more rights than the individual. educators do your job educate so that people like lawrence can be who they are without being harassed.

  13. 13
    Matthew Wright

    I congratulate Sikivu Hutchinson on a provocative review of this film. I saw this documentary several weeks ago and I, too, was enraged. I think the documentarians are actually quite purposeful in their editing in an attempt to show how heterosexist/racist thinking is perpetuated…or perhaps I’m too generous and am viewing the film from a very non-heteronormative perspective.

    For me the most horrifying moments had to do with Brandon McInerney’s defense team…two white, apparently “progressive,” young, intellectuals who concocted a narrative that defies any kind of intelligent scrutiny. If being “pursued” by a non-gender conforming classmate (and I fail to see how Latonya’s actions could be so construed) makes murder any more defensible, should this not mean that any woman who suffers the unwanted, flirtatious advances of a man and then kills him should be able to plead a kind of “justifiable” homicide? It’s nonsense.

    I also took the lack of acknowledgement of action on the school district’s part to simply mean NOTHING was done. It’s pretty explicitly stated that no monument or “memorial” has been raised to Latonya. That says it all. Over and over history teaches us that such silencing results in a tear in the subverted collected psyche that will one day erupt in something much more shameful. These ghosts won’t go away until some kind of retributive justice is had.

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