For the past year, Brandon McInerney has been in the spotlight of the Ventura County courts. Nothing short of the standard, expensive, cinematic courtroom drama, McInerney’s trial, to some, has become less about the now-15-year-old murder suspect than about the attorneys, the egos, the endless appeals and the protracted proceedings that commonly define an embattled legal system.
“They’re really into it for the glory and the movie rights. They say they have the best interests of the child at hand,” says Jay Smith, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance.
But ask Smith or any proponent of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community, and the biggest consensus may just be that the trial has shifted away from its intended focus, overshadowing the very victim it’s seeking justice for. Lawrence King was a 14-year-old junior high school student who was killed, allegedly, for expressing his blossoming identity as a homosexual teen.
King, whom McInerney is accused of murdering, will be remembered this week at an evening vigil in Ventura, one year to the day of his death. It was on Feb. 12, 2008, that King was shot twice point blank during class at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard; McInerney has been accused of pulling the trigger, presumably motivated by an emerging hatred towards gays.
Thursday’s event, Remember Lawrence: Year One, seeks not only to memorialize the Oxnard youth, who belonged to the Rainbow Alliance’s youth group, but also to raise greater awareness toward the acceptance of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Sponsored by the Rainbow Alliance, it stresses visibility in numbers. Following a procession to the Ventura pier, speakers are encouraged to share stories, conversations experiences and memories of King.
The killing of King has apparently done little to foster greater sensitivity to homosexual rights. Since his death, Californians failed last November to vote down one of the state’s biggest legislative controversies in years, Proposition 8. The ballot measure successfully denied the option of legal marriage between gay couples.
In Ventura County, campaigns for both sides of the issue were rigorous and competitive; so was the voter margin on Prop. 8, split almost straight down the middle. According to Smith, 52 percent of people in the county voted for it, 48 percent against.
He remains optimistic those numbers will see a shift in years to come.
“Another 10 to 15 years,” Smith said, “it’ll pretty much be a non-issue in the State of California.”
But for the time being, better acceptance of gays and lesbians is a tough sell in Ventura, a county whose largely conservative population stands in stark contrast to its forward-thinking neighbor to the immediate south, Los Angeles.
“It’s cultural,” says Smith. “When you actually come down to sexual orientation, anytime you have to use the word ‘sex’ with parents and youngsters, a lot of people become uncomfortable.”
The same can be surmised about Oxnard, where a sizable Hispanic demographic often equates itself to traditional Christian values.
Smith gives credit to local schools for efforts made to better educate about LGBT issues.
“We do know the educators, at least singly, are looking for resources,” he said. “But it’s a tough topic.”
In terms of outreach, the Rainbow Alliance met on the same page with Ventura schools; but again, according to Smith, the group was not so lucky in Oxnard.
“It’s always a shock when anybody is killed in school,” he said, adding, “The most frustrating thing for us was after the fact … not being able to get the ear of teachers at E.O. Green to help them so that it doesn’t happen again in their school.”
To the school’s credit, since the tragedy, at least six teacher and administrator positions have turned over at the Green school, a possible sign that better and more responsive outlooks could be in store. However, Jerry Dannenberg, superintendent of the Hueneme School District, which E.O. Green belongs to, said he has never corresponded with anyone from the Rainbow Alliance on the matter.
Smith confirms that Alliance members did indeed meet with Dannenberg and Congresswoman Lois Capps at a March 2008 panel discussion covering safe schools.
No matter the disconnect between adults or teachers, it boils down to educating students on LGBT issues if another Lawrence King tragedy is to be avoided. And that can be hard when students are young and at an impressionable stage in life.
“None of our students are perfect in all ways. At junior high age, most students, I don’t believe, know their sexual orientation at all,” says Denis O’Leary, a trustee for the Oxnard School District, where he is also a sixth-grade teacher.
At age 12 or 13, he notes, the term “gay” is used as fodder for jokes among classmates. And the warning signs of danger at school? It’s been documented that King and McInerney had numerous scuffles at school; but most kids are afraid to report.
“We have to learn that one student telling on another student is not bad,” O’Leary says. “Many students believe that ratting out another student is not the ‘rule of school.’”
Pedro Nava, assemblyman for the state’s 35th District, and a proponent for LGBT rights, weighs in.
“The teenage years are very vulnerable,” Nava said. “Kids just suffer tremendously if they are in the least bit different from other kids.”
Approximately 500 people attended a vigil held last year following King’s death. Smith hopes for a similar turnout for this week’s event. “Perhaps people will come out and show solidarity and support,” he said.
The vigil begins at 6 p.m. at 856 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura. For further information on the event, e-mail the Rainbow Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org.