I was living in Fresno, Calif., in February 2008 when I heard about the murder of 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King at a middle school in Oxnard. Since I had been a vocal advocate of gay rights for many years, it was easy for me to judge 14-year-old murder suspect Brandon McInerney. Based on what the media had been reporting and my own experiences years ago in Oxnard Shores, close to where Brandon had been living at the time, the case was, to me, clear-cut. Brandon, allegedly on the verge of being a white supremacist, shot Larry, an effeminate boy, twice in the back of the head in class and walked out. This execution-style murder by a teenager in my hometown shook the nation and bewildered gay rights activists everywhere.
The media frenzy that followed clamped down on Brandon as a monster. TV personalities, news commentators and bloggers were adamant that Larry was killed solely because he was gay and that the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) community needed to stand up against bullies and not be ashamed.
As openly gay talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres said on her show, “Larry was not a second-class citizen. I am not a second-class citizen. It is OK if you’re gay. I don’t care what people say. I don’t care what people think. And I know there are entire groups of people who face discrimination every single day and we’re a long way from treating each other equally. All of it is unacceptable. All of it.
“But I would like you to start paying attention to how often being gay is the punchline of a monologue,” DeGeneres continued. “Or how often gay jokes are in a movie. And that kind of message — laughing at someone because they’re gay — is just the beginning. It starts with laughing at someone, then it’s verbal abuse, then it’s physical abuse, and then it’s this kid Brandon killing a kid like Larry.”
I couldn’t have agreed more with DeGeneres at the time; I was just as far removed from the situation as she was. So were most people who agreed with her. She didn’t go to school with the two boys. She didn’t live with either of the boys. She hadn’t been friends with them. The reason I agreed with her was that I know how hard it can be for someone to come out — several friends have done so and have been rejected by their families or, at the very least, been given an extremely hard time for liking the same sex, as if anyone actually chooses whom they are attracted to.
I also know how very different it is for many gay men and women to live in a “straight world,” or what they perceive to be a “straight world.” In many large cities, as opposed to small cities like Ventura or Oxnard, gays not only have their own bars, restaurants and bookstores, they even have their own districts in which to live.
Growing up in Ventura and Oxnard in the 1980s and ’90s, I had no firsthand experience with gays. There hadn’t been an outspoken community of them here, there hadn’t been kids coming out of the closet at school, and there hadn’t been a lot of conversation about it. For some reason, Ventura County seemed to be living in a time warp. Sometimes, it still seems that way. Many gays here feel that they are being ostracized.
I felt for Larry, for his parents, for his friends, but as I learned more about the situation after I moved back to Ventura, I realized that the story being reported was the easy one to report: Larry, the faultless gay victim; Brandon, a soulless demon — and, yes, up until the trial began, that is the way much of the media portrayed them. As easy as it is for all of us to make assumptions about Larry and Brandon, it is conversely just as hard to understand what was going on in Larry’s and Brandon’s lives and minds that built up to that tragic moment on Feb. 12, 2008, at E.O. Green Junior High School.
The wrong way to handle a situation
Being a teenager seems to be cruel and unusual punishment in the evolutionary process of becoming a grown-up. Being “different” doesn’t help. Being considered too tall or too short, poor or wealthy, fat or thin, smart or stupid, effeminate for a man or masculine for a woman — all of it has a stigma. The process of choosing who falls into which category is an almost natural selection that needs no explanation — but contrary to the animal kingdom, people who pick on others aren’t necessarily better or more fit in any degree than their victims. Larry King didn’t just fall prey to Brandon McInerney’s actions that day. Larry had been a victim of some of his so-called friends and mentors who did little to stop him from standing out, perhaps even actively encouraged him to be different during a period of time that is so volatile for all teenagers.
At the beginning of the trial, I read a sad and heartfelt testimony of one of his friends. Shortly thereafter, however, I got a real understanding for what Larry had been experiencing. Avery L. is her name, a girl that I am fairly certain was friends with Larry only when the popular group wanted to be around him. She said she had known him since third grade and was friends with him some days, and other days she wasn’t. As far as I could tell, she didn’t seem to be friends with Larry at all in her eighth grade year, given how she and her friends treated him.
During her testimony, Avery recalled that Larry made the boys uncomfortable at school by making certain remarks and he had been seen chasing them around at lunch period. (Brandon was often the focus of Larry’s attention, including when Larry blew kisses at him, told him, “I love you, baby!” and asked Brandon to be his Valentine.
Students testified that they had seen Brandon and Larry arguing on various occasions in class and in the hallways.) Avery continued, saying she and others would laugh when the boys appeared bothered by Larry. She told the court how the boys, which included Brandon, would scatter when she and her friends told Larry that he should try and sit down with them at lunchtime. The prosecution asked how many times she and her friends had done that. She replied, many, many times. Many, many times? How many times should a person use someone else to be the butt of a joke?
Was Larry willing to do it to fit in, to get attention? Was he so starved for attention that perhaps the consequences didn’t matter? Avery said that sometimes he thought it was funny, other times he was irritated about it. Given Larry’s apparent attraction to the same sex, for the sake of argument, try to imagine any straight female wanting to be laughed at and made fun of repeatedly by males. Did Larry have other friends he could go to who wouldn’t push him to do such things? It’s unclear. None of us was there and we will never know if Larry actually preferred the way he was being treated. One thing that is clear, however, is that a couple of adults at his school, even if well-intentioned, inadvertently made Larry a moving target for humiliation, if not worse.
For one teacher, giving Larry a shiny green prom dress seemed to be the right thing to do. (He later tried on the dress and roamed the halls while school was in session, going against dress code policy.) After all, Larry was, according to accounts, a colorful 15-year-old, who appeared comfortable at the time with who he was and didn’t seem to recoil from standing out. For one administrator, allowing Larry to wear knee-high, high-heeled boots, jewelry and makeup was within the dress code and within his civil rights and the laws of equality. He had been warned that things could be tough for him, but former E.O. Green Junior High School Vice Principal Joy Epstein told him, “More power to you if you can get through it,” a conversation she recalled during her testimony. Epstein, openly lesbian, might have taken better care with Larry’s coming out, given that she, of all the teachers and administrators, must have known how difficult it is to be gay. (Larry’s appearance changed rapidly in spring semester at school in his eighth grade year, though he had been vocal about his sexuality since he was 10, according to Avery.) Unfortunately, he didn’t get through it, but that is not to say that Larry died because of jewelry, makeup or even a green dress.
Being gay in Ventura County
When I first came on staff at the VCReporter, we did a cover story about a gay men’s choir that came to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. Soon after, we received a typed letter from an anonymous reader who said he would make sure that none of his staff would be allowed to read the paper ever again because we were pushing a gay agenda. It was a sad moment for us, for gay rights activists, for the local LGBTQ community. Though it didn’t stop us from doing stories about gay issues later on, it definitely depicted a part of our community that isn’t ready to talk about homosexuality, much less accept it.
Having known various people who have come out of the closet after spending their adolescence in Ventura County, I must question whether school-aged children are particularly gay-friendly. Calling someone gay, whether true or not, typically has had a negative connotation. Is it the failure of parents, of our community, that certain kids feel encouraged to refer to homosexuality in a derogatory way? Where did we learn this? And more importantly, why does being gay have anything negative attached to it? Is being gay similar to what any minority experiences?
When I was 17, I moved to Atlanta, Ga., to finish high school. There I had a number of gay friends; and being gay, for them, didn’t seem to be such a big issue. But this was high school in a metropolitan city. Maybe junior high is just a rougher period of time for kids. Or perhaps it is the lack of diversity in Ventura County, from race to religion to sexuality, that, in essence, condones such negative views of anything or anyone other than what the majority represents. Or possibly it is a combination of both.
In the setting at E.O. Green Junior High School as described by teachers, Larry may have been ill-advised to do anything but conform. I have yet to hear testimony about any other student testing the boundaries of the dress code — which was white shirts and blue pants or skirts — such as kids in gangs wearing certain colors or “promiscuous” girls roaming the halls in miniskirts, even if it was for just one day. Could a kid be killed for wearing the wrong colors or a girl raped for dressing scantily? Such things have surely happened in this country. Though these reference points don’t necessarily parallel the gender identity issues some homosexuals experience, they fit into a category that makes individuals stand out, perhaps in harm’s way. There is an air of intolerance for being different, period.
One of Larry’s classmates, Marina C., had come out as a lesbian at E.O. Green Junior High School, in the same year that Larry had begun to embrace a more feminine identity. She testified that being out as a lesbian didn’t make it harder for her at school — not only did the boys seem a bit more comfortable around her because she started to act like one of the guys, she also recalled trading snacks with Brandon and hadn’t felt uncomfortable around him though his friends had known she was gay. Her appearance changed only slightly that year, wearing baggier clothes but keeping her shoulder-length hair. (At the trial, she had a very short haircut, almost a military-style buzz cut.) She said she was told by administration, however, that she couldn’t hold hands with her girlfriend, though straight couples at the school had not received the same warning. But Larry and Marina weren’t friends — she said she knew of him, but it didn’t go further that that. It seems Larry had no true backup system — he was raised by foster parents who then sent him to Casa Pacifica, a local foster care facility, a few months before the shooting, and apparently, he had no gay male friends, or lesbian friends either, at E.O. Green School.
On the beaches of Oxnard and Ventura
Having grown up in Pierpont and Oxnard Shores, it is easy for me to see how Simi Valley Police Department Detective Dan Swanson concluded in trial that teenagers involved in what appear to be beach gangs are somehow linked to white supremacy. (The prosecution is trying to show that the Silver Strand Locals — Brandon lived in Silver Strand in Oxnard and hung out with the Silver Strand Locals — is a white supremacist gang. White supremacists don’t like gays.) It’s not that any of the kids in these so-called gangs would actually say they are full of hate and rage toward anyone that isn’t white and straight. According to the census of 2010, white persons that are not Hispanic make up 48.7 percent of Ventura County’s population compared to California at 40.1 percent. With the exception of Oxnard’s inner city, it can be difficult to find the county’s diversity – even Orange County is more diverse than we are with 44.1 percent of its population being non-Hispanic white.
That doesn’t mean kids who live on the beach or elsewhere in the county are white supremacists. It also doesn’t mean that there isn’t diversity on the beaches, where Latinos and whites share the surf and the beach on a regular basis.
But this county is certainly lacking the diversity of large cities, and when cultural, racial and especially sexual orientation diversity is lacking, it’s hard to say what teenagers really feel about minorities when they know nothing different.
For the most part, it would seem that only a few kids who live on the beach are just a bit territorial — they want the beaches and the waves for themselves. If you don’t live nearby, then you don’t belong. Referred to as localism, it is a mentality that shouldn’t be condoned, but it happens throughout the country. In reality, though, the majority of kids and adults living at the beach welcome outsiders. Longtime resident of Silver Strand and Silver Strand Local Vickie Willis testified at the trial that she sends her clients from Thousand Oaks to hang out at her beach.
Just because kids and adults live in certain areas and identify themselves with the name of their neighborhood doesn’t mean these people epitomize the negative stereotypes of criminal gangs. Furthermore, Brandon also had several black friends at school — his closest, an African American, testified that Brandon didn’t talk about white power or white supremacist values and that Brandon was a quiet kid who kept his emotions to himself.
But as Brandon’s teacher Dawn Boldrin testified, “I had Hispanic kids writing about brown pride, but I don’t think they understood what brown pride is. I don’t think any of them understood the ramification[s] of white power.” Hence the reason there is a difference between juveniles and adults — adults should have the experience and capacity to understand the repercussions of their actions and overarching identities, such as claiming to be a white supremacist.
Juveniles do not.
Two wrongs don’t make a right
If you go to the Ventura County courthouse and ask to see the files on the Brandon McInerney case, in the first file, you will come across page after page of signatures gathered by Brandon’s attorneys in a petition against trying him as an adult. Those who signed the petition weren’t children’s rights activists. They weren’t colleagues of the attorneys.
They were Brandon’s classmates and friends from E.O. Green Junior High School. Perhaps they signed the petition because they didn’t want Brandon to face such a severe punishment as the death penalty or life in prison. Or maybe they just understood Brandon as they understood themselves, and knew that being a teenager comes with a string of emotions that result in odd behaviors with sometimes terribly tragic outcomes. (Because of Proposition 21, passed by California voters in 2000, the prosecution, not the presiding judge, has the discretion to try a child as an adult.)
In an article by Jay N. Geidd, M.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Geidd describes how changes in the adolescent brain impact cognition, emotion and behavior.
He writes, “Adolescence is a time of substantial neurobiological and behavioral change, but the teen brain is not a broken or defective adult brain. The adaptive potential of the overproduction/selective elimination process, increased connectivity and integration of disparate brain functions, changing reward systems and frontal/limbic balance, and the accompanying behaviors of separation from family of origin, increased risk-taking, and increased sensation-seeking have been highly adaptive in our past and may be so in our future. These changes and the enormous plasticity of the teen brain make adolescence a time of great risk and great opportunity.”
In the end, there is no escaping what happened that day. There is no denying that Brandon told a friend that he was going to bring a gun to school the next day. There is no undoing Brandon’s decision to eliminate a perceived problem by destroying the human being he blamed for his frustration and humiliation. Does that make him a cold-blooded killer doomed to repeat such terrible acts as an adult? People who knew Brandon before the shooting say no, that this was a one-time incident and Brandon was an extremely bright kid who was severely misguided. Child psychologists reiterate that teenage minds do not necessarily reflect who they will be as adults. Others say that Brandon should be locked up forever, that he killed Larry solely because he was gay, and that he is capable of resolving problems in a violent way in the future.
But when weighing our opinions and decisions about this case, we mustn’t forget that Brandon and Larry both had troubled lives leading up to that day. Brandon, whose home life was a virtual hell, where his parents were drug addicts and violent toward each other, didn’t have any sort of support outside of school. (Brandon’s mother has since cleaned up and is actively engaged in helping others do the same.) After Brandon’s mother lost custody of him, he lived with his grandfather and shared a room with his father, who later died tragically after Brandon’s arrest. For amusement, Brandon’s dad would have him and his brothers fight each other. Brandon also endured severe physical abuse by his father, according to testimony. Larry, though he is not on trial, had his own set of behavioral problems at home with his adoptive parents, who eventually sent him to Casa Pacifica. Though sealed, Larry did have a juvenile record.
While we may never know the extent of Larry’s problems, it is clear that the pair was heading toward a point of combustion, and anyone who did nothing to help or encouraged unhealthy, problematic behavior should be held culpable. (Why isn’t Brandon’s grandfather on trial for not locking up his guns?) Only Brandon, and Brandon alone will carry the weight for the rest of his life — whether he should be doing it in prison for 25 years, or up to 53 years will depend on the jury. As for Larry, his life and death will serve as lessons to all of us about how we should treat each other and help us better understand the sensitive nature of growing up and the harsh reality of coming out.
Defense attorneys say that the trial should be wrapped up around Aug. 16. The trial is being held in Chatsworth due to pre-trial publicity.