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At 8:15 a.m. on
February 12, Brandon McInerney, age 14, stormed into the
computer lab of Oxnard, Calif.’s E.O. Green Junior
High. Armed with a small caliber handgun, he shot
15-year-old Lawrence King twice in the head in front
of a roomful of students.

If they
didn’t see the execution coming, most of
King’s peers at school knew he was being
bullied for being proudly gay and flouting male
conventions by accessorizing his school uniform with eye
shadow and high-heeled boots. In the months leading up
to that morning, King had undergone a metamorphosis.
Guided by a welcoming support system at the group home
where he lived, the teenager was encouraged to dress as he
pleased and live as the person he wanted to be. What King
and others didn’t recognize was that this
encouragement—and his response to
it—placed him on a collision course with a culture
that found him repulsive.

Even before his
death, Larry King was notorious. He was the sassy gay kid
who bragged about his flashy attire and laughed off
bullying, which for him included everything from
name-calling to wet paper towels hurled in his
direction. King was an easy target—he stood 5 foot 4
and was all of 100 pounds.

The boy’s
unconventional family life was also fodder for gossip around
the lockers of E.O. Green. Even though both his parents
reside in Oxnard, about an hour’s drive
northwest of Los Angeles, King lived at Casa Pacifica,
a group home for abused, neglected, and emotionally troubled
children. The facility houses kids until they are returned
to their families or taken in by foster parents. The
average stay at Casa Pacifica, according to staff
member Melissa Flavin, is 30 days. King lived there
for over four months.

Except for a few
short sentences from King’s father to the Los
Angeles Times
about their grief, the King
family has refused to speak to the media, including The
Advocate,
about Larry’s death or his living
situation. “His dad, his name is Greg King…I
think that’s his foster father who adopted
him,” says David Keith, spokesman for the Oxnard
Police Department. “I don’t know where
[Larry’s] natural parents are or even if
they’re in the picture.”

At a February 22
public memorial service attended by 500 mourners, a
Presbyterian minister eulogized King as one of God’s
“grand creations,” “a
masterpiece” who loved bugs, chess, and licorice. He
told a story about how King and his mother, Dawn,
crocheted hundreds of scarves for U.S. soldiers in
Afghanistan. With a shaky voice, the mayor of Oxnard
shared his anguish over King’s murder and made a plea
for community-wide compassion. No one in the King
family spoke.

While E.O. Green
Junior High is in a dense residential neighborhood five
minutes from downtown Oxnard, Casa Pacifica sits in a
bucolic, unpopulated area of Camarillo, 25 minutes
away. At the facility, which is hedged in by
protective-looking green hills, there are grown-ups
everywhere: teachers, counselors, cafeteria cooks. Ranging
in age from infant to 18, Casa Pacifica’s kids
are under constant supervision, but they seem happy
and appreciative of the enveloping safety.

“King was
a bubbling face who made you smile every day,” says
Flavin. She describes King as comfortable at the
facility, honing his beautiful singing voice with Casa
Pacifica’s music instructor. “He loved the
staff,” she says. “He talked to
everybody.”

Each child at
Casa Pacifica speaks to a mental health professional
regularly. Casa Pacifica’s chief executive officer,
Steven Elson, says those conversations are
confidential, but did confirm everyone at Casa
Pacifica, staff and kids, knew King was gay. “[His
death] has been a major trauma for them,” Elson
says. “The kids who are here have really gone
through the grinder themselves…and Larry was pretty
well liked.” Elson wouldn’t comment on
the teenager’s style of dress but confirmed the
kids at Pacifica receive an allowance with which they are
allowed to buy personal items of their choice.
According to 13-year-old E.O. Green student Alma
Oroeso, “Larry started dressing up differently when
he lived at the shelter.”

Elson, who says
King didn’t mention being bullied at school to
foster-care professionals, pointed out that each LGBT child
at Casa Pacifica is given a “Know Your Rights
Guide” provided by the National Center for
Lesbian Rights, a legal advocacy group. “Queer and
Trans Youth in California Foster Care Have
Rights!” declares the pamphlet’s cover.
Inside is a description of the state’s Foster Care
Nondiscrimination Act, along with a list of
entitlements for queer children like safe bathrooms
and dating. Included on the list—below an
illustration of a teenager in overalls and high
heels—is the right for kids to wear clothes and
hairstyles that fit their gender identity. King clearly took
that freedom to heart in the last weeks of his life.

As wonderful as
this encouragement sounds, did it put Larry in harm’s
way by sending him out in a world not ready for him?
It may be beyond the capacity of kids to reconcile a
tolerant atmosphere like Casa Pacifica with the
xenophobic, conformist nature of school. Children like
Brandon McInerney are products of their society, one
that simply does not know what to do with a boy in
heels.

Kate Kendell,
executive director of NCLR, says more precaution may have
been needed from those directly guiding King. “While
there was probably a greater level of acceptance for
Lawrence’s gender nonconformity at his group
home—which we applaud and celebrate—perhaps
there needed to be greater attention to the climate at
school and making him aware of maybe needing to, as
tragic as it would be, cover to some degree in order to
protect himself,” she says. “Just knowing what
happens in the public schools in this country,
it’s fair to say the school had a long way to go
in terms of creating the kind of climate where even mild
gender nonconformity would be accepted.”

Jody Marksamer,
an NCLR attorney and director of the group’s youth
project, created the pamphlet after the Foster Care
Nondiscrimination Act went into effect in 2004.
Marksamer backs away from Kendell’s suggestion
that gender variance should be restrained, saying schools
need to adapt to gender-variant children instead of
the other way around.

“There are
important protections and safeguards the schools need to be
putting in place and society in general needs to be
addressing,” Marksamer says.

But did the
pamphlet, however inadvertently, cause Larry harm? Marksamer
bridles at that suggestion. “I think it’s
really important that we don’t get caught up in
the idea that either Larry or the group home or somebody
could have prevented this by telling Larry he
shouldn’t have been himself. That is not an
approach that’s good for anybody, because you
can’t just protect somebody by telling them not to
express themselves, because people will know who they
are even if—” He trails off, then
resumes, “How could he ever think somebody would kill
him for expressing his rights? That goes beyond any
reasonable expectation. Maybe he could have expected
to be called names or to be laughed at. But he also should
have expected the school would have done something about
that.”

Another
entitlement listed in NCLR’s pamphlet is the right of
queer youths to attend gay-straight alliance meetings
or LGBT youth groups. According to Jay Smith,
executive director of Ventura County Rainbow Alliance,
King had been attending weekly youth empowerment
get-togethers at the alliance for at least the last
year of his life. It’s not clear how King got
himself there before he started living at Casa Pacifica in
the fall, but while he was under the group home’s
care a member of the facility’s staff would
drive him the 15 miles each way to attend meetings.
Even though the youth rap sessions were planned as
adult-free events, a Casa Pacifica staff member was
required to attend the meetings with King. “He
definitely came with an adult, and there were a couple of
other kids who came with Larry from Casa Pacifica
too,” says Smith. “The staff member
actually did sit in on the meeting, and what was unique
about that is that [the Casa Pacifica staff] had to ask
permission from the facilitators.”

Smith also notes,
“When the boys had to use the restroom [the staff
member] followed them out to make sure they were watched.
They really kept an eye on them, which we were really
appreciative of.”

According to
Smith, King didn’t chafe at being so closely
supervised. “I think [King] felt somebody was
at least listening to him,” Smith says,
“and he was starting to connect with an adult figure
supportive of him, which I’m not certain he was
receiving at home, and it sounds like he wasn’t
really receiving at school either.”

Unlike Casa
Pacifica, E.O. Green provides no literature about or for
LGBT students. The Hueneme School District, of which
E.O. Green is a part, has a program called the Second
Step violence prevention education program, which
lasts until sixth grade. Both King and his killer took part
in this program, says Hueneme School District
superintendent Jerry Dannenberg. As part of the
program, kids have weekly classes that attempt to teach
empathy and emotion management. Robin Freeman, assistant
superintendent of education services, was hard-pressed
to come up with any examples of tolerance training for
her seventh- and eighth-graders. She brought up the
substance-abuse prevention program Project Alert, saying it
helped with decision-making skills.

“Part of
the role of a school is to teach young people how to
function in a democracy,” says Kevin Jennings,
a former teacher and the founder and executive
director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education
Network, a national organization working to ensure
safe schools for LGBT students. “In a democracy
we protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
Where are they going to get that lesson? They’ve got
to learn it in school.”

But they
don’t. At least not in the way they did before the No
Child Left Behind Act was enacted by Congress in 2002
at the Bush administration’s urging.

“There’s been a real retrenchment of
antibullying and diversity programs since No Child
Left Behind,” says Jennings. “What
that’s done is establish standardized testing
as the only measure of good schools. In the late
’90s there was a lot of momentum around
multiculturalism and diversity. That was really
reversed by this imposition of standardized testing. A
lot of educators are frustrated because they understand the
importance of addressing some of these larger [social]
efforts, but when they try to they’re told,
‘You’ve just got to get the math scores
up.’ ”

One of the most
established tools for making schools safer for queer kids
is the gay-straight alliance, a concept pioneered by
Jennings at a Massachusetts prep school some 20 years
ago. High school GSAs are common, but in middle
schools they’re still comparatively rare. E.O. Green
has no GSA—and it showed.

“I heard
that there were a lot of kids picking on Larry because he
was different,” says Brianna, a 12-year-old
sixth-grader at E.O. Green. “[The bullies] made
fun of him a lot,” says another peer. “He had
a lot of enemies,” says 13-year-old E.O. Green
eighth-grader Matthew Weber-Hernandez. “And now
all those enemies at school, I see them
crying.”

It wasn’t
often King was crying at school. He maintained a facade of
nonchalance when it came to the bullying. The fact that
King, who looked and acted “feminine,”
could be as tough as a typical boy must have
confounded and infuriated his enemies. Says Weber-Hernandez:
“He’d go chase bullies.”

Brandon McInerney
was E.O. Green’s alpha male: tall, good-looking,
popular, smart. But like King’s, McInerney’s
family life was far from stable. In fact, court
records show a history of violence that lasted
most—if not all—of McInerney’s life.
Stories of abuse, shootings, drug addiction, and even
a car chase fill the McInerney family history,
reported the Ventura County Star newspaper.

Amid the tumult,
McInerney immersed himself in extracurricular
activities, joining the Young Marines program and taking up
martial arts and lifeguard training. The handsome,
muscular teen turned heads at school.

In many ways the
killer and his victim were a study in duality. McInerney
was hypermasculine while King was proudly effeminate. While
King enjoyed an environment of understanding and
stability at Casa Pacifica, McInerney’s world
outside of school remained volatile. But at school the
roles reversed: McInerney was imbued with authority and
respect because of his good looks and athleticism,
while King was different and an outcast, subjected to
ridicule, scorn, and violence.

Even though he
was harassed at school, King was bold. Surrounded by queer
kids at the Rainbow Coalition and understanding adults at
Casa Pacifica, King felt free to share his desires
with a world not ready to hear them. It wasn’t
just his gender identity that King expressed. When he
developed a crush on McInerney, King took action in
his typical brazen manner—he let people know,
including McInerney.

“Brandon
would talk about it [and say] ‘He’s a
faggot,’ ” says a student who
chose to remain anonymous. McInerney became the butt of
jokes after word of King’s crush got around,
and according to students, he made his displeasure
clear to King, with one report suggesting McInerney told
King to “fuck off” after he caught King
staring at him. Students mocked King for his crush,
and according to student Weber-Hernandez, principal Joel
Lovstedt sought Larry out to ask if he was OK. The teen said
he could handle it.

“I asked
the principal for an emergency assembly and he said
no,” says Weber-Hernandez, adding that the
principal cited King’s insistence on being fine
as the reason. Lovstedt couldn’t be reached for a
response, but his boss, superintendent Dannenberg,
says, “I haven’t heard about
that.” Nevertheless, Weber-Hernandez seems certain:
“The day after he died I said, ‘Maybe if
we had that emergency assembly, this wouldn’t have
happened.’ ”

On February 11,
the day before King was shot, relations between Brandon
and Larry reportedly hit a boiling point. Joshua, a
13-year-old eighth-grader at E.O. Green, says,
“It was just that the way he dressed—”
He stops short, then adds, “I think Larry must have
said something to Brandon that offended him.”

Whatever the
scale of the confrontation, no one grasped what a powder keg
McInerney was. After the shooting, McInerney fled the
campus; police apprehended him seven minutes later a
few blocks away. King was rushed to a nearby hospital,
where his condition seemed to stabilize, but by
Wednesday he was brain-dead. He was kept on life support
until Thursday so his organs could be harvested.
McInerney—being charged as an adult with
premeditated murder as a hate crime—now sits in a
juvenile detention center in lieu of $770,000 bail,
waiting to enter a plea in late March.

The hate-crime
charge was decided on by Maeve Fox, the senior deputy
district attorney prosecuting the teenager.

“Probably
more significantly from a sentencing perspective is the
allegation of the use of the firearm, which is also attached
to count one [murder],” Fox says. “That
special obligation carries an additional penalty of 25
years to life if found true. The hate crime only adds a
punishment of a range of one to three years.”

Fox also invoked
California’s Proposition 21 to charge McInerney as an
adult. Approved by voters in March 2000, Proposition 21
amended state law so children as young as 14 could be
charged as adults in certain cases.

It’s a
striking fact that the society now prosecuting Brandon
McInerney as an adult is the same one that failed both
him and Lawrence King as children. And whatever is
decided at the trial, one thing is likely to become
evident: McInerney wasn’t the only one who pulled the
trigger on February 12—he was joined in his
crime by anyone who teaches violence as a solution to
conflict, school curricula that weigh grades over
education, and a culture where just being different can be
deadly.

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