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Weeks before he was brazenly killed by his teenage crush, 15-year-old Lawrence King was encouraged to be himself. Did that lesson help send him to his grave?


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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Neal Broverman

Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.
Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.