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Facing Race Panel
Interviewing Isis King
I cried a guttural scream when I read “Mistrial Declared…” in the murder trial of Brandon McInerney, the 17-year-old who shot his classmate Lawrence “Larry” King, then 15, to death in 2008. Once I was introduced to Larry’s story, I’ve never been able to think of Larry, a kid who stepped across the gender line with tragic results, without thinking of myself as a junior high student.
Our coming of age stories intersected at many pivotal points, and I’ve remained silent in the past week because I needed the time to investigate those points of intersection and really delve deep into how Larry’s story gave me the gumption to come out of my own silence.
Middle school was a time in which I had yet to even come across the terms transgender or transsexual. All I knew in this world was that I was this limp-wrist, hip-swaying kid who loved the look and taste of Lipsmackers on my pout. I skipped to gym class in rolled-up soccer shorts and knee-high tube socks and strutted through the halls in flared jeans and platform sneakers. I was just a kid, learning about and expressing myself; not my gender, not my sexuality, but the totality of me.
In the midst of my pubescence, I fell in love. The object of my adolescent affection (err obsession) was the boy-next-door, let’s call him Nathan. We lived two houses away from one another and I dreamily wished that one day he’d love me back. Like the protagonist Ludovic in 1997′s Ma Vie En Rose (“My Life in Pink”), the only film that resonated with my own childhood, I thought, “We’re going to get married when I’m not a boy.”
Though I didn’t have the words to describe who I was, I intuitively knew as a tween that this adoration that I had for Nathan would never be reciprocated because he was a guy who liked girls and to him and those around me I was not a girl, no matter how much I acted like one. It wasn’t a romantic match make.
Regardless, I loved Nathan anyway as I navigated my path towards self-discovery. I was learning who I was, and the only vocabulary I knew at the time that closely described the me I knew was gay. Always a lover of words, I clung to the definition, grasping at some tangible understanding and recognition of my identity as I understood it then. Though “gay” didn’t quite fit, like a cute, but not great, dress on sale, I wore it anyway.
“I think I’m gay,” I remember telling Mom at our kitchen table one day after school. I was about 13, and on the cusp of starting puberty and the eighth grade in Honolulu. I remember Mom taking me in: short haircut parted at the side (I called it my Halle Berry ‘do), eyebrows overly tweezed, lips so glossed she probably could see her own reflection. It was the first time she really saw me, I believed.
“OK, Charles,” was all she said, as I returned to the couch to watch the Ricki Lake Show with my siblings.
Over that summer break, I became bolder in my dress, more confident in expressing my feminine side. I began my eighth grade year in the fall of 1996 with shimmering eye shadow on my lids and colorful friendship bracelets around my wrists. My 13-year-old self became sure of two things in this world: I was a girl and I loved this boy.
I loved Nathan so that I would doodle his name in my journal, write stories plotted around him confessing that he’d love me too and would wait for me to transform into this sickening girl. I always wrote myself as this girl with an abundance of hair and curves and flowing dresses that kissed my ankles; visions that would later remind me of Janie Crawford, the one literary heroine who influenced my entire life.
These were my teenage dreams, visions that came to light, that to me became real in a world that off-paper didn’t seem likely.
One day, a friend of mine, who was privy to my crush on Nathan, urged me to put one of these stories from my journal into his mailbox. I used her suggestion as an excuse to actually act on my secret admiring, to vocalize to him that I thought highly of him and that one day I’d be a girl and it would all work out. A few days later, Nathan was waiting for me as I made my way up the driveway towards my house after school. I don’t know what I expected the letter to do, but somewhere deep inside I naively thought it’d be our little secret.
“I know you wrote this,” he said with a chuckle that seemed to dismiss me. I didn’t realized how tall he was until that moment because I had never seen him that close up before. Nathan was three years older than me and it became clear that he understood things about the world that I hadn’t the capacity or maturity to fully comprehend yet.
“I’m not like that,” he continued, handing the letter back to me. ”I’m not like you.”
With one sentence, he crushed every dream I had for the past year. He killed any possibility of us one day lying in the grass talking about love. I felt rejected and different and strange and unworthy of love. But I was still there in my driveway breathing, tears dropping steadily on the wide-ruled paper that framed my cursive scribbles of love.
When Larry King made his affections for Brandon McInerney known on the basketball court at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, Calif., days before Valentine’s Day 2008, Brandon’s friends teased him. Larry’s flamboyance and assertiveness at this turning point was described by the defense and Los Angeles Times writer Catherine Saillant as “aggressive flirtations.”
McInerney threatened to kill King after his public advance, according to King’s close friend, and on February 12, McInerney carried out his alleged threat when he sat behind a somber King, uncharacteristically sans his high heels and feminine attire, in computer class and shot him twice in the head, in full view of classmates. King died two days later of brain injuries.
“Somewhere along the line the killer got the message that it’s so threatening and so awful and horrific that Larry would want to be his valentine that killing Larry seemed to be the right thing to do,” Ellen DeGeneres told her studio audience at the time. “And when the message out there is so horrible, that to be gay, you can get killed for it, we need to change the message.”
In the killer’s defense, McInerney’s attorney Scott Wippert framed the victim as the bully, as a sort of predator whose unwanted advances amounted to sexual harassment for an unstable McInerney, who was abused in his own home. Newsweek writer Rameen Setoodeh wrote that King’s “first line of defense” was that he “flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon.”
The day before he was killed, King, in his brown Target high heels, reportedly told McInerney in the halls, “Love you baby!”
“You’re so pretty,” the girls in my class cooed after I showed them pictures my best friend Wendi took of me wearing a belly-baring halter top with a black bob wig. I was striking a pose that showed off my curvy behind and nearly nude back. I beamed from the inside out with this outside validation. I was becoming more and more bold.
While most of the girls in my class openly accepted me, many of my male classmates were disturbed by my so-called flamboyance. I could feel their judging glares burning holes in the blanket of confidence I was steadily quilting.
“I can see your balls,” a boy who snatched my picture from one of my girlfriends said, igniting laughter from the other boys in the room. I put my defenses up immediately, becoming an expert at turning off the world and holding back my instinct to burst out in tears.
I’ve always been a perpetually stubborn person. I was never a silent kid. I thrived on having that final word. I walked to the back of the classroom in my platform sneakers and snatched my photo from his hands. He was about five inches taller than me even in my heels.
“That’s not what you said last night,” I said in my best screen-siren purr.
“You’re fucking gross,” he shouted back. And I knew I won.
Though I’d never dominate him or any other boy in a physical fight, I could use my difference as a weapon, I rationalized. It was my best defense then. I used his own transphobia (and what I’m sure he perceived as homophobia) against him. Often times this kept most of the punks at bay throughout middle and high school.
Mere months after being removed from his parents’ home in late 2007 and placed in Casa Pacifica, a home for abused and neglected children, Larry began dressing in female attire at school.
“The kids used to laugh at him,” one of King’s classmates told PEOPLE. “But he handled it okay. He used to say, ‘I am what I am, and you can’t take that away from me.’”
Administrators met about his wearing accessories and makeup, and Assistant Principal Sue Parsons sent an email to the school’s staff informing them not to make an issue of King’s attire. With the subject line STUDENT RIGHTS, Parsons wrote:
“We have a student on campus who has chosen to express his sexuality by wearing make-up. It is his right to do so. Some kids are finding it amusing, others are bothered by it. As long as it does not cause classroom disruptions he is within his rights. We are asking that you talk to your students about being civil and non-judgmental. They don’t have to like it but they need to give him his space. We are also asking you to watch for possible problems. If you wish to talk further about it please see me or Ms. Epstein.”
It was within Larry’s rights to wear what he wanted to school as long as it wasn’t disrupting class. Just because it was within his rights and tolerated doesn’t meant that his gender-nonconformity was accepted. It seemed that it was on a teacher-by-teacher basis to determine how they’d deal with the teasing as a result of Larry’s gender-nonconformity in their classrooms.
This is dangerous terrain that consists of schools gambling on young people’s lives. We need a framework to deal with gender-nonconformity in schools.
“Some of your classmates may be different from you. You’re all different,” Ludovic’s teacher in Ma Vie En Rose told the class. “You must accept people the way they are and respect each other. At your age, you’re all searching for an identity so please make an effort.”
Teachers like Ludovic’s can only help students thrive through school. It’s essential that we give schools the tools necessary not only to deal with lesbian and gay students in school, but trans and gender-nonconforming students as well. For Larry, he found a few supporters in school, including his teacher Dawn Boldrin, who told jurors in July that she offered King tips on applying makeup and bought him nail polish.
When Mrs. Boldrin gave King a shimmering formal dress that once belonged to her own daughter, he reportedly tried it on in the bathroom and showed it to his friends. In her testimony, Boldrin said King had transformed in the weeks before his death into someone determined to assert a new gender identity.
If kids are aware of their gender-nonconformity and/or identify as trans at young ages and we’re telling them to be courageous and be proud of who you are and here are all these resources for you on the internet to figure out and connect to people who are like you, then we must get into the school at the elementary level and not only teach tolerance, but acceptance and expand, particularly for gender-nonconforming kids, the idea of “acceptable” behavior for a boy or girl.
There wasn’t a time in my life that I didn’t express my femininity. But I do remember the first time that being me garnered an “ewww” from my classmates. I was in kindergarten and I wanted to stay with the girls during a class field trip. Forced to get in line with the boys, I began to cry. ”Ewww he’s a girl,” one snot-nosed kid yelled, amplifying my outburst. I was told by my teacher to stop crying.
Moments like these are pivotal teaching moments for everyone, and teachers and school administrators have the capacity and the responsibility to turn schools not only into places of learning, but places of acceptance, affirmation and growth. We’re building citizens, not just students. If we can expand children’s minds on this, at a time when they have the capacity to take cues from those who are influencing them, then we reduce the violence and hostility that our society currently promotes.
We all failed Larry and Brandon. The school allowed Larry to dress how he wanted because it was within his rights. But no one provided training for teachers and administrators on how to support a gender-nonconforming or trans child and educate his classmates on being accepting of Larry. Individual teachers helped Larry on their own, but there was no school-wide support of affirming Larry. It seemed the approach was: “Legally, we can’t stop him, so here’s to hoping the students will police him and maybe stop him from dressing up.”
Saying we can’t legally stop a child from dressing up is not enough. Schools have to intercept bullying, children can’t police children and we can’t allow them to spark change in a gender-nonconforming or trans child.
The day Larry was shot twice in the head by Brandon, he left his heels and nail polish at the youth home he was staying in. On that somber day, he was the boy everyone wanted him to be. Some say he was terrified. Maybe he was tired of fighting. Maybe he came to school and knew his end, and knew that no one was really there to support him.
Larry didn’t have a home. He didn’t have parents who supported him. No one really understood him.
It’s not enough to allow kids to dress up and express themselves. It’s what we do after we learn they are trans that makes the real difference. We need to train teachers and administrators, educate students and give them tools to be allies, and ensure that trans and gender-nonconforming students know that they are welcomed at school and we’re here to support them. Only by opening up schools and transforming them into acceptance centers do we create a world that is less transphobic, homophobic and misogynistic and give kids the tools to not only survive school but thrive through it.
Brandon stood at 5’10″ by 14. Larry stood at 5’3″ at 15. Brandon and many of the other boys, with their masculine identities, physically imposed on Larry. There was no physical threat there. Larry’s only line of defense was to use their phobias against them.
How else would he have fought back? He was pushing back against a system that was failing him. He fought everyday to be a little more bold, to dare to wear something that he wasn’t supposed to wear, asking a teacher to call him Leticia, telling friends he’d have sex reassignment surgery, those little things that we learn along the way as we become more courageous in who we are.
People of color represented 70% of all LGBT-bias-related murder victims in 2010, and some 44% of LGBT murder victims were transgender women. Though we’ll never know if Larry was trans because he didn’t have the chance to grow up and continue onward towards self-discovery, we do know that he was shame-free in his gender-noncomformity, and because of it, he was killed.
Kaia Tollefson, a professor at CSU, says that King was murdered because his killer was raised in a society that endorses the ridicule, discrimination, and violence that LGBTQ people endure every day. And the mistrial in the Brandon McInerney case is evidence of this injustice:
“Most prominently, it highlights the reality that when straight people are victims of violence, their identity as heterosexuals will not be offered as a plausible explanation for it. Larry King’s murder exposes widespread social acceptance for blaming LGBT victims for the violence they suffer. Initial news coverage of this tragedy focused eagerly on King’s atypical behaviors, not the murderer’s. The lesson, of course, is that King was killed because he was gay—not because his killer had internalized the heterosexist beliefs and values that his culture had successfully impressed upon him.”
We have to create a world where it’s okay to wear eyeshadow and a pair of brown heels to school if you’re a viewed as a boy, a world in which kids aren’t threatened by the fact that their classmates of the same or opposite sex or another race may have a crush on them, where we give them the tools to say, “I’m flattered that you like me, but you’re just not my type, and I’d like you to respect the fact that I am not gay.”
Instead we live in a world where we internalize society’s fears about sexual identity and bending gender norms, where if kids don’t get in line with society’s norms, they live in fear that they’ll suffer consequences, even their own deaths, and be blamed for it.
“God knit Larry together and made him wonderfully complex,” Rev. Dan Birchfield said in his moving eulogy to King at the Westminster Presbyterian Church. “Larry was a masterpiece.”
The work of art that is Larry hangs prominently within me, reminding me everyday of just how fortunate I am that I got the chance to grow up and discover me. People often ask, “Why did you come out?” and applaud me for doing so. Growing up I just wanted to blend in, to be another girl in the crowd, but by blending in I was discounting my entire experience, shutting off a part of my journey that was integral to my entire being. I’d been through so much, just like young Larry, but the only difference was that I lived. And now, I believe with every fabric of my being that I’ve lived to tell it.