Justice, Gender, Junior High,
by Ken Corbett
This is a somber book, but it is essential reading for our times. In February 2008, during English class at a junior high school in Oxnard, California, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney stood behind his classmate Larry King, who had recently begun to identify as a girl (Leticia) and fired two bullets into the back of his skull. Larry died shortly after the assault; Brandon was picked up by police a short distance from the school. The incident got brief national attention when Ellen DeGeneres (on her syndicated talk show) spoke of the event as a gay hate crime. She did not mention that Larry King was possibly transgender, and this may have not been understood when information about the crime first came out. An award-winning HBO documentary of the murder by Marta Cunningham, Valentine Road, was released in 2013.
Ken Corbett, a psychologist who has written extensively on boys and gender issues (Boyhoods, Rethinking Masculinities) heard about the crime. A few years later, when Brandon was brought to trial and charged with a hate crime and with first degree murder as an adult, Corbett was in the courtroom each day of the trial. He was trying to understand what had happened--the social and psychological issues surrounding the murder--and this book is, in many ways, a story about how hard it is to know the truth about causation and motives in a tragedy like this. But it is also a book that demonstrates why trying to arrive at a truthful understanding of such a tragedy is important if we are going to do the things that need to be done to prevent killings like this from happening again.
So much seems to make the search for that understanding difficult. At trial, the narrative got framed in tendentious ways by both the prosecution and the defense. Each vied to tell a version of what happened and why it happened that the jury would come to believe was essentially the correct one. This battle played out not just in the courtroom, but in the media and in the community where the crime occurred. Parents, schools, local authorities, and community leaders each sought to exonerate themselves and to shift culpability elsewhere. In the process, the lessons that needed to be learned got lost, especially the communal ones. They were obscured, distorted, or simplified. The axiomatic formulations hid the truth, which was a complex of neglect and failure, both personal and social.
The task Corbett set for himself was a lonely and onerous one. It seemed that he alone was the observer who was there to challenge the serviceable and expedient narratives in order to find the truths, to show us what we must come to understand if we are to have any hope of preventing tragedies like this.
Perhaps the most unsettling revelations in this book are the stories of the lives of neglect, violent abuse, and abandonment that both Brandon and Larry had lived through in their young lives. In Brandon’s case, this produced a store of anger, a lack of coping skills, and an emotional distancing that was profound. The prosecution was focused on making a case about Brandon as a white supremacist and a hater of gays, while his defense tried to portray him as a “normal boy” raised with accepted norms about gender and sex, who had been sexually harassed by Larry into reacting violently. The actual life Brandon had lived wasn’t a part of anyone’s narrative, and yet it was the story that had formed him. And Larry’s struggles were not really part of the story either. At the trial, gay and gender issues were conflated when talking about him, while his own individual story, and his identification as “Leticia,” a transgender, were not part of the narrative either. Neither boy's life experience was a part of the truth or understanding that emerged from the trial.
Shortly before the murder, the victim, Larry King, who had begun
to identify as "Leticia," poses with a dress that was given to him
by a teacher at his junior high school.
Corbett cautions that young people today are growing up caught between messages of tolerance on the one hand--often the more accepting and tolerant tone of major media--and geographical and demographic pockets of stringent and violent social norms on the other. It is too easy to assume that the world has changed more than it has; as so many gay and transgender children have come to understand, the social norms in their own communities, in the places where they must actually live their lives (rather than the media or cyber world that seems so encouraging and accepting), can be exceedingly unfriendly places. Certainly educators who insist upon viewing gender, sexuality, and race as matters of discipline rather than education are not going to be able to help these children or be able to change social understanding. But even with supportive adults, these children, and those who might hate them, cannot be left to fend for themselves. Corbett says, “We need people, not metal detectors, at the doors of schools--people who can ensure the bonds through which kids grow--people who can help kids negotiate the trouble they have in relating to kids that are ‘other.’"
But we keep wondering about all the anger, the abuse and neglect, the unconscionable parenting that so many children experience while growing up. That anger often goes inward, creating damaged teens and adults, but it also directs itself outward, finding an easy target in the ‘other.’ Only if more children have better lives are children going to find it safer to explore and express their differences, to be who they are.