"‘Valentine Road’ And The Institutional Failures That Enable Anti-LGBT Bullying"
It’s been over five and a half years since 14-year-old Brandon McInerney shot his Oxnard, California classmate Lawrence “Larry” King in the head out of disgust for his sexual orientation and gender identity. The murder occurred a year before the spate of LGBT teen suicides that prompted the “It Gets Better” campaign, serving as a significant wake-up call about the issue of anti-LGBT bullying in U.S. schools. The new documentary Valentine Road, premiering Monday night on HBO, tells the story of Larry’s death, Brandon’s trial, and the institutional failures that led both boys to their fates.
No doubt, Larry’s gender non-conforming identity is at the heart of the story. He liked to wear dresses, high heels, and make-up to school, and openly expressed attraction to Brandon. Administrators at E.O. Green Junior High School, who declined to be interviewed for the documentary, pathologized Larry’s identity, suggesting it was a “behavioral problem” that he should minimize, though he was permitted to continue dressing as he pleased. One teacher who did speak in the film, ardent Catholic Shirley Brown, explained that Larry did not know “the consequences of his actions,” adding that she could even relate to Brandon’s reaction.
Indeed, in court, Brandon’s lawyers argued a gay/trans-panic defense, suggesting that he was so humiliated by Larry’s flirtation and gender expression that he was provoked to respond. The argument persuaded enough of the jurors that they could not reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial. To avoid a second trial, Brandon later pleaded guilty to second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and use of a gun, and he is now serving 21 years in prison.
After the trial, those jurors who were sympathetic to Brandon embarked upon a media tour, and, armed with “Save Brandon” bracelets, they claimed that they simply didn’t feel it was appropriate to charge Brandon with murder and try him as an adult. In the film, however, they reveal that they, in fact, sympathized with the humiliation he must have experienced from Larry flirting with him, which was described by Brandon’s lawyers as “sexual harassment.” Many conservatives, including Randy Thomasson of Save California and Rush Limbaugh, similarly blamed Larry for his own murder.
But Valentine Road paints a much broader picture of both boys’ lives beyond the anti-LGBT hate that motivated Brandon’s actions. Both Larry and Brandon came from rough family lives in which they suffered abuse. At the time Larry was killed, he was not living with his own parents, but at Casa Pacifica, a residential facility for neglected children. Brandon’s family similarly had issues with abuse and drugs. Interestingly, Larry’s family declined to be interviewed for the film, but Brandon’s mother and brother speak quite openly in it.
Race also played an understated role in the conflict between Larry, who was biracial, and Brandon. Ventura County has been thought of as a hub of white supremacy dating back to the Rodney King riots, and Brandon’s father was connected to white supremacy circles. Brandon himself was found to possess various books about Adolf Hitler and notebooks filled with drawings of swastikas and other racist symbols and language. The “Save Brandon” jurors dismissed his interest in hateful rhetoric, suggesting that all students can be curious about what they’re studying — like the Holocaust — and even they as adults doodle from time to time. If there was doubt about the extent to which Brandon had embraced white supremacy and its animosity toward homosexuality at the time he murdered Larry, there is not now; at a screening of Valentine Road last week in Washington, DC, filmmaker Marta Cunningham confirmed that Brandon, now 20, is a full-fledged white supremacist.
Brandon’s access to a gun is also a troubling aspect of the story. At the time, he was staying with his grandfather, who had guns in the home Brandon could easily access. In fact, the ammunition was actually stored in a closet in Brandon’s bedroom. The morning of the shooting, he almost forgot the gun, and apparently ran back into his house to grab it.
Stigmatizing Larry’s gender identity was not the school’s only questionable decision. In the hours after the shooting, Brandon and Larry’s classmates were confined to a separate room where they were shown a movie, Jaws — probably not the best choice for young people who had just witnessed such a violent act. One of Larry’s classmates later planted a tree in his memory on campus, but E. O. Green administrators have — to this day — refused to let the memorial bear Larry’s name. Cunningham says that there was not one person she met in her years making the documentary who was in either boy’s life and had the awareness or wherewithal to have prevented this tragedy.
As both advocates and opponents of protections for LGBT students agree, bullying is not a simple issue that can be reduced to just one factor in any particular case. Valentine Road shows just how complex the circumstances were for both Larry and Brandon in terms of race, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, school support, and family support. It is also a reminder that the public understanding of LGBT issues does not evolve in one coherent block and as such, there is still much work to be done to ensure that schools are truly safe for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other aspect of their identity.
Watch the Valentine Road trailer: