To Be Black and Transgender in Junior High

To be a black student in America’s public schools is to know stunning discrimination from an early age. To be a transgender or gender non-conforming student is to face staggering bias and intolerance from peers and teachers. To embody both of these lived experiences is to be Larry King, a 15-year-old who was brutally killed in February 2008 while working on a research paper in the computer lab at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California. The assailant: his classmate, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney.

The victim was black, living in foster care, questioning his sexuality, and experimenting with cross-dressing. The accused was white; raised in a violent, dysfunctional home; and dabbling in white-supremacist propaganda. The murder gained national attention and garnered magazine covers—a child killing another child is particularly tragic and horrific—as it revealed an undercurrent of race, class, and sexuality. Like pulling a Band-Aid off a festering wound, all of these aspects were crudely exposed in McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder.

Ken Corbett, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has studied and written on gender identity and boyhood, was immediately drawn to the details of the case and traveled to California to attend the trial; he wanted to examine the many facets of King’s and McInerney’s lives that intersected and led to a gruesome end. His new book, A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, is a story told through the prism of parents, friends, teachers, lawyers, and those like Corbett enveloped by this tragedy. He recently spoke to me about his search for answers. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Melinda D. Anderson: Central to this story and the legal strategy adopted by the prosecution and defense to opposing degrees is Larry’s gender non-conforming identity. Yet over two weeks into the trial, as you write, the word “transgender” had only been mentioned once. Talk about the intentionality in this case to camouflage what is clearly a pivotal fact. 

Ken Corbett: Consciously, the prosecution did not, at first, speak of Larry as transgender out of concern that the jury would respond via phobia and prejudice. On the other hand, the defense also did not speak of Larry as transgender because they conflated gender and sexuality, framing Larry as a sexually harassing bully.

Clearly, the reasoning that the defense proffered had an impact on the jury. But as I saw it, the unconscious gender panic that seeped daily into the courtroom likely had the biggest influence. Perhaps the best example of this panic was [witness testimony regarding how] Larry had begun in the last few days of his life to refer to himself as Leticia. In the same way that this [name] had been denied at E.O. Green, it was not spoken in the courtroom. [Leticia] was edited and absented … her character, her way of being was closeted, hushed, or pushed away with intent and force. She was not only corporeally gone, she was never psychologically met.

The K-12 Binary

Anderson: The widespread efforts to cast Brandon’s aggressive and bullying behavior as “boys will be boys” came fairly effortlessly from friends, teachers, neighbors, and correctional officers and was normalized to a startling degree. The message that boys are socialized to be tough, violent, unemotional was powerful and disturbing. Looking at schools as a microcosm of society, what can educators do to dismantle this mindset?

Corbett: That puts me in mind of something that Susan Crowley, Larry’s seventh-grade special-resource teacher said: “All of that looking at Larry, and we missed the bigger problem [referring to Brandon].” Ms. Crowley’s statement raises the question of: What exactly is the bigger problem? As I see it, both of these kids were failed by gender norms, as [those norms] negate the ways in which few of us actually live in accord with the lockstep ideals that we routinely promote about boys and girls. Thankfully, I do think that there is some questioning about these norms that has found its way into some schools. But most often that work is directed at girls (think, for example, about Title IX, or the ways in which feminism has found its way into some history books).

Boyhood, like whiteness, is an unmarked, unremarkable category. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were school curriculums that set about to examine the category of masculinity and the beliefs that prop it up? Those curriculums could include examining how hate and violence are constitutive of masculinity. Or how hate is the currency upon which norms and bullies silence the other. Or how gender divides men and women, and pits them against one another, often—too often—to the point of violence and death.

Anderson: During the course of the trial, for a brief respite, you traveled to Santa Barbara. There you struck up an acquaintance with Alex Ramirez, a pool assistant, which resulted in some of the most revealing one-on-one exchanges in the book. How did your conversations with this young man inform your thinking about this case and its conclusion?

Corbett: I immediately think of one of the first things that Alex said to me when I asked him about the murder: “Sad, hate.” No one has been more succinct. Alex helped me to think through the ways in which racism was being lived in the court, and he also helped me to think about the complex terrain that is adolescence. But I think that Alex helped me most through the ways in which I could hold out hope for him. The trial brought me into a realm where children had been murderously neglected and abused. Alex helped me to see what it was that I was fighting for, when there were days when it seemed that “sad, hate” was our destiny. I must confess that I harbor the wish that someone will read this book and say, “Read it and weep. Then, get off your ass and make this world a better place for children to grow up.”