Alex Blaze

Newsweek on Larry King's death

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 21, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: Brandon McInerny, California, Joy Epstein, Larry King, Newsweek, Oxnard, school shooting

It's surprising, even though it shouldn't be, to me that one of the most mainstream news publications in the US, in 2008, would be much more interested in dissecting the fact that a fourteen-year-old murder victim bought a pair of high-heels than the fact that the fourteen-year-old who murdered him was obsessed with Nazis.

But that's just the case, as we can see in Newsweek's cover story on Larry King, the gender-bending boy who was shot to death out in California five months ago. Paragraph after paragraph is devoted to Larry's more flamboyant actions (the way he teased boys who were bullying him, the fact that he had a crush on a boy, that he wore make-up to school, that he asked a boy, the same one who ended up killing him, to be his Valentine just days before he was shot), but a mere two paragraphs go to the boy who killed him, mentioning that he was obsessed with Nazis but brushing it off with a quotation from his father that his son's obsession was not inappropriate.

The level of dissection of Larry's flamboyance and the lack of attention given to any of the other possible contributions to the shooting sends the message that Larry got what he deserved.

Larry is portrayed as having stalked, sexually harassed, and bullied Brandon into a corner where his only possible response was pulling that trigger. While most of the garbage is presented in quotation format and various permutations of "some say" speculation, Newsweek was driving the editorial voice here. Consider:

At 14, Larry told Greg he thought he was bisexual. "It wouldn't matter either way to me," Greg says. "I thought maybe some of the problems would go away if we supported him." But the therapist told Greg he thought that Larry was just trying to get attention and might not understand what it meant to be gay. Larry began telling his teachers that his father was hitting him. Greg says he never harmed Larry; still, the authorities removed Larry from his home in November 2007.

Since when do authorities just take kids out of their homes without an investigation? Couldn't the journalist have tried to confirm any of that?

The question of how the Brandon got the gun in the first place is also mentioned, but no investigation went into that end.

But if one starts with the assumption that Brandon pulled the trigger because of and only because of Larry's actions, then there really isn't much need to look any farther. If only that mean gender nonconforming boy had left Brandon alone, he wouldn't have had to have killed him:

The staff at E. O. Green was clearly struggling with the Larry situation--how to balance his right to self-expression while preventing it from disrupting others. Legally, they couldn't stop him from wearing girls' clothes, according to the California Attorney General's Office, because of a state hate-crime law that prevents gender discrimination. Larry, being Larry, pushed his rights as far as he could. During lunch, he'd sidle up to the popular boys' table and say in a high-pitched voice, "Mind if I sit here?" In the locker room, where he was often ridiculed, he got even by telling the boys, "You look hot," while they were changing, according to the mother of a student.[...]

And then there was Valentine's Day. A day or two before the shooting, the school was buzzing with the story about a game Larry was playing with a group of his girlfriends in the outdoor quad. The idea was, you had to go up to your crush and ask them to be your Valentine. Several girls named boys they liked, then marched off to complete the mission. When it was Larry's turn, he named Brandon, who happened to be playing basketball nearby. Larry walked right on to the court in the middle of the game and asked Brandon to be his Valentine. Brandon's friends were there and started joking that he and Larry were going to make "gay babies" together. At the end of lunch, Brandon passed by one of Larry's friends in the hall. She says he told her to say goodbye to Larry, because she would never see him again.

The school, which was described as "comfortable" at the time when Larry showed up, apparently turned into a madhouse on crack after a few months of Larry King.

Like Cathy Renna posted this morning, there are some positive aspects to this story. Newsweek gave the story the cover. It will create a big discussion, front and center, about these issues. It provided some scientific perspective. It lay the homophobia of many of these teachers and community members out on the table.

And Cathy's right: it would be much worse if all this were swept under the rug, if gender nonconforming youth and the violence against them were simply ignored by the media.

And if the question were "Did Larry King's sexuality cause his death?" then this article would be an interesting exploration of that question. It's just that, by asking that question, Newsweek is already letting Larry, and all other not-so-normal kids, down. Because the first question in these situations should be why and how this happened, followed by what we could do to prevent it. By focusing on only one aspect of this story (the one that's the most dehumanizing for the victim), Newsweek is giving Blame the Victim much more credit than it deserves.

But when the article talks about the school's actions, it gets pretty deep into what a certain vice principal did:

Joy Epstein was one of the school's three assistant principals, and as Larry became less inhibited, Epstein became more a source of some teachers' confusion and anger. Epstein, a calm, brown-haired woman with bifocals, was openly gay to her colleagues, and although she was generally not out to her students, she kept a picture of her partner on her desk that some students saw. While her job was to oversee the seventh graders, she formed a special bond with Larry, who was in the eighth grade. He dropped by her office regularly, either for counseling or just to talk--she won't say exactly. "There was no reason why I specifically started working with Larry," Epstein says. "He came to me." Some teachers believe that she was encouraging Larry's flamboyance, to help further an "agenda," as some put it. One teacher complains that by being openly gay and discussing her girlfriend (presumably, no one would have complained if she had talked about a husband), Epstein brought the subject of sex into school. Epstein won't elaborate on what exactly she said to Larry because she expects to be called to testify at Brandon's trial, but it's certain to become one of the key issues. William Quest, Brandon's public defender, hasn't disclosed his defense strategy, but he has accused the school of failing to intercede as the tension rose between Larry and Brandon. Quest calls Epstein "a lesbian vice principal with a political agenda." Larry's father also blames Epstein. He's hired an attorney and says he is seriously contemplating a wrongful-death lawsuit. "She started to confuse her role as a junior-high principal," Greg King says. "I think that she was asserting her beliefs for gay rights." In a tragedy such as this, the natural impulse is to try to understand why it happened and to look for someone to blame. Epstein won't discuss the case in detail and, until she testifies in court, it's impossible to know what role--if any--she played in the events leading to Larry's death.

If they wanted to present Joy Epstein as radical lesbian pushing a homosexual agenda above the welfare of students, they pretty effectively did that in this article. It goes back and forth on how this school wanted to do something about Larry, but the lesbian vice principal was standing in the way with all her talk about "rights" and "free expression."

I just wish that we could have started this discussion from there, started with the idea that Larry could express his gender has he pleased (within reasonable, not-gender-related limits) and then question why this happened. When the Columbine High School shooting happened, no one was asking if the popular kids that were killed could have prevented their own deaths if they were less out-spoken or drew a less attention to themselves.

And the shooters were investigated by the media, their parents asked again and again how their kids got guns and why they didn't notice their darker obsessions, and the image of those teenagers who shot their classmates wasn't pleasant or sympathetic.

But shoot a faggot? Well, maybe someone will ask the important questions. But, jeez, who cares how that kid got a gun? Larry was pretty much asking for it.

Update: An emailer just pointed out that the article is entitled "Young, Gay and Murdered," but King identified as bi, in his own words. I don't think that he had to be pinned down to one sexual orientation at his age, and the attack probably had more to do with his gender expression than his sexual orientation (although that can't be discounted either since he did ask Brandon to be his Valentine the day before he was shot). But if they're going to use his sexual orientation in the title, they ought to have used the one he used.

So, bi invisibility even when the person in question specifically identified as bi?


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There's a reason they call it old media. But I think it's a great story.

By not focusing on Brandon, they put everyman/woman behind the trigger. And the crudity of the accusations of Epstein remind us -- all of us -- that there are still people who think like that.

I think it's total win.

Angela Brightfeather | July 21, 2008 3:47 PM

Alex,

I apreciate your blog entry and the different views you have compared and explored.

One has to wonder that if CA did not have a Transgender inclusive nondiscrimination law, would Larry have been treated the same way and would the outcome have been the same? What mattered to Brandon the most? Was it that he was found attractive by another boy who dressed and expressed as a girl, or was it because Larry came onto him as being gay? Or was it a combination of both of those things?
Needless to say, Brandon was terribly wrong in any case. But it is the combination of having both elements, sexuality and gender espression present in this situation that further points to the fact that there will always be instances when horiffic cases of discrimination such as this ocurr and when people try to dissassociate the two by passing laws that cover one and not the other, people are much more than "left behind".

As people have been complaining about hate crimes and employment legislation protecting sexuality but not gender expression, doesn't this case show that both elements must be protected or all GLBT people will not be protected? Which is exactly what Barney Frank has said would not happen if legislation covered one but not the other.

The blame the victim tone of the Newsweek article was quite distressing. In addition to glossing over Larry being bi, they also considered Larry's gender expression as part of being gay, when it was really a separate issue. At one point in the article, they mentioned that Larry wished to be called Leticia. We won't ever know if Larry might also have identified as transgender, but the article certainly didn't use the word.

As is too often the case in hate crimes against our community, Larry was murdered not only because of sexual orientation, but also very much due to gender identity and/or expression. Anti-discrimination legislation needs to include gender identity and expression or it doesn't adequately protect our community. How many more of us have to die before we attain equal rights and protections?

Before we go out claiming bi invisibility though, I think it's important to point out that in the last three comments alone, we've had a gay Larry, a bi Larry and a trans Larry. If we don't know how to classify this poor child, how can we expect the author to? If Larry himself was still working out his sexuality/gender identity, how can we claim a slight against "our" community (which ever section we're agitating for)?

**"If they wanted to present Joy Epstein as radical lesbian pushing a homosexual agenda above the welfare of students, they pretty effectively did that in this article."**

Wow. That's awful. And scary. Obviously, there's so many things wrong with this in so many ways. But aside from jeopardizing her career, I'm most concerned about the chilling effect that this might have on other educators who are willing to reach out to GLBT kids; especially gay teachers.

It's so critical for kids to have some trusted adult figure that they feel like they can confide in, and might even have their backs. Whose going to do that in the future if they think its going to buy them a wrongful death lawsuit or subject them to ridicule?

I'd also like to mention the confusion/inappropriatness of labels. There are many people, much less kids, who can't sort out identities. There are those who live an entire lifetime with one sexual orientation and/or gender identity, only to come to realize they're something else. You might not even alter to whom you're attracted. But if you transition, you can go from being considered gay to straight, or vice versa. So I think it's hardly fair to expect young Larry to have it all worked out. Therefore, I don't think anyone, including himself, can definitively say he was gay, bi, or trans, and we should use these terms with a grain of salt.

And while it is most certainly necessary and important that anti-discrimination bills include both gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation, it's frankly absurd to say that an 8th grader would have been dissuaded from this heinous act if the CA. hate crime laws were gender inclusive. I doubt he would have had any knowledge of those laws whatsoever.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 22, 2008 8:50 AM

After reading this Newsweek article I just felt both kids were so horribly let down. Both needed more than what they were getting at school or home.

And Rory, I agree, it is frame the Lesbian.

A child who is gender variant usually knows at a young age that she is different from other little boys. Without someone knowledgable about these issues in her life, the child grows with no direction and guidance on these issues, and allows herself to be identified by people who really don't understand her. It appears that she was probably gender variant, but we'll never know for sure. It may have been easier to say that she was gay than for her to have conceptualized being transgender. I would assert that it is necessary that people in the education system understand gender variance so these issues can be addressed. I would not say the school in this instance protected her, and how many others are in schools where they are constantly harassed and bullied?

Probably not too many of TBP readers know that last Thursday, July 18th, an 18-year old transgender person's skull was fractured in two places killing her? It happened in Greeley, Colorado.

Instead of fighting one another here and in other forums, we need to speak with one voice that this bull $hit violence must stop.

Some of these other issues are immaterial when our teenage transgender brothers and sisters are being murdered with impunity.

We need to get as mad as hell about this.

"If we don't know how to classify this poor child, how can we expect the author to? If Larry himself was still working out his sexuality/gender identity, how can we claim a slight against "our" community (which ever section we're agitating for)?"

Is that the point? Does it matter, truly, that Larry might have been any or all three? Or does it simply matter that Larry was different and openly seeking attention for that difference?

It becomes all-too-easy to make someone the "poster child" for a pov. The simple truth is that Brandon was getting attention from Larry and that he was also attracting attention of that fact from his friends.

There are ways that the object of unwanted attention can stop that that do not rise to the level of resorting to murder. The story does indeed seem to point toward "one of three vice-principals" who was talking with Larry as being seen as being part of the problem.

My question is what were the other two vice-proncipals, the principal and more importantly the guidance-staff doing? Who, if anyone were they talking with?

Regardless the outcome of the Gwen Araujo case and others that have basically shown that blaming the victim doesn't work very well anymore in cases like this, Mr. Quest seems to be taking that tactic as perhaps his only defense that stands any possibility of working. That's his job and I cannot damn him for that.

But, I can say that Newsweek dropped the ball on the depth of what was going on. I find it difficult to believe for a second that one vice-principal with an agenda was the key to this.

The key is how difference and stalking are perceived and handled at any school. There seems no doubt that Larry was "stalking" Brandon in some fashion, perhaps Larry simply enjoyed watching Brandon's discomfort. With whom did Brandon discuss his turmoil? And since the school seems to have been well-aware of the turmoil going on, I wonder why no effort seems to have been made by all those other school staff to intervene with the other party, Brandon?

The core, it seems to me, is that we automatically perceive that difference needs to be "toned down" but that "sameness" is fine. So the interventions always seem to be about "getting rid" of the difference. Brandon merely took the modeling behavior of the majority of staff a couple of steps further than they would have imagined and now they are left trying to justify their own inattention that was probably facilitated by their own ingrained sense that the problem was all about Larry. Newsweek apprantly sees the same problem.

Is that so unusual that we imgaine it doesn't go on daily in numerous schools during every school year about clothes, ethnicity, sexual or gender identities and regious beliefs? I find that the hardest thing to believe about the story. The problem is us, all of us, and the way we take things for being perfectly clear when they are not.


Without proper guidance I can see how a transgender adolescent can get themselves in trouble.First if your going to dress the part act the part but also understand others may be offended by it even if wrongly so.Where were the adults in this?Why didn't they cool Larry's jets and set appropriate behavior protocols and require that he/her follow the uniform requirements of the gender appeared as.?As for Brandon which set of adults let him down by leaving him feeling that shooting Larry was an option.Has the gun owner been charged for leaving a weapon unsecure leading to a homicide?The big tradgedy is that both kids lost there lives that day because adults dropped the ball.

battybattybats battybattybats | July 23, 2008 1:47 AM

Not all transgender people can fit into a binary. What if Larry was more genderqueer?

Also are girls counselled not to be too outspoken in Maths and Science classes as some people may be offended even if wrongly so? What about other groups of people?

Is this something just for gender non-conforming kids or are non-white and non-christian kids told to keep their differences 'toned down' too?

Isn't exposure to differences and learning to adapt to others differences one of the most valuable lesson opportunities other students can have to learn from?

Jonathan Hamm | July 23, 2008 11:32 AM

Cheers to BattyBats!

I just think that Newsweek's story is completely outrageous! I especially feel sorry for Joy Epstein. It is shocking enough that the support she gave to Larry would be seen as inappropriate, but it is utterly maddening that people would actually suggest that she played some sort of "role in his death". If she weren't a lesbian, she would never have been under such suspicion.

The Newsweek editor is a hypocrite when he accuses Larry of using his "sexuality as a weapon". Isn't that what we ourselves are doing when we dehuminize people for having a different sexuality than ourselves. It's like blaming a woman for her own rape, just because she dressed a certain way, or blaming someone who acts out against injustice, for "causing a disturbance", rather than blaming the cause of the injustice itself.

Alex,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to the Newsweek article. At the Unfinished Lives Project we've also been giving a great deal of thought to Newsweek's cover story. In the final analysis, we believe the possible benefits of the story (such as its prominent visibility in a national forum) are far outweighed by the liabilities.

What Setoodeh's article fails to do is say that murder is never, under any circumstance, warranted. Never. The result is that Larry King is made to be the instigator of his own murder, while Brandon McInerney (Larry's assailant) receives the larger share of sympathy in the story.

We're grateful that people like you are bringing the Newsweek story into a broader conversation. Otherwise, Larry's voice might get lost amid a world of busy days and rapid news cycles.

Thanks again.

Respectfully,
The Unfinished Lives Project

Realist State | July 26, 2008 9:01 AM

As much as my heart breaks for the tragedy of this story, let's not lose sight of the fact that the victim and the accused shooter are both children.

You need to "wrap your mind" around what goes on in the head of a adolescent, and the motives are not so clear cut. Face it, they're raised in a world of immediate gratification (see any of the shows on MTV or VH1), where "no" is not not an option. To put your "adult" spin on motives and actions is unfair and unwarranted.

The social order at that age is vicious not only the GLBT group, but to the straight group too. My daughter, who has been friends with these girls since kindergarten, was recently threatened to have her "jaw busted" because of a another's boyfriend talking to her. I did go to the authorities on it, but again how does this type of behavior permeate middle school.

It's a sad and tragic story, but let's not make it worse by politicizing our children.