In 2008, 15-year-old Larry King was shot and killed by classmate Brandon McInerney, whom he* had, on a dare, asked to be his Valentine days before.
The new documentary Valentine Road tells the story of these two boys, both of whom who grew up in situations full of abuse and alienation. King, though, had started to wear female clothes and asked to be called female names; McInerney had started to engage with white supremacist ideology.
Inspired by yesterday’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, which honors people murdered because of their gender identity and expression, the Ms. Blog talked with Valentine Road director Marta Cunningham about King’s murder and society’s responsibility to transgender youth.
Ms. Blog: How did your own feelings toward gender identity change during the making of this film?
Marta Cunningham: Like everyone else, what I read was that Larry was gay. I really started understanding that this was much bigger than sexual orientation during the trial and when I started having conversations with my friends who teach gender politics. I really wanted to make sure [gender expression] was part of the conversation in the film. We’re talking about a community that doesn’t have the language or the understanding of what transgender is.
Larry was frequently misidentified as gay by the news media, when in fact he was experimenting with his gender expression.
In 2008, trans issues were very marginalized [in the news]. Five years later, I think we’re understanding [better] what exactly transgender issues are and who a transgender person is. There was attention recently to a young trans girl who won prom queen in Huntington Beach. I think that acknowledging [transgender youth’s] existence is the first step. Whom you’re attracted to has nothing to do with your gender expression or identity, but because we live in this kind of binary world where you’re either male or female, people don’t want to see it or speak about it.
Your film shows people with intolerance toward Larry’s gender expression, sometimes to the point of blaming him for his own murder (because he wore feminine clothes and expressed romantic interest in Brandon). One of his former teachers even says, “I believe there’s a heaven and a hell, and I do believe Larry honestly didn’t have a clue about the consequences of his actions.”
Cunningham: Pretty much every teacher that came up on the stand spoke about Larry from that point of view with extreme bias and with an almost benevolent understanding of Brandon. It’s shocking, absolutely shocking and painful to watch, to be honest.
Why do you think so many were so set against Larry’s gender expression?
Cunningham: We’re talking about thousands of years of homophobia and transphobia. It’s up to us who have [better] understanding to say something, and that’s why I made this film. I was in a particular situation that I knew being straight [and cisgender] was going to help me get the story. [People interviewed in the film who empathized with Brandon] were comfortable enough to talk with me because they were under the assumption that since I had empathy for Brandon and I was married to a man, I felt the same way they did. Lawrence wanted to dress in a feminine manner. What was so threatening about that? Why weren’t they celebrating that?
Some news organizations and people closer to Brandon insinuated Larry was “bullying” Brandon by showing that he liked him.
Can you think about all the times in your life a guy hit on you? That wasn’t even close to what Larry was doing [by asking Brandon to be his Valentine], but would you resort to violence, and would it be understood if you did? It’s all about blaming the victim. We have hundreds of years in this country of justifying violent hate toward marginalized communities.
You said that racism played a role [Larry was multiracial], alongside homophobia and aversion to Larry’s gender expression, in motivating Brandon to murder him, but the news media often ignore these nuances. What is the danger of ignoring intersectionality?
The statistics of male-to-female trans youth who are multiracial are sickening when it comes to bullying and violence by other children and adults. We really need to keep having these conversations where class, race, sexual orientation and gender identity intersect. Because [not talking about the different factors] is a part of keeping people further marginalized within the [already] marginalized community.
What would you say to the people who said Larry shouldn’t have been so “flamboyant”?
I think that the word “flamboyant” is an insult; it’s a four-letter word to me. Larry was in his rights to dress within the uniform code. He wasn’t breaking any rules of the school or the state where he was living. I feel like this conversation is the wrong way around. The administration [should have] said, ‘We’re going to talk about gender expression because we have a student here who is going through an exploration of gender identity, and we want to support this kid as he’s going through this.’ I was just at the University of Southern California and a 22-year-old didn’t understand what gender expression was, so how are we expecting these kids to understand it? We need to have mentors for our children, and they can’t just be the ones we’re ‘comfortable’ being around. That word was being used constantly in describing Larry: ‘He made me feel uncomfortable.’ Well, too bad. That’s your problem, not Larry’s.
Like I said before, Larry is the true victim of the story. And I made the film to at least engage people in conversations so that tragedies like this will never happen again. It took more than just one kid to create that hate. It wasn’t just Brandon who pulled that trigger that day. You can see from the teachers and the people who worked at that school the level of hostility they had toward Larry, and if a child like Brandon is growing up in that [environment] of hate with access to a gun [and he kills someone], what is our responsibility in that? We all play a part … because we are so permitting of adults in [seemingly] safe places to teach hate. That has to change.
*Although Larry King was exploring feminine gender expression before his death, it is unclear if he wanted to be referred to by female qualifiers. The Ms. Blog intends no disrespect for the use of the male pronoun throughout this article.
Valentine Road is now available for viewing on HBO OnDemand and HBO Go.
Photo from Valentine Road website.