The causes of a hate crime

June 12, 2008

Nicole Colson looks at where the responsibility lies for the murder of a gay teenager in Oxnard, Calif.

WHEN 14-year-old Brandon McInerney is arraigned in a Ventura County, Calif., courtroom, he will be charged by prosecutors as an adult with first-degree murder and a hate crime.

No one could fail to be horrified by the crime he committed: At 8:30 a.m. on February 12, Brandon walked into a classroom at the E.O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, pulled out a gun and shot 15-year-old Lawrence King twice in the head. King was left brain-dead. He was taken off life support days later.

If convicted, McInerney could face a maximum sentence of 50 years to life, plus three additional years on the hate-crime charge.

Such draconian punishment for a 14-year-old would only compound a terrible tragedy. Instead, we should be asking what lessons can be learned from the death of Lawrence King.

ACCORDING TO reports, King had an altercation at school with McInerney and other students days before he was murdered. King, who had been living recently at a shelter for abused and troubled children, had come out at school as gay and begun wearing makeup, nail polish and high-heeled boots to school. He became the target of harassment and violence because of his sexual identity.

More than 1,000 people, many of them Lawrence King's classmates, gathered in Oxnard for a vigil after his murder
More than 1,000 people, many of them Lawrence King's classmates, gathered in Oxnard for a vigil after his murder

"They used to bug him a lot, pick on him--'Hey you, gay kid, you want to wear lipstick?'" student Vanessa Ramirez told the Los Angeles Times. "He'd start crying...He didn't want to tell the teachers because they'd start picking on him more."

King wasn't alone. Across the U.S., lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth suffer higher rates of physical and verbal harassment, homelessness, substance abuse and suicide.

According to the 2005 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), nearly a fifth of LGBT students reported being physically assaulted at school the previous school year because of their sexual orientation, and over a tenth because of their gender expression. A 2001-2002 survey by the California Department of Education found that students who were gay, or were perceived to be gay by their peers, were five times more likely to be threatened or injured by a weapon at school than other students.

School officials in Oxnard say they were aware of the growing tensions. District Superintendent Jerry Dannenberg said that the school had offered both students help and "had been doing a lot of counseling and a lot of work with [King] to help him deal with some of his concerns and issues."

It seems like more should have been done--to educate McInerney about respect and tolerance, to punish him and other students for their harassment of King and make it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated, or to simply offer King a safer environment.

But seeing this situation as simply an isolated problem between two students misses the larger issue.

Homophobia is institutionalized in our society. From the crass jokes in movies and on television to continued legal discrimination (bans on the right to marry in most states; little or no workplace protections for LGBT people; the "Defense of Marriage" Act; "don't ask, don't tell" in the military), there are no shortage of factors to explain why Brandon McInerney might come to believe that Lawrence King's life was somehow worth less.

Some on the right are blaming the school for King's death--because it didn't clamp down when King began wearing makeup. "Administrators were so intent on nurturing King as he explored his sexuality, allowing him to come to school wearing feminine makeup and accessories, that they downplayed the turmoil that his behavior was causing on campus," said McInerney's defense lawyer, William Quell, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lesbian writer Camille Paglia took the same "blame-the-victim" line. The school, Paglia wrote on, "was clearly negligent in permitting a troubled young man to strike dangerously theatrical attitudes on school property and evidently even in the classroom...He needed protection against his own fantasies--or rather his own creative imagination, which should have been channeled into art rather than into acting out in real life."

"Dangerously theatrical attitudes"? The logical extension of Paglia's rant--besides perpetuating tired stereotypes about "artistic" gay men--is that King would have been "safe" had he only blended in, kept quiet or hid his sexuality behind a dress code.

But as King's friend Melissa Reza told the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence was targeted with anti-gay name-calling long before he told his small circle of friends that he was gay or summoned the courage to wear makeup or high-heel boots to school.

It wasn't makeup or clothes that got Lawrence King killed. It was a society that continues to send the message that gays and lesbians are lesser human beings, unworthy of equal rights.

Throwing 14-year-old Brandon McInerney in jail for life, however, will not change any of this--or even help explain why he committed such a terrible act.

According to reports, McInerney's parents allegedly had a history of substance abuse problems and were physically violent with each other. The year before Brandon was born, court records show his father shot his mother in the arm. Records also show that Brandon's father claimed to have contacted Child Protective Services at least five times on behalf of Brandon and his two half-brothers between August 2000 and February 2001, alleging physical abuse of the children, but no action was taken.

Condemning this child to an adult sentence--possibly the remainder of his life in prison--will accomplish nothing except to re-victimize him in an adult criminal justice system in which juvenile offenders are frequently abused physically, mentally and sexually.

In April, a coalition of 27 LGBT civil rights organizations, including the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, delivered a statement to Ventura County prosecutors calling for McInerney to be tried as a juvenile.

"Prosecuting the alleged perpetrator as an adult will not bring Lawrence King back nor will it make schools safer for LGBT youth," the statement reads. "We must respond to this tragedy by strengthening our resolve to change the climate in schools, eliminate bigotry based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and hold schools responsible for protecting students against discrimination and physical harm."

AT THE same time that terrible attacks like the killing of Lawrence King still take place, there's no doubt that acceptance of the rights of LGBT individuals has come a long way in just the past few decades.

Where young people like Lawrence might once have never dared to even come out of the closet, today, a growing number are asserting their right to openly declare their sexuality or live outside gender norms.

Society at large has moved in the direction of supporting LGBT rights. One recent poll, for example, showed a majority of Californians in favor of the right of same-sex marriage. Nationwide, larger numbers than ever support not only same-sex marriage (51 percent overall, 68 percent among 18-29 years old), but allowing gay couples to adopt (57 percent) and scrapping the don't ask, don't tell policy in the military.

Equally important are the outpourings of grief and sympathy for the victims of anti-gay attacks--from Matthew Shepard in 1998 to Lawrence King today.

The weekend after Lawrence was killed, more than 1,000 people marched against anti-gay violence in Oxnard. In fact, despite little media coverage of his murder, since February, according to GLSEN, more than 176 vigils and marches have been held in King's memory on campuses and in communities across the U.S.

Such actions are the building blocks for taking further steps to challenge discrimination and bigotry in society.

As Jay Smith, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, said after King's murder, "It's more than just education; it's about acceptance, not just tolerance." Real acceptance will take mobilization and a struggle to fight back against homophobia wherever it raises its ugly head--and to demand nothing less than full civil rights for all.

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