On February 12, 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot in his school's computer lab in Oxnard, California. The shooter, Brandon McInerney was only 14. King died two days later and now, three years later, McInerney's trial begins today in Los Angeles.
Now 17, McInerney doesn't dispute that he shot Lawrence King. Instead, defense lawyers Scott Wippert and Robyn Bramson will argue an age-old defense used by everyone from Harvey Milk assassin Dan White to Matthew Shepard's killers, Russel Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney.
It's called "The Gay Panic" and it goes a little something like this: Overwhelmed by the sexual advances of a gay person, straight guys sometimes snap and become raging homicidal maniacs.
Obviously, the argument that anytime a straight person perceives a gay person hitting on them is justification for murder is not something that gays and lesbians can be expected to tolerate, and in the wake of King's death, he became a symbol of violence against LGBT youth and Brandon became the face of homophobic violence.
The reality is, as always, more complicated. Both boys had more in common than they did not. They both came from difficult families. King was placed in a group home after he accused his father of abusing him and had a record of vandalism and theft. McInerney's mother was a meth addict who had accused her husband of shooting her in the arm with a .45 caliber and yet still he won protective custody of his son once his mother entered a rehab program.
The school they attended, E.O. Green Junior High School, served them no better. When Larry began wearing high-heels and make-up at school and the school, citing a California hate crime law that prevents gender discrimination, officials did little other than send out a formal email to teachers to "give him his space" and "watch for possible problems."
The relationship between Brandon and Larry is all rumor and bias, but in the wake of the shooting, the nature of it matters little. One child is dead; the other's life is ruined. As a society, it seems we're content to place the blame solely on Brandon. The state is trying him as an adult and he faces 53 years to life in prison.
He's by no means innocent, but there's enough guilt to spread around. Brandon and Larry are both victims of allowing political agendas to come before the welfare of California students, both gay and straight.
Should a student be allowed to explore their gender and sexuality in a public school? The answer is more nuanced than either side is willing to admit. When students have questionable support at home, asking teenagers to work out their issues in the hallways without guidance is dangerous and destructive.
When teachers, parents and politicians are unwilling to have a constructive conversation about LGBT youth, how can we possibly expect our kids to have one? And without a dialogue and a forum for questions to be addressed, is it any wonder that children act out, too often with deadly consequences. We owe them more than that.