To Be Black and Transgender in Junior High

A clinical psychologist writes about the murder of a gender-nonconforming teen by a classmate.

Phil McCarten / AP / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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.

Anderson: One of the major challenges faced by transgender youth, as confirmed by advocates, is the deliberately incorrect and disrespectful use of names and pronouns. Early on you explain your reasoning for interspersing “Larry” and “Leticia”—a decision that at times feels inconsistent with respecting the victim’s wishes and her desire for a name change, reportedly the final words spoken before death. Can you share more of your thinking on this matter?

Corbett: I mostly use “Larry” and “he” throughout the book. I cannot say that I think it is the best solution. I have chosen to primarily use “Larry” and “he” because that was the language of the world that we shared. It is also the language of the record, and if I change that record, we lose an important part of the story—that is, the way Leticia was not named, and the way her transgendered identity was not granted. History will remember Larry as Larry. Although, given what we know, we are left to ask if perhaps in that name—“Larry”—the tragedy and denial of Leticia is lived over and over again, like looping trauma.

I believe that I should recognize Leticia’s account of herself and her plea, one might even say, her final wish. So, I use “Leticia” and the pronoun “she” when I am writing from her perspective. I do so in order to potentially liberate her, and what may have been her struggle to speak a long, silenced identity… with a long history of pain. It seems we might do well to recognize that we do not know how to name this child. At the very least, it must be recognized that the norms about who gets to be recognized, who gets to be seen as wanted, desirable, and worthy did not support Larry or Leticia in any life-sustaining way.

Anderson: Detective Swanson, the prosecution’s expert on white supremacy, is presented as one of the leading protagonists, with many days on the witness stand. Meanwhile, Larry’s race as a motive is never fully investigated. As you state, it “barely registered.” How do you think this glaring omission shaped or, better said, misshaped the case?

Corbett: Judge Campbell, in a pretrial hearing, ruled that race was inadmissible as [part of] the hate-crime charge. Brandon had been heard to call Larry a “faggot”; he had not been heard to use the n-word, at least in relation to Larry. Missing in this ruling was the way in which Leticia’s gender was raced. In other words, gender-and-race hate cannot be disentangled. We see evidence of this in the 20 trans women who’ve been murdered this year in the U.S., 18 of whom were women of color. We see evidence of this in the ways in which black bodies are always precarious, always at risk of death, especially black adolescent boy bodies, and how that risk is routinely denied by white supremacy. Anti-black racism could only be denied, not examined. The court instructions left us to see Larry as black, but we were not invited to think of him as black. We could see but not recognize, which is precisely one of the ways in which racism functions.

Anderson: Among the most chilling aspects is how Larry's murder unmasked the bitter disapproval and harsh judgements of his teachers about gender questioning and homosexuality. You characterized Larry’s behavior as being deemed a matter of “discipline, not education.” What could teachers and administrators have done differently to create a safe space for this youth struggling with gender identity?

Corbett: There is a lot that they could have done, but minus any examination of their own prejudices and fears, I think we see that they were unable to take steps such as bringing in an expert on gender to talk with them, or even setting up an informal meeting with the teachers to discuss their concerns. Living gender, especially as it blooms in adolescence, brings forth a host of emotions and counter-emotions or defenses. When a group of people, such as schoolteachers, cannot consider those emotions, cannot discuss what is being felt and thought about gender, cannot learn together, then gender expansiveness can be felt as too much, and reactive discipline short-circuits any building of community. Without a community there was no way to speak about Leticia’s gender as it undoubtedly intertwined with her well known [to be] fragile mind. Gender is not only practiced by the sturdy and the steady among us.

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.”