The death of Lawrence King, the 15-year-old high school student from Oxnard, shot in the back of the head by classmate Brandon McInerney on February 12, brought back the memory of a very personal, mercifully nondeadly contretemps that I haven't thought about in years.
The world Lawrence King so briefly knew is different from the one in which I grew up. Self-proclaimed as gay, given in recent weeks to flamboyantly feminine attire (high-heeled boots, lipstick), residing not with his family but nearby in Camarillo at the Casa Pacifica center for abused and neglected children, King had clearly encountered more than his share of personal difficulties before meeting his end. McInerney's hostility toward King was well-known to both fellow students and school officials — who claim to have offered “counseling” to the shooter that was obviously too little too late. But what really got to me were the words of Averi Laskey, a student who knew both McInerney and King.
“You don't think of your friend as being a killer. You don't think of your friend as a hater. That's what's weird about this … I don't think he quite knew what he was doing.” And that's when an incident from 46 years ago came rushing back.
“Hey!” came the voice from directly behind me as I walked toward my high school's front door. It was instantly followed by an arm that roughly whirled my body around to face my antagonist. “Why are you a faggot?” the boy said. It wasn't a question. It was more like a declaration of war. For what came next was his fist sharply punching into my stomach.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, regaining the breath that had just been knocked out of me. And the puncher, Charles, who was preparing to hit again, suddenly startled. He stood there, stock-still, and, after a beat, walked away. A few days later, the boy approached me with a softly mumbled “I'm sorry.” And that — thank goodness — was that.
In the annals of high-school bullying, not to mention modern gay bashing, what happened between me and Charles scarcely rates a blip on the radar. But in the long run, it's telling. Charles was someone I knew by sight and name, but little more. We were both black, both 15, and both studying the arts (I music, he painting). He wasn't part of my circle of friends, and I'd had no previous dealings with him, good or ill. This incident came right out of the blue.
For days, I racked my brain trying to figure out what I'd done to arouse his ire. True, my hand gestures were a bit, shall we say, larger than the average teenager's, and my vocal inflections a tad loud. But why should that matter to Charles? I wasn't given to what today is called “gender-inappropriate attire.” I'd made no declarations about my sexuality either — I had only just begun to realize that I possessed what pulp paperbacks of the period called “strange twilight urges.” And all this was unfolding at New York City's High School of Music and Art, a decidedly avant-garde place of learning. There were a striking number of students who, even in that pre–Stonewall era, were openly gay. Two of my best friends were a lesbian couple who could often be found after class singing spirited choruses of “I Want to Marry a Trotskyite” and other offbeat, left-wing ditties. Socially and culturally, the place was as free as the breeze. Consequently, “coming out,” as it's come to be known, was no biggie for me in the years that followed. And in those years, I often encountered danger far more dire than Charles, such as a hairsbreadth escape from a gang armed with baseball bats and broken bottles one evening in New York's West Village.
Charles' punch was just a punch — not the full-scale beating so many gay, lesbian and transgendered teens are still subject to. And certainly not a bullet in the back of the head. Clearly, Charles “didn't know what he was doing.” But unlike far too many others, he was capable of righting himself and realizing his error. So, I would venture, are many other troublesome teens who went a lot further in expressing dislike of those whose “difference” disturbed them. You just don't hear about them that much because reason and sanity don't make the news like murderous rage. There's no “righting” for Brandon McInerney anymore, no “I'm sorry” to smooth it all over. He's being charged as an adult for premeditated murder with hate-crime and firearm-use enhancements. And no matter how long his incarceration may be (the first-degree murder carries 25 years to life, the use of a firearm 25 years and the hate-crime enhancement an additional one to three years), his life is for all intents and purposes over.
The trial will doubtless cast light on all sorts of things about this boy, who had no criminal history and was generally considered a good student. His father's brushes with the law (including drunk-driving and domestic-abuse arrests) will be discussed, as will his relationships, good and bad, with other classmates. Obviously, we'll get a better picture of how a 14-year-old boy managed to get ahold of a loaded firearm and surreptitiously sneak it into class. It's the moment where he aims the gun and pulls the trigger that's the hard part. Surely the defense will claim he “didn't know what he was doing.” But what does that mean precisely? Yes, guns are everywhere in America, and any number of teenagers are in the position to have easy access to them. But does every 14-year-old become a killer? Psychologists of both the professional and armchair variety will surely weigh in on what made McInerney shoot to kill. But what will they have to say about those who don't?
This past Sunday in Oxnard, a crowd of 1,000 teenagers, some of whom were friends and classmates of Lawrence King's at E.O. Green Junior High, along with many others who never knew him at all, publicly memorialized him at a rally promoting peace and understanding. I hope these kids get as much media attention as Brandon McInerney. But that's doubtful. Calm is less photogenic than violence. And these days there's no end of the latter. The King shooting was followed a scant 48 hours later by the massacre at Northern Illinois University, in which six people, including the gunman, were slaughtered and many more injured. And that's not to mention the daily ration of assorted horror visited upon the unlucky citizens of Iraq amid “civil unrest” that no surge seems able to stop. But the proud, smiling faces of the kids in Sunday's memorial rally tell a different story — one that might get through to those who didn't attend it. Acceptance of the sexually nonconforming has grown enormously since I was 15, though hatred certainly hasn't disappeared. Perhaps it never will. Still, those who continue to harbor hostility toward others regarded as smaller, weaker or in any number of ways “different,” can always stop and think the way Charles did back in 1962.
And without throwing a punch first.