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The woman in the seat next to me kept sobbing uncontrollably. At one point she had to leave the theater to recompose herself. At the end of the screening of Valentine Road last Thursday, the feeling in the room was palpable. It was one of outrage and sadness, that stayed with me well after the reel had ended and the lights had come on.
The doc, by first-time filmmaker Marta Cunningham and shepherded by award-winning producer Sasha Alpert, premieres tonight on HBO at 9 pm/EST as part of National Bullying Prevention Month.
Valentine Road is most surprising — and infuriating — because it handles both sides of the story evenly and without bias. It is a tale of two boys who were more similar than their appearances would have you believe. One, a 15-year-old, biracial, gay, possibly trans, boy — small for his age — who had been bounced around and abused from foster home to foster home. He had a crush on a classmate, just turned 14, white, lower middle class, who also had a difficult home life and a history of abuse. When Larry King asked Brandon McInerney to be his Valentine, their lives, the lives of their friends and families, and everyone at E.O. Green Middle School in the California beach town of Oxnard, just northeast of Los Angeles, changed forever.
On February 12, 2008, while working in the computer lab ironically on the topic of tolerance, Brandon shot Larry twice in the back of the head at point blank range in front of their classmates. He died two days later on Valentine’s Day. Brandon was facing a life sentence in jail if he was tried as an adult, but what followed was a case steeped in controversy and unimaginable heartbreak that brought issues of race, class, gender identity, and most pointedly, intolerance to a national stage.
As the trial progressed, Larry became the cause of his own murder; his behavior was to blame. He was sexually harassing Brandon, who had no other recourse but to defend himself. Larry was beginning to come into his identity, dressing like a girl, nay a lady — with high heels in the middle of the day — and asking to be called by female names. The school said it could not legally stop Larry from dressing the way he wanted, and during the trial Brandon’s lawyers argued that Larry’s behavior was inappropriate. He had been throwing his sexuality in everyone’s face.
“When we were in trial, Sasha and I saw teacher after teacher blame Larry for his own death,” Cunningham recalled. “They went after Larry and they really, really laid into his behavior, which I just saw as being a part of his identity and not behavioral at all.”
Brandon was tried as a minor and given 21 years in prison, with no possibility of parole. After the trial ended, jurors came out in support of Brandon, wearing badges showing their support. Brandon’s defense attorney had his name tattooed on her wrist in solidarity. And that’s what’s so infuriating. At the end, you want to hate Brandon for what he did, but he’s a victim of his circumstances and the failures of those around him.
“We can be angry at the children and we can hold them responsible to a certain degree for teasing or bullying Larry, but what was that atmosphere at school like that permitted these kids to do it to begin with?” Cunningham asked. “Why was that tolerated? Why was this bad behavior tolerated? It shouldn’t have been. And I think that, to me, says everything.”
And then there was Larry, forgotten by all except his closest friends, who tell his story in Valentine Road. His peers are the true stars of the film, to hear how effusively Alpert discusses them: “There’s an unguarded quality to these children and an immediacy to their response, which is visceral and emotional, that feels like you’re living through the story with them rather than being told about the story by adults, who are to some extent, standing apart from the story. The children are the ones that give you hope in a story that’s very intense and heavy. They give you hope for the future that things might change.”
“The change is already happening,” Cunningham added, “kids are coming out younger — as you see in the film, most of the kids in the community are kids of color. What this means is that the African American, Latino, Asian, straight community has to come out and back the LGBT youth of color.”
There’s already an eye on bullying, what with a series of gay teen suicides each year and the It Gets Better project to stem the tide of harassment in school. But Cunningham wants “to stop this idea that bullying just started five years ago, or whenever the media started discussing it as a national issue. Almost every single person that I’ve spoken to in the LGBT community as an adult now has major issues with bullying. Major issues that they maybe have not looked at and this film brings that up for them again.”
Much like my weepy neighbor. Much like me. Because middle school was the worst. I mean, let’s face it, kids are awful. They’re mean, spiteful, petty and going through puberty so they’re confused and terrified and everyone’s just trying to fit in and get through it. It’s survival of the fittest. It’s Orange is the New Black, with less lesbian stuff…depending on what school you went to. But some kids just don’t fit in. They can’t, they don’t want to, or they don’t know how and they’re inevitably singled out.
“In junior high you’re still kind of searching, figuring out things,” Cunningham said, “and when people like Larry figure out things earlier, it can be threatening.”
The entire time I was watching Larry’s story, I kept imagining if it had been me. As a black, effeminate kid — my voice didn’t drop well into my early teens and so I was more often than not mistaken for my mother on the telephone — with a sense of self (a self that was pretty gay) I knew what it meant to be bullied. I dreaded going to school for fear of how I would be targeted. It’s a familiar story for many people, queer and otherwise, growing up. Which is why it’s important to share these kinds of stories.
“The more people know your story, the more people know, as an adult, you had a tough time growing up, the more people will say ‘Oh my gosh! Really, that happened to you? I didn’t know,’” Cunningham said. “Once you’ve grown up, it’s kind of your turn to look back and ask how can I help kids that are being bullied. So if you’ve gone through these experiences where you’ve been bullied because of race or gender expression or your identity as a human being, these are things that we need to discuss and we need to help the kids who are now going through it.
“If you were one of these kids, if you were bullied, then it’s your responsibility as an adult to now go back and help.”
Check out Valentine Road when it premieres tonight on HBO at 9 pm/EST.