In California last week, the jury in the Larry King trial deadlocked on whether Brandon McInerney was guilty of manslaughter or murder when he shot his classmate for being too gay in 2008. Meanwhile, opponents of the recent legislative move to mandate the teaching of gay history started collecting signatures to get a repeal on the ballot, and Proposition 8 supporters won the right to continue the fight in court.
These things are not happening in a vacuum. They are deeply intertwined and they illustrate the one step forward, one step back state of queer politics in California, a state maligned by the right for its ‘San Francisco values’ that has some problems of its own. California is still one of the safest states to live in and be openly queer or gender variant; it is a place where you are more likely to be welcomed and treated with respect, less likely to be killed because of who you are and how you choose to express it.
But, as these things remind us, all is not golden in the Golden State. We are not a uniformly liberal state, as any election returns can show you. California has a streak of conservatism and a large conservative voting base. Ronald Reagan was our governor once, remember? So was Arnold Schwarzenegger, for that matter. California is in some senses an unpredictable place and queer politics aren’t exempt from that by any stretch of the imagination.
In 2008, an openly gay 15 year old student was shot by a classmate, dying several days later. Almost immediately, the media started covering the case from the gay panic angle, and that accelerated during the trial, in which the defense attempted to argue that King was threatening because he came on to his classmate. Wore heels and pearls.
They also called to the stand teachers who testified that campus administrators turned a blind eye to the tensions King was creating on campus with his flamboyant dress and behavior. In the months before the shooting, King began wearing makeup and women’s spike-heeled boots and seemed to relish making boys squirm with comments such as “I know you want me,” teachers said.
Almost every report has stressed that King ‘wore women’s shoes’ and makeup, along with other trappings of femininity. How far have we come from the Twinkie defense, which, may I remind you, also involved a case that took place in California? The reminder in the media was clear; King was asking for it. Boys who wear women’s clothes deserve to die. Oh, the media might not have come out and said it, but it was implied. A tangled morass of both gay and trans panic surrounds King, who sounds like he was just starting to explore his gender and sexual identity when one of his classmates shot him point blank in the head.
King’s jury deadlocked in favor of manslaughter. Again, I am not an attorney, but this is a conviction that suggests someone is not fully culpable for murder; there were extenuating circumstances and complexities that make it hard to say a murder took place. No deliberation, malice, or premeditation. Because students totally just carry guns to school all the time and shoot each other in the head without malicious intent. Five courageous jurors refused to bend to pressure, and the result was a mistrial. There’s a potential for a retrial, but not very much optimism.
Defenses often revolve around the idea that the defendant was young, saturated in abusive rhetoric, and upset by the flirtations of his classmate. Honestly, I suspect the jury may also have felt conflicted about the idea of sentencing a young man to a very long time in prison. Thanks to the retributive nature of our justice system, a sentence of murder with a hate crime charge as well would have resulted in a hefty sentence. Jurors may have wondered what good that would do, and what chance of rehabilitation would have been available for McInerney under those circumstances. The message they sent, though, was that people can’t agree on whether shooting a young man in the head for wearing high heels is manslaughter or murder.
Under Senate Bill 48, California teachers will be required to cover the:
…contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and other ethnic and cultural groups, to the development of California and the United States.
To teach, in other words, a more complete history of California that includes all its participants. This reads like ye ole PC nightmare gone wilde to opponents, who are mustering some of the same arguments that came up in 2008 with the Proposition 8 campaign. Apparently, teaching queer and trans history would ‘…inappropriately expose young children to sex, infringe on parental rights and silence religion-based criticisms of homosexuality.’ Because, you know, queer and trans people, all we do is go around having sex everywhere. I guess all that sex and violence in, say, the colonisation of California isn’t as much of a concern.
These arguments sound like a rehash because they effectively are. In 2008, voters were told that gay marriage would undermine the fabric of society as we know it. Those arguments are coming back for another spin around the block as supporters of the failed initiative once again attempt to have this fight, arguing that they deserve to be able to go to court to appeal the smackdown issued when the court declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional.
These things, I say, do not occur in a vacuum. At the same time the jury was being told that the defendant was not guilty because his classmate was too gay, which created extenuating circumstances, they were able to read news reports about all of the horrible things The Gays are doing to California. Demanding that their history be taught! Wanting to be married! And, likewise, proponents of anti-gay legislation in California took note of this trial verdict, that 12 people couldn’t seem to decide on an issue that seems relatively straightforward to some of us. They noted that even in the Golden State, supposedly a place that is welcoming to the queer community, that welcome is not extended across the board.
We are about to enter what looks to be an intense election cycle in the United States. Already the media is getting ready, the rhetoric is ramping up, and foes of the queer and trans communities are getting ready to do their worst. In one week alone, we saw some of the best (jurors believing that Larry King was murdered, the state affirming that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional) and the worst (jurors not believing that Larry King was murdered, haters using the same old tired arguments in an attempt to write inequality right into our lawbooks and our very constitution). This is only the tip of what may be a very ugly iceberg in the coming months, and part of a larger discussion, as well.
There’s been a lot of conversation in the queer and trans community about politics and goals; some of us, for example, are not as concerned about marriage equality as we are about skyrocketing homelessness and suicide rates for queer and trans youth. As we discuss our own goals and priorities, cases like this illustrate the huge obstacles we have to fight against. Whether you think parents shouldn’t kick queer kids out of their homes, want to see hormones and reconstructive surgery fully covered by insurance, or believe that marriage equality and military service are the number one priorities for the movement, I think we can all agree that it’s an uphill battle to get society to admit we are human beings, let alone to extend us equal rights in any field.