This week, HBO screened a documentary film, “Valentine Road,” about the 2008 murder of a 14-year-old boy, Lawrence King, by a classmate in Oxnard, California. King had been exploring his gender identity by wearing makeup and heels to school; he had told friends that he was gay and had asked 14-year-old Brandon McInerney to be his Valentine in front of other classmates. McInerney, who had a girlfriend, shot King in head during class in their middle school computer lab.
Heartbreaking. Inexcusable. And yet the New York Times’ film review by Neil Genzlinger actually dared to ask:
Was Mr. McInerney the one who was bullied, by Mr. King’s flaunting of his identity (including wearing makeup and heeled boots to school)?
I understand the article is a review of a documentary, so it may be the film itself that prompted these questions. (I have not yet seen the film.) But what I object to is the phrasing — I’m disgusted by the Times suggestion that Brandon McInerney could have been “bullied” by another boy for simply voicing an attraction to him and for dressing in a way that was not typically “masculine.” That’s not what “bullying” means.
Yes, Brandon McInerney himself was an immature child and even LGBTQ advocates after the murder were willing to acknowledge he was impressionable and immature. (After the shooting in 2008, Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, told the Times that McInerney “is just as much a victim as Lawrence … He’s a victim of homophobia and hate.”) However, during National Bullying Prevention Month, which is the reason this documentary is being shown on HBO, for the Times to conflate feeling “bullied” with enacting bigotry, especially to the point of murder, is just plain irresponsible.
The documentary does also explore how Brandon McInerney was charged as an adult for a premeditated hate crime and gun possession. (The Times asked, “Can a 14-year-old be expected to process and live by adult standards?”) To me, that’s the more salient question — not whether a teen boy murdered someone because he felt “bullied” by his victim “flaunting” his sexuality. Lawrence King deserves better than this.
Here’s the trailer for “Valentine Road,” which is screening on HBO GO now. You can also find HBO’s supplementary material for the film, including an discussion guide, here:
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[Image via HBO]