February 12th is a date permanently etched in my brain and should be on the collective memory of North America. On this date, nearly one month ago, eighth grader Lawrence King was shot in the head by fellow fourteen year old student Brandon David McInerney in the middle of a class lab. King, an incredibly courageous openly queer fifteen year old, had asked McInerney to be his valentine. He was murdered for being queer and it is a story that the media in America had nearly ignored until Ellen Degeneres gave her sombre monologue on the incident on her show just over a week ago.
Degeneres told her audience that being gay does not make you a second class citizen, that neither King nor herself were second class citizens. And, barely able to control her emotions, she warned of a culture that sends the message if you’re gay you’ll be murdered.
Queer sites, advocacy groups and activists have reported and commented on this story, filling in for a complacent and heteronormative corporate news media that is more interested in the latest Britney Spears meltdown than issues of identity, diversity, and gun culture.
The more I read on this story the more it upset me, and the more I became upset the less I could understand what it was that was making me so upset (after all, there are tens of thousands of tragedies every day). I watched the video memorial for Larry, as he was known to friends and family, on the website made by his uncle and wept uncontrollably for some time. I spent the next few days not being able to get Larry and his story out of my mind – his heroism emboldened me and his tragedy haunted me. And I guess that is what it is about this story that has affected me so intensely, so completely.
Larry’s story is personal not because of some gory recounting of every aspect of his murder but because his story is personally political. There are few places on this continent, on this globe where cultural and socio-political diversity includes the acceptance, tolerance and celebration of queer communities, let alone queer fifteen year-olds. Larry was an individual challenging more than dominant heteronormative culture, he was challenging perceived wisdom around youth and identity. He was part of a queer community in Oxnard, California where he lived in a facility for fostered youth. He was a teenager who had a teenage crush on a fellow classmate and boldly acted on his feeling by giving his crush a valentine. The story is unremarkable, except that in our bigoted, homophic society, crushes are not meant to be of the same sex.
I have marked this date on my calendar, although I do not need to. I will never forget Larry’s story and how his image has become a metonym for me – a signpost on the volatile path of progressive politics, of the dangerous (more so for some than others) journey to social justice, equality and a real, lived, diversity.
Questions remain around how an eighth grader was able to get a handgun. On what context helped create this violent reaction to queerness. On why school teachers and officials did nothing in the year and half that Larry was teased, bullied, and ridiculed in front of them and his own peers. On what is being taught in classrooms about sexual diversity, on queer identities, queer kids.
The most nagging question for me is the one that led me to write this post on Art Threat. It is a question around remembering, around collective memory, around political memorialization. One need only look at the offensive and cold public momument for the students murdered at Kent State to realize that work needs to be done to address the problem of public rememberence. Larry should never be forgotten, and children growing up in America should know his bravery so that they can be emboldened by it. They should know his tragedy not to be afraid, but to fight against a society that is building an image of itself through media that looks nothing like itself. America (and North America) is not a white, heterosexual male and we need ways of seeing this. We need arteries to the past, whether they are media (such as the site Larry’s uncle has built) or whether they are momuments in public spaces.
But most of all we need to remember and dialogue so that real diversity will not only be fought for, but will be won so that we can feel secure in saying that Larry’s story will not be repeated.
To pay your respects or just express your thoughts about this story, there is a space created at the Remember Larry site. You may also register your vigil at Remembering Lawrence, to join the thousands of others across America who are organizing to end violence and harassment directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in schools.