“Valentine Road,” a heartbreaking and disturbing documentary screened at the Milwaukee Film Fest, explores eighth-grader Brandon McInerney’s 2008 slaying of fellow classmate Letisha King at EO Green Junior High School in Oxnard, Calif.
Still exploring her sexuality and her gender at the age of 14, Letisha hadn’t openly identified as transgender at the time of her death. The filmmaker, interviewees and the media continue to refer to her as Larry King and use male pronouns, but I am going to refer to her as she requested in her last days.
First-time director Marta Cunningham did more than recount the circumstances surrounding King’s murder. She explored the histories of both kids, their family situations and the myriad ways in which the school district mismanaged nearly everything it possibly could.
King was placed in an “independent educational program” that sought to end her “deviant behavior” in accessorizing her school uniform with make-up and jewelry. Immediately following the shooting, King’s classmates were ushered into a separate classroom and forced to watch “Jaws” while police conducted their investigation. The one teacher who supported King’s gender expression was terminated and blamed for her death.
This screening also provided the opportunity to engage as a community during a discussion panel following the film. Loree Cook-Daniels and michael munson from FORGE, Tina Owen from the Alliance School and Syd Robinson from the ACLU participated in the panel, moderated by Mitch Teich from WUWM’s Lake Effect. It was a thoughtful community dialogue sponsored by Cream City Foundation and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Panelists and attendees struggled to articulate how the director’s portrayal of both King and McInerney as victims of a broken system and childhood trauma affected them.
It was a difficult process to witness the deconstruction of both victim and perpetrator. Listening to jurors in McInerney’s first trial express their belief that King’s murder was NOT a hate crime was certainly one of the most unsettling experiences. Though it is difficult to understand how someone would not view the murder of a youth simply because of gender expression and sexual orientation as a hate crime, it is a conversation that I’m sure is not uncommon.
Nor is it unique to Oxnard. Last week, Jason Morgan, a UW-Madison teaching assistant, wrote an open letter to the history department following its mandatory diversity training that explored racism and supporting transgender students.
Morgan wrote, “It is most certainly not my job, though, to cheer along anyone, student or otherwise, in their psychological confusion. I am not in graduate school to learn how to encourage poor souls in their sexual experimentation.… Everyone is welcome in my classroom, but, whether directly or indirectly, I will not implicate myself in my students’ fetishes, whatever those might be. What they do on their own time is their business; I will not be a party to it.”
Morgan’s frustration with the trainings, which he refers to as “intellectual tyranny” and his characterization of transgender and genderqueer students’ identity as a “fetish,” demonstrate exactly why these diversity trainings are so critically important. As a UW-Madison alum, I am exceedingly proud of my alma mater.
Perhaps if King and McInerney’s teachers were taught the difference between a fetish and the expression of gender identity – if they were given the tools and support to create a truly inclusive school – we would have one less tragedy to mourn.