Young, Gay and Murdered
The staff at E. O. Green was clearly struggling with the Larry situation—how to balance his right to self-expression while preventing it from disrupting others. Legally, they couldn't stop him from wearing girls' clothes, according to the California Attorney General's Office, because of a state hate-crime law that prevents gender discrimination. Larry, being Larry, pushed his rights as far as he could. During lunch, he'd sidle up to the popular boys' table and say in a high-pitched voice, "Mind if I sit here?" In the locker room, where he was often ridiculed, he got even by telling the boys, "You look hot," while they were changing, according to the mother of a student.
Larry was eventually moved out of the P.E. class, though the school didn't seem to know the extent to which he was clashing with other boys. One teacher describes the gym transfer as more of a "preventative measure," since Larry complained that one student wouldn't stop looking at him. In other classes, teachers were baffled that Larry was allowed to draw so much attention to himself. "All the teachers were complaining, because it was disruptive," says one of them. "Dress code is a huge issue at our school. We fight [over] it every day." Some teachers thought Larry was clearly in violation of the code, which prevents students from wearing articles of clothing considered distracting. When Larry wore lipstick and eyeliner to school for the first time, a teacher told him to wash it off, and he did. But the next day, he was back wearing even more. Larry told the teacher he could wear makeup if he wanted to. He said that Ms. Epstein told him that was his right.
Joy Epstein was one of the school's three assistant principals, and as Larry became less inhibited, Epstein became more a source of some teachers' confusion and anger. Epstein, a calm, brown-haired woman with bifocals, was openly gay to her colleagues, and although she was generally not out to her students, she kept a picture of her partner on her desk that some students saw. While her job was to oversee the seventh graders, she formed a special bond with Larry, who was in the eighth grade. He dropped by her office regularly, either for counseling or just to talk—she won't say exactly. "There was no reason why I specifically started working with Larry," Epstein says. "He came to me." Some teachers believe that she was encouraging Larry's flamboyance, to help further an "agenda," as some put it. One teacher complains that by being openly gay and discussing her girlfriend (presumably, no one would have complained if she had talked about a husband), Epstein brought the subject of sex into school. Epstein won't elaborate on what exactly she said to Larry because she expects to be called to testify at Brandon's trial, but it's certain to become one of the key issues. William Quest, Brandon's public defender, hasn't disclosed his defense strategy, but he has accused the school of failing to intercede as the tension rose between Larry and Brandon. Quest calls Epstein "a lesbian vice principal with a political agenda." Larry's father also blames Epstein. He's hired an attorney and says he is seriously contemplating a wrongful-death lawsuit. "She started to confuse her role as a junior-high principal," Greg King says. "I think that she was asserting her beliefs for gay rights." In a tragedy such as this, the natural impulse is to try to understand why it happened and to look for someone to blame. Epstein won't discuss the case in detail and, until she testifies in court, it's impossible to know what role—if any—she played in the events leading to Larry's death.
Whatever Epstein said to Larry, it's clear that his coming out proved to be a fraught process, as it can often be. For tweens, talking about being gay isn't really about sex. They may be aware of their own sexual attraction by the time they're 10, according to Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University, but those feelings are too vague and unfamiliar to be their primary motivation. (In fact, Larry told a teacher that he'd never kissed anyone, male or female.) These kids are actually concerned with exploring their identity. "When you're a baby, you cry when you're hungry because you don't know the word for it," says Allan Acevedo, 19, of San Diego, who came out when he was in eighth grade. "Part of the reason why people are coming out earlier is they have the word 'gay,' and they know it explains the feeling." Like older teenagers, tweens tend to tell their friends first, because they think they'll be more accepting. But kids that age often aren't equipped to deal with highly personal information, and middle-school staffs are almost never trained in handling kids who question their sexuality. More than 3,600 high schools sponsor gay-straight alliances designed to foster acceptance of gay students, but only 110 middle schools have them. Often the entire school finds out before either the student or the faculty is prepared for the attention and the backlash. "My name became a punch line very fast," says Grady Keefe, 19, of Branford, Conn., who came out in the eighth grade. "The guidance counselors told me I should not have come out because I was being hurt."
The staff at E. O. Green tried to help as Larry experimented with his identity, but he liked to talk in a roar. One teacher asked him why he taunted the boys in the halls, and Larry replied, "It's fun to watch them squirm." But Brandon McInerney was different. Larry really liked Brandon. One student remembered that Larry would often walk up close to Brandon and stare at him. Larry had studied Brandon so well, he once knew when he had a scratch on his arm—Larry even claimed that he had given it to Brandon by mistake, when the two were together. Larry told one of his close friends that he and Brandon had dated but had broken up. He also said that he'd threatened to tell the entire school about them, if Brandon wasn't nicer to him. Quest, Brandon's defense attorney, says there was no relationship between Larry and Brandon, and one of Larry's teachers says that Larry was probably lying to get attention.
Like Larry, Brandon had his share of troubles. His parents, Kendra and Bill McInerney, had a difficult, tempestuous relationship. In 1993, Kendra alleged that Bill pointed a .45 handgun at her during a drunken evening and shot her in the arm, according to court records. She and Bill split in 2000, when Brandon was 6. One September morning, a fight broke out after Kendra accused her husband of stealing the ADHD medication prescribed to one of her older sons from her first marriage. Bill "grabbed Kendra by the hair," and "began choking her until she was almost unconscious," according to Kendra's version of the events filed in court documents. He pleaded no contest to corporal injury to a spouse and was sentenced to 10 days in jail. In a December 2001 court filing for a restraining order against Kendra, he claimed that she had turned her home into a "drug house." "I was very functional," Kendra later explained to a local newspaper, in a story about meth addiction. By 2004, she had entered a rehab program, and Brandon went to live with his father. But he spent years caught in the middle of a war.