Salamon’s talk is entitled “‘If something wasn’t done soon’: The Murder of Larry King.” It is part of the Penn Humanities Forum’s year-long examination of violence and takes place in the Rainey Auditorium of the Penn Museum, 3260 South St.
King, known to friends as Larry, was an effeminate 15-year-old boy at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, Calif. In the winter of 2008, he began wearing makeup and jewelry occasionally, causing consternation among his teachers.
King’s classmates were divided. A few were supportive, most were confused, but Brandon McInerney was downright hostile. According to an uncorroborated rumor, King asked McInerney to be his Valentine, embarrassing him in front of his buddies.
On Feb. 12, 2008, while the class was working in a computer lab, McInerney walked behind King and shot him twice in the back of the head at point-blank range. He died the following day.
The horrific crime attracted a flurry of media attention, including a high-profile article in Newsweek, which portrayed the incident as a Valentine’s Day crush gone terribly wrong.
“The focus of the article was on Larry’s behavior, and I found that particularly distressing, since it seemed like the focus really should be on Brandon’s behavior,” Salamon said. “There seemed to be a lot of homophobia in the initial article in the way the case was described.”
Basically, the article blamed the victim, a consistent theme found in other media reports on the case.
In summer 2011, after much legal wrangling, the criminal trial finally began. Salamon, who continued to follow the case, attended every day of the proceedings.
The courtroom might seem like an odd place for a professor of English, but Salamon’s Ph.D. is in the field of rhetoric, so observing lawyers argue a case was not far-fetched.
Salamon also has substantial training in philosophy and is interested in what philosophers refer to as embodiment, or the ways in which the human body becomes expressive and communicates meaning. Her 2010 book related to that topic, “Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality,” won a Lambda Literary Award.
As lawyers and witnesses spoke, Salamon observed something curious about the language they used: By continuing to describe King as gay and his murder as the result of his unwanted flirtations, they revealed a misunderstanding about what actually provoked McInerney’s violent behavior.
“The language of gayness or homosexuality was really the only language people seem to have to label a boy who is feminine,” Salamon said.
Instead, what Salamon discerned was a fundamental confusion between gender expression, how masculine or feminine a person is; and sexual orientation, or whether a person is gay or straight.
“What got characterized as a story about sexual behavior actually wasn’t about sexual behavior at all, it was about gender expression. It was about Brandon being disturbed at how feminine Larry was and other people in the school reacting to how feminine Larry was.”
That confusion had significant consequences for the trial. In effect, King became the aggressor; his behavior was scrutinized and McInerney was portrayed as a chaste teen defending himself from unwanted sexual advances.
In reality, McInerney brought a loaded weapon to school, stared intently at King for 20 minutes, then calmly executed him in front of the entire class.
Salamon noticed another odd feature of the trial. Although the lawyers and witnesses had adopted a “language of homosexuality,” that language embarrassed them to the point where words failed and they resorted to communicating by gesture.
“There would be these times when they would be talking about something that was making everyone slightly uncomfortable, like discussing homosexuality or discussing Larry wearing lip gloss,” Salamon said. “And there would be these moments when the lawyers and the witnesses would stop talking and start acting things out with their bodies in the courtroom.”
That those gestures were themselves harmful stereotypes only victimized King further, Salamon said.
“One of the lawyers would do a swishy, stereotypical gay walk across the courtroom and then the witness would say, ‘No, no, it was more like this,’ and then the witness would do a kind of flaunting, over-the-top gesture.”
Perhaps those antics help explain why the original trial ended in a hung jury.
Despite the fact that McInerney eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, the feeling that adults let King down lingers.
Commentators generally claim that if adults had prevented King from being so effeminate, he would not have provoked McInerney into killing him.
Salamon’s observations reveal something more disturbing. Because of their almost-unconscious fear and ignorance of gender and sexuality, the lawyers and teachers failed King in his death too.
For more information about Salamon’s lecture, visit www.phf.upenn.edu.