An unflinching glimpse into two of the most difficult, troubling and divisive issues facing our country today: gender identity and race.
The twin topics of race and gender identity have become increasingly high-profile over the course of the last several decades. From the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the brutal, authoritarian treatment of blacks by the police officers sworn to serve and protect to the increased awareness of LGBTQ—particularly transgender—issues, it seems the more we attempt to move ahead as a society built on openness, tolerance and freedom, the more close-minded, intolerant and socially restrictive we become. And things aren’t looking to get any better anytime soon under the current administration and the new wave of bigotry and hatred it has managed to not only uncover on a broader scale, but to tacitly condone.
As a society, we are often put on edge when faced with someone or something outside our limited spectrum of “normalcy.” Be it social, racial, theological or political, anything that strays too far beyond that which we can understand in terms of (for lack of a better term) black-and-white immediately throws up a caution flag. Being products of not only the broader society but also the micro-societies made up of blood relations, our views and understandings of the world are shaped from a young age. If created under certain circumstances, these can become a major struggle to overcome, the mental barriers placed before us inhibiting any sort of personal and social growth without the greatest of effort. Yet we obviously have little control over the lives into which we are born and are thus often finding ourselves behind from the start. Such was the case for the two young people at the center of Ken Corbett’s A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High.
In 2008, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney pulled out a gun during class and shot 15-year-old Larry King in the back of the head. Regardless of the external factors affecting each child (and let’s face it, that’s what they are at these ages), that is a jarring sentence to have to read. It’s nearly impossible to imagine anything like this transpiring before our eyes, let alone within the confines of a classroom on an otherwise seemingly normal day. Looked at simply, one child possessed the malice aforethought to bring a loaded gun into school, select a clearly premeditated target in the person of a fellow student—this was no typical school shooting—and commit murder in the presence of a teacher and classmates. It seems beyond inconceivable that something as cold-blooded as this could not only be perpetrated by someone who has just barely entered adolescence, but also within the context of a school.
But as Corbett begins to unfurl the details surrounding each child’s life, we begin to see a far more nuanced picture than the stark black-and-white of one child killing another. McInerney was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white boy who mercilessly took the life of King, a black boy who had recently begun transitioning into a young black girl who began calling herself Leticia. As has been well documented, transgendered individuals, particularly those of color, face some of the highest levels of bigotry, discrimination and intolerance of any group in America. In the first six weeks of 2017 alone, seven transgender women (six of whom were black, one Native American) were murdered. In 2016, 23 murders were reported—imagine the number of those left unreported or unremarked upon—of which 80% were black transgender women.
Reading these startling statistics of intolerance and pure hatred more than a decade after having entered a so-called “post-racial” world following the election of President Obama is beyond disheartening. Yet it shows that we, as a society, have progressed little in our tolerance and understanding of those perceived as being “other.” In this way, the deck was stacked against both individuals. For McInerney, the world around him rippled with intolerance and often outright hatred towards not only transgender men and women, but even gay men and women. With a built-in bigotry so firmly established within the culture, it only takes the slightest spark to ignite a far larger fire that can have devastating results.
For Larry/Leticia, the child of a drug-addled prostitute who found himself in foster care along with his brother at a heartbreakingly young age, taken in by a white couple whom Corbett paints in an unflattering light as the picture of the uneducated lower class, any forward advancement within society was a virtual impossibility from the very start. Add to this the assorted mental health issues that came from his unsettlingly troubled upbringing and gender dysphoria and you’ve got someone who requires the utmost patience, care and parental love in order to overcome immense odds. Lacking all of this, Larry/Leticia was, as Corbett alludes, on a collision course with an extremely difficult existence.
With so many external factors at play—gender, race, socioeconomic status, parental involvement, mental health, etc.—the case surrounding the clear-cut murder case becomes all the more layered and complex to navigate. And while Corbett has the best of intentions in his sharing of this particular story, his execution leaves something to be desired. From the very start, his constantly vacillating use of gender pronouns muddies the narrative. Given the title, once Larry/Leticia has been introduced it would’ve made more sense for Corbett to stick with both “her” and “Leticia.” Yet he continues to jump back and forth between the two indiscriminately to the point where it becomes frustrating from the reader’s perspective, diluting the narrative’s central message.
Additionally, Corbett lets his own biases come to the fore in his unflattering depictions of the survivors of the case. By inserting himself into the story from the very beginning—he followed and reported on every day of McInerney’s trial, getting to know both families and the parties involved in the process—he immediately excuses himself from being an unbiased witness reporting the facts of the case and inserts his own beliefs into his prose. And while it’s understandable that this would be an extremely sensitive issue (he himself is gay), by inserting too much of himself into the story he manages to defeat the purpose of what should be the overarching theme of tolerance across the board.
A Murder Over a Girl is a fascinating, albeit flawed, look at one of the more troubling aspects of modern society in the form of an act of unspeakable cruelty. It’s a story with which everyone should be familiar—looking at the subtleties of the case and how we as a society can look to better educate and embrace tolerance in all its forms—but one which deserved a more clear-eyed analysis than Corbett manages here. Broken down to its base elements and stripped of its many superfluous moments, however, A Murder Over a Girl offers an unflinching glimpse into two of the most difficult, troubling and divisive issues facing our country today: gender identity and race.