Twenty years ago in a little Nebraskan town called Falls City, a handsome 21-year-old transman with big blue eyes was brutally beaten, raped and murdered in one of the most heinous hate crimes in American history.
His name was Brandon Teena.
Though his murder immediately made headlines, it was Kimberly Peirce’s film dramatization Boys Don’t Cry in 1999 that made Brandon’s story familiar to millions of Americans—and won Hilary Swank an Oscar for her moving portrayal of him.
Brandon left his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, for Falls City at the age of 20, hoping to start a new life in a community where no one knew him. He started dating Lana Tisdel, and found a family of sorts in her inner circle of friends, including John Lotter and Marvin “Tom” Nissen. But upon discovering Brandon was a biological female, Lotter and Nissen became obsessed with proving his anatomy to Lana, forcibly disrobing him in a bathroom on Christmas Eve, and hours later, raping him. On New Years Eve, to prevent him from ever pressing charges, they killed him and two bystanders.
Today, Lotter remains on death row at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, having been convicted of the killings with Nissen’s testimony. Nissen is serving three life sentences at the Lincoln Correctional Center. In 2007, he recanted his original testimony and now admits he murdered the three victims with Lotter as his accomplice.
But another figure in this horrifying story remains free.
On December 25, mere hours after being sexually assaulted, Brandon faced a demeaning and dehumanizing line of questioning from the Richardson County Sheriff, Charles Laux, when reporting his attackers. In a recent interview from her L.A. office, director Peirce called it “a third rape.”
C: [A]fter he pulled your pants down and seen you was a girl, what did he do? Did he fondle you any?
C: He didn't fondle you any, huh. Didn't that kind of amaze you?...Doesn't that kind of, ah, get your attention somehow that he would've put his hands in your pants and play with you a little bit?
C: [Y]ou were all half-ass drunk....I can't believe that if he pulled your pants down and you are a female that he didn't stick his hand in you or his finger in you.
B: Well, he didn't.
C: I can't believe he didn't.
C:...Did he have a hard on when he got back there or what?
B: I don't know. I didn't look.
C: You didn't look. Did he take a little time working it up, or what? Did you work it up for him?
B: No, I didn't.
C: You didn't work it up for him?
C: Then you think he had it worked up on his own, or what?
B: I guess so, I don't know.
C: You don't know...Did, when he got in the back seat you were already spread out back there ready for him, waiting on him.
B: No, I was sitting up when he got back there.
C: And you had never had sex before?
C: How old are you?
C: And if you're 21, you think you'd have, you'd have, trouble getting it in?
C: Why do you run around with girls instead of, ah, guys being you are a girl yourself?
B: Why do I what?
C: Why do you run around with girls instead of guys being you're a girl yourself?
B: I haven't the slightest idea.
C: You haven't the slightest idea? You go around kissing other girls?....[T]he girls that don't know about you, thinks [sic] you are a guy. Do you kiss them?
B: ...I have a sexual identity crisis.
C: A what?
B: I have a sexual identity crisis.
C: You want to explain that?
B: I don't know if I can even talk about it....
I recently re-watched Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's Emmy-nominated 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story, which unearthed this excruciating exchange. The duo spent more than five years researching and reporting the case, even moving into an apartment in Falls City to attend all the trials and sentencings. Without their excellent investigative journalism we would have never learned of the extreme misconduct and inhumanity Brandon suffered from Laux. Hearing his cruelty anew, it finally occurred to me why he seems the cruelest in this cast of characters: There's something particularly perverse about a man entrusted with the duty to protect choosing instead to hurt and humiliate.
Peirce, who also spent more than half a decade researching and making her film, chose to underscore the disturbing and participatory nature of Laux's questions about the crime by playing out the rape scene in flashback with Swank's voiceover, as she gets grilled by Laux. When I recently spoke with Peirce, she noted “a level of provocation and pleasure [that Laux derived] out of making Brandon relive his own torture.”
Despite ample evidence, Laux neglected to apprehend and charge Lotter and Nissen, giving them the opportunity to plan and execute Brandon's murder twenty years ago today on December 31, 1993. JoAnn Brandon, Brandon’s mother, was eventually awarded $5000 for wrongful death, $7000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress, $80,000 for “mental suffering” and $6,223.20 for funeral expenses.
I wondered if the stain of Laux’s legacy still lingered in Falls City's Sheriff's Office, or if they'd made procedural efforts to improve their dealings with LGBT populations. After all, transgender rights and visibility have increased significantly since 1993.
To find out how much progress has made its way to the Richardson County Sheriff's Office, I reached out to the current sheriff, Randy Houser, an affable 61-year-old from Omaha. I first asked Houser if he could get me in touch with Laux, wondering whether he has any regret about the way he handled things.
“I'm pretty sure he will not speak with you,” Houser wrote in an email. He encouraged me, however, to give it a try. When my letter requesting an interview went unanswered, I called Laux's home in Dawson. “You know, you people are a pain in the ass!” he yelled, upon hearing why I was calling, and hung up.