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.
“That's 'our Charlie’!” Houser said. “He has rationalized his role to the point where he's blameless. I'm sure it's a defense mechanism.” Houser updated me on Laux's life since 1993. Just a few years after the tragedy, he was voted commissioner of Richardson County. When his term ended, he took a job as a corrections officer at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where Lotter sits on death row. As recently as 2010, he even served on his community's Village Board. Now retired, he drives a school bus.
That Laux could have garnered enough votes to hold any office—and cart children to school—surprised me. “Well,” Houser laughed, “these aren't exactly offices of high reward!”
He joked that Falls City “is a few miles from the ends of the earth,” but assured me that he and his compatriots “are a lot more evolved than you might expect.” Many law enforcement officials at the time thought Laux's behavior was “appalling,” he said. “A series of bad decisions were made by the guy at the top and that won't be me if something like this happens again. Things are not the same.”
Today, police vehicles are equipped with in-car videos and officers are outfitted with wireless microphones so they are monitored and held accountable for their actions. Also, basic law-enforcement training is an intense 16 weeks at the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island, where the curriculum includes a viewing and discussion of the The Brandon Teena Story and staged sexual-assault and domestic-violence scenarios between straight and gay couples.
Not to justify his wrongdoing, but to partially explain Laux's ignorance, Houser told me that Laux's training was far inferior to what officers receive today: “Charlie was in his third 4-year term as sheriff in 1993. He was a cop for years prior to that. His basic training experience was probably in the late 70's or early 80's, when it lasted all of six weeks.”
Today, Brandon Teena’s experience would be different, Houser said. Richardson County now has access to services from Project Response, a support advocacy group based out of Omaha and Lincoln that assists with domestic violence and sexual assault cases. “If there was strong evidence of witness intimidation or reprisal as there was in this case,” Houser explained, “we would link up with Project Response and that person would be put in a safe house, given a cell phone that can only dial 911 and their personal phone would be taken away from them so their perpetrators can't track them down.”
“A rape,” he continued, “especially one involving kidnapping, physical assault and death threats was as rare then as it is today. The majority of our caseload is protection order violations, DUIs, driving under suspension and domestic violence. [A case like Brandon's] would be an emergency, a drop-everything situation—and it would probably be handed over to state patrol investigators, who have more resources.”
Houser lives with his wife of 33 years, Julie, eight blocks from the courthouse. In modern-day Falls City—population 4,300—conservatism comes in the form of “mind your own business, live your own life,” he told me. While he's sure there are some gays in town, “they're not overt about it. There's not saying, 'I'm gay!'”
I couldn't quite tell if he meant it approvingly—as if gays should avoid public displays of affection—or if he was just reporting. But that he could use some LGBT-awareness training is clear: He referred to Brandon as “she,” called being transgender a “lifestyle,” and suggested discrimination towards gay people was non-existent in Falls City.
I asked, hypothetically, if he'd be willing to do a LGBT-sensitivity training session with PFLAG, a queer advocacy group founded in 1972 that has done significant law enforcement outreach in the past, as a way to acknowledge the mishandling of Brandon's case and firmly close that chapter on Falls City's history.
“Oh absolutely!” he responded. “That goes without saying.”
PFLAG was happy to help out when I explained the idea. Liz Owen, the communications director of PFLAG National in Washington D.C., arranged for Ellen James of the Omaha chapter to train Houser and his staff.
“We have a training session scheduled on Jan 18th,” Houser wrote to me two weeks later. “I also invited our local police department and neighboring Sheriff to attend.”
James, a lawyer with a transgender daughter, will be covering a lot of ground, according to Owen: “Basic education about the LGBT community—defining and explaining the differences in biology, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. She will also cover the terminology in the transgender community; facts about homeless youth and research on family acceptance; and best practices for officers in interacting with members of the transgender community.”
“I was discussing the upcoming presentation with one of my deputies,” Houser wrote to me in one of our last email exchanges, “and he asked: 'What is the definition of a transgender person?' I struggled to define it, but I basically came to the conclusion that a transgender person is whatever they say they are.”
It's a simple concept—honoring however people want to define themselves—but it requires a leap of imagination Lotter, Nissen and Laux couldn't make—and it would have made all the difference.