I’ve blogged about the tragic death of handsome transgender man Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old trans who moved to Falls City, Nebraska after being “outed” in his home town of Lincoln, Nebraska. At that time I had a narrow focus, that of the suffering of a transgender man, and the crimes against him. This blog has a much larger scope. I refer to Brandon as Teena in this blog as I am referencing his surname, not using his birth name.
Teena’s death was one of the worst hate crimes I have ever heard about in American history. The two men who raped and murdered Teena, John Lotter is on death row and Thomas Nissen is serving a life sentence for the rape-murder. Lotter is now unrecognizable – overweight and bald, he has made continual appeals to get off of death row. He insists he is innocent of the murders and clearly afraid of being put to death. I believe that’s called karma. One criminal in this sordid story was allowed to walk free. His name is Charles B. Laux, the town sheriff, who emotionally raped Teena as brutally as Lotter and Nissen had physically raped her. He is still walking free and has received no consequences for the manner in which he treated Teena.
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 of the Emmy-nominated film about Teena’s life, Boys Don’t Cry, Peirce, who spent five years investigating the tragedy before making the film, called it “a third rape.”
L: [A]fter he pulled your pants down and seen you was a girl, what did he do? Did he fondle you any?
L: 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? [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. I can’t believe he didn’t.
L: Did he have a hard on when he got back there or what?
T: I don’t know. I didn’t look.
L: You didn’t look. Did he take a little time working it up, or what? Did you work it up for him?
T: No, I didn’t.
L: You didn’t work it up for him?
T: Then you think he had it worked up on his own, or what?
T: I guess so, I don’t know.
L: 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.
T: No, I was sitting up when he got back there.
There’s something particularly perverse about a man entrusted with the duty to protect choosing instead to hurt and humiliate. In fact, Laux demonstrated “a level of provocation and pleasure out of making Brandon relive his own torture.”
Brandon Teena Childhood
The most significant event in Brandon’s youth was that he was a victim of incest by an uncle when she was in grade school, a fact which came to light only years later. The records show that she was abused on a regular basis from 1977, when she was five years old through 1981, when she was nine. This was never reported to her mother or to authorities. Her sister, Tammy, verified that she herself had been sexually abused by the same uncle.
Sometime after Teena obtained puberty, she began to reject her own sex. She began dressing like a boy, cut her hair short, bound her breasts, and even put a sock in her pants to simulate male genitalia. She began posing as a boy and started dating girls. She was repelled at the thought of being touched by a male. Is it possible that her sexual identity transformation was a reaction to the incestuous molestation by her uncle?
In 1991, Teena attempted suicide and was very unhappy and depressed. In January, 1992, after having been charged and convicted of second-degree forgery, Brandon ended up at the Lincoln Crisis Center and was diagnosed with a gender disorder, possibly transsexualism, as well as an adjustment disorder. Records dated February 1992, indicated molestation when she was about nine years old. This was the first her mother knew of this. In April, 1992, Teena was placed on probation by the district court, and was required to go to a mental health clinic as part of her probation. In August, 1992, Teena again talked to her counselor about the abuse by the uncle, which resulted in her leaving the session physically shaken.
In October, 1992, Teena was terminated from the clinic, indicating there was no change, and in December, 1992, she was terminated from the program for failing to follow treatment. Part of the treatment involved Teena being forced to wear a dress and put on make-up in an attempt to accept her biological sex. It proved to be a traumatic experience. In November, 1993, Teena was diagnosed by another counselor with transsexualism and a personality disorder.
Laux’s opinion was echoed by media coverage of Brandon Teena’s murder. Coverage portrayed it as the inevitable consequence of sexual deviance and deceit. Newspaper headlines routinely address Brandon Teena’s ambiguous gender identity as the true ’cause’ of his murder. Such headlines include: “Death of a deceiver”; “Deadly Deception: Teena Brandon’s Double Life May Have Led to a Triple Murder”; “Man Who Killed Cross-Dressing Rape Accuser Gets Death Penalty”; “Cross-Dresser Killed Two Weeks After Town Learned Her True Identity.” Many journalists evoked Brandon in terms of monstrosity and deviance, most notably as a “cross-dressing rape accuser.” When asked why he didn’t arrest the two suspects after Brandon’s rape accusation, Laux stated that he did not trust Brandon because she had lied about her gender.
Journalist Eric Konigsberg asserted journalistic authority over Brandon Teena by evoking the ‘truth’ of her dead body in the opening sentence of his article. In his assessment, “Teena Renee Brandon’s mystery was over the moment her body was discovered, facedown on a bed in a farmhouse in Humboldt, Nebraska.” Konigsberg’s account persistently blamed Teena for deceit and, implicitly, for his own death. He used judgment-laden terms to evoke the “double life of Teena Brandon: uneasy tomboy by day, cool lady-killer by night. Teena didn’t seem to have trouble finding new people to con, new women to woo.”
When another journalist requested an interview with Laux, she called Laux’s home in Dawson. “You know, you people are a pain in the ass!” he yelled and hung up. Laux rationalized his role in Teena’s murder to the point where he believed he was blameless. 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. Apparently not many Falls City residents had a problem with his role in Teena’s murder.
The current sheriff, 61-year-old Randy Houser, stated 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.” Not to justify his wrongdoing, but to partially explain Laux’s ignorance, Houser stated 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. 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, 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.”
However Houser could use LGBT-awareness training. He referred to Teena as “she,” called being transgender a “lifestyle,” and suggested discrimination towards gay people was non-existent in Falls City. When asked 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 Teena’s case and firmly close that chapter on Falls City’s history, he responded, “Oh absolutely! That goes without saying.”
Two weeks later, Houser declared “We have a training session scheduled on Jan 18th.I also invited our local police department and neighboring Sheriff to attend. [The Brandon Teena case] was the wrong two guys, the wrong person, the wrong cops, you know, just a confluence of events.”
Meredith Bacon, a political science professor at University of Nebraska, Omaha, argued, “The murder of Brandon Teena did to the transgender community a lot what the murder of Matthew Shepard did to the gay community. It created anger.” She credits Teena’s death with the formation of The Transsexual Menace, an activist group that demonstrated in Falls City during the murder trials and continues today as an advocacy group for the transgender community.
Lynne Mytty, a transgender woman from Omaha, thinks of Teena’s situation differently than Elworth does. “When you first realize that you’re different,” she said, “you can’t just change overnight, and sometimes you have to go out and try something.” Mytty tried to transition more than once before finally committing to it 20 years ago this month, immediately after Brandon’s murder. “Show’s you how crazy I am.” Mytty tried to transition in the ’70s, but found it too difficult. “Most people confused being transgender with being gay or just assumed you were gay, which wasn’t a good place to be in Nebraska, and I couldn’t move out of Nebraska because of family.” She gave up living as a woman and instead married and fathered children. In 1994, she transitioned for the second time. She pointed out that 20 years ago, when Brandon Teena was transitioning, community support was limited. “There was only one [gay] organization in Nebraska.”
Tessa is a soft-spoken, intelligent, thirtysomething individual who identifies as “genderqueer.” “I don’t really like the binary gender system,” she said, sitting in the Omaha-area apartment she shares with two transgender women. Tessa prefers female pronouns and says that she identifies as female in terms of her body image. She looks a little like a punk rocker, and many people mistake her for a butch lesbian, which is fine with her because it elicits fewer questions. She has mainly worked lower-wage jobs and often finds that co-workers and supervisors are disrespectful. At a call-center job, a supervisor outed her to her co-workers, most of whom did not know she was transgender. Tessa said, “They’ll say that they’re doing it for our protection, but they’ll also say it like they’re exposing a fake.”
Gray, who is African-American and represents a majority African-American district with high poverty, said, “The majority of people who were opposed to my bill were leaders of church organizations in my district.” Gray, who worked as a television reporter and producer for more than 30 years before pursuing public office, covered the Brandon Teena story for the Omaha ABC affiliate. He calls Brandon’s death a “contributing factor” in the progress we’ve made as a country toward LGBTQ people.
Sexual Identity Crisis Debunked
Jim Elworth, the former prosecutor for the Teena case, believed national media focused attention on the wrong aspects of Brandon’s story. He didn’t think that Brandon was genuinely transgender. He knows this flies in the face of every common assumption over the last two decades. “It wasn’t a ‘sexual identity crisis. That angle is so overblown. It’s just not accurate if you look at the facts. She went to Falls City and pretended to be a male because it made her popular.” Elworth clarifies that LGBTQ issues are important, and said, “It’s a legitimate issue, but it wasn’t her issue.”
Teena alternately described himself as either a hermaphrodite, an individual with a sexual identity crisis, or simply a male. He professed to several friends and family members that he had received counseling and was required to live as a man before obtaining sex reassignment surgery, which he expressed as his ultimate goal. David Bolkovac, director of the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center at the University of Nebraska who counseled Teena in 1992, acknowledged that “[Brandon] believed she was a man trapped in a woman’s body. She did not identify herself as a lesbian. She believed she was a man.”
At the most basic level, Teena was a female cross-dresser: a woman who dressed like a man. Teena Brandon, a teen-aged girl, was a tomboy from an early age: she refused to wear dresses, played pranks in school, and longed to join the army. Feminists might contend that Teena, like other female-to-male (FTM) transgendered people, resisted the conventional scripts of femininity by employing the mask of masculinity. Because she felt trapped by her female body, Teena dressed like a man and adopted various disciplinary practices to coax her body into virtual maleness. She strapped an Ace bandage around her chest, shaved her face, and stuffed a sock into her jeans. She cross-dressed in order to accede to the privileges of masculinity, and possibly to express her sexual preference for women in a homophobic society. Some feminists have understood Teena as a transgressive woman who performed gender and sexuality as a continuum of practices and behaviors rather than a fixed identity. From this perspective, Brandon Teena radically questioned gender norms, heteronormative society, and the family.
Lotter stated in an interview that one of the regrettable things about prison is that he “misses [my] family.” He concedes that he may very well be executed if he cannot prove his innocence. He insists it was Nissen who pulled the trigger on Teena and two other young people at the house where she lived after the rape. Nissen admitted to the crime but he said it after the 3-year statute of limitations. Frankly I think both of them should be executed. Lotter stated that “the eighth Amendment….prevents cruel and unusual punishment.” Clearly Lotter has forgotten the cruel and unusual punishment he used against Teena the week she died. His self-pity is loathsome. Regardless of whether he pulled the trigger he brutalized a young man who was defenseless against him and Nissen. That alone should place him on death row, no matter what the law states.
In January 1992, Brandon’s mother tricked him into visiting a psychiatrist at Lincoln General Hospital, who diagnosed Teena with a sexual identity crisis. The psychiatrist admitted Teena to a county crisis center, from which he was released three days later on the premise that he did not exhibit suicidal tendencies. The medical community’s handling of Teena’s identity as a form of pathology conforms to its broader objectives to manage or cure that which it deems abnormal. In spite of these prejudiced accusations, JoAnn Brandon, Teena’s mother, was awarded $5000 for wrongful death, $7000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress, $80,000 for “mental suffering” and $6,223.20 for funeral expenses. She seems to have overlooked the fact that Teena had called her after the rape, begging for her help, and JoAnn had refused it. In a biography about Teena’s life, JoAnn’s explanation was that there “had been too many lies,” for her to believe her child and she left Teena at the mercy of her killers.
Twenty years ago, in Humboldt, Nebraska, Brandon Teena had nowhere to run.