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Rereading sex, identity, and violence: police sensitivity or brutality?

Sheriff Laux: When he pulled your pants down, did he fondle you?

Brandon: No

Sheriff Laux: No? Doesn't that amaze you? Doesn't that get your attention, doesn't it seem like he would put his hands inside you and play with you a little bit? I can't believe that.

Brandon: Well he didn't.

Sheriff Laux: Huh. I can't believe that he pulled your pants down and you are a female that he didn't stick his hand in you or his finger in you.

Brandon: Well he didn't.

Sheriff Laux: Can't believe he didn't. [28]

Brandon Teena was murdered on New Year's Eve 1994 in Falls City, Nebraska. Deputy Sheriff Jon Larson describes Falls City as a small town with a high degree of intolerance for difference and a disproportionately high incidence of domestic violence. Within this town, John Lotter and Tom Nissen were well known among law enforcement officials; both had previously served time in prison on various criminal charges. On December 24, 1993, one week before murdering Brandon Teena, Lotter and Nissen raped and assaulted her, and then threatened to 'permanently silence' her if she disclosed the incident to anyone.

For Sheriff Laux, Brandon Teena was a depraved, pathological, and dehumanized 'other.' On one level, Brandon was, for Laux, female; hence the questions that he asked during Brandon's oral statement: why did she dress like a man? Why did she pull her pants down for those boys? Why didn't Lotter and Nissen stick anything inside of her when they pulled down her pants and exposed her genitals? Why did she kiss girls? [29] From Laux's perspective, Brandon was ultimately a liar who "pulled the wool over everyone's eyes." Why should he take her rape accusation seriously? Laux asks this question implicitly, by failing to promptly issue arrest warrants for Nissen and Lotter on suspicion of rape and battery. And he asks this question even though he was apparently unable to conceive of Brandon's female genitals without something stuck inside of them, without some attempt at male penetration. I want to focus here on the female genitals, particularly as they are evoked in the above-referenced exchange between Brandon and Sheriff Laux. As I hope to show, conflicting versions of this exchange lead to significantly different conclusions about police sensitivity to rape allegations and to their duty to protect the lives of endangered citizens.

In Boys Don't Cry, the above-mentioned exchange between Brandon and Sheriff Laux is presented as part of a spliced, hence discontinuous, chronology. When the film first depicts Brandon's oral statement to Sheriff Laux, the audience knows only that Brandon has been beaten by Lotter and Nissen. Within Boys Don't Cry, Sheriff Laux's questions (cited above) imply a suspicion that Brandon has not only been beaten, but raped as well. His words seem to solicit testimony to this effect. As audience members, we slowly learn, through the filmic devices of flashback and decoupage, that Brandon has indeed been both beaten and raped. The film's jump cut techniques lead us to believe that it is Sheriff Laux's questioning that compels Brandon to report his rape.

Case documents from the trial in the US District Court for the District of Nebraska show the course of events in a slightly different light. The judges' summary of facts in the case indicates that when Brandon spoke with Sheriff Laux at approximately 3:40 PM on December 25, 1993, he had already provided a three-page written statement of the rape and battery to another police officer, Deputy Sheriff Tom Olberding, earlier that day. The judicial account of Brandon's discussion with Sheriff Laux—culled from Brandon's written and oral police statements—indicates no time lapse between Brandon's report of the genital exposure, battery, and rape. Instead, case documents indicate that Brandon verbally relayed to the sheriff the entire series of events, including the forced exposure of his genitals and his subsequent rape and battery. [30] Furthermore, legal documents show that before he filed his report at the Falls City Police Station, Brandon visited the Falls City Hospital emergency room. There, an on-duty nurse discussed the assault with Brandon and collected fingernail samples as evidence for a state-mandated rape kit. In connection with the rape and Brandon's willingness to report it to the police, the hospital forwarded their medical report to the police station. [31]

In The Brandon Teena Story's account of this incident, Brandon visited the county hospital on the morning of December 25, 1993, in order to receive medical treatment for injuries sustained during battery and assault. Hospital authorities contacted Police Chief Hammerling about the assault, and Hammerling arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter with an evidence collection kit. After questioning Brandon about the assault, Hammerling confirmed with attending physicians that Brandon's injuries were consistent with rape, and he decided to launch an investigation rather than to immediately apprehend Lotter and Nissen. Later that day, Brandon Teena filed written and oral statements about the assault with Sheriffs Laux and Olberding. The sheriffs knew the identities and whereabouts of both suspects, yet failed to issue a warrant for their arrest.

During Brandon's murder trial, Sheriff Olberding testified that he had believed Brandon Teena's allegations. Based on his belief in the credibility of Brandon's testimony, he and Laux called the suspects in to the police station for questioning on December 28, 1993. At the station, Nissen confessed that Lotter had raped Brandon, although Lotter denied this allegation. Both suspects were subsequently released. Later that day, Olberding communicated to his boss, Sheriff Laux, that he had decided to issue an arrest warrant for the two suspects based on corroborating evidence. Laux advised him against this course of action, and urged him to file a police report instead. A few days later, when Brandon's sister called Laux to ask why he had not arrested the two suspects, Laux replied that the investigation was 'under his control' and quickly ended their conversation. During his brief investigation, Sheriff Laux called Brandon's girlfriend's mother into the police station for questioning. When she fumbled over the appropriate usage of gender pronouns (he/she) with which to describe Brandon, Laux advised her to "just call it an it." [32]

The Brandon Teena Story follows Brandon's oral testimony with an interview of suspect John Lotter, who admits that his friend, Nissen, placed his finger inside Brandon's vagina after pulling down her pants. By juxtaposing Laux's line of inquiry with Lotter's account of what 'really' happened, the documentary sheds new light on Laux's tactics. The Sheriff's questions express disbelief that a male quest to determine Brandon's true identity would be satisfied by simply seeing Brandon's genitals. Instead, Laux insinuates that Lotter and Nissen would need to touch or otherwise penetrate the female genitals to fully verify the 'truth' of Brandon's sexual identity. In this respect, the documentary allows us to read Laux's line of questioning as something other than a 'sensitive' attempt to extract testimony from a hesitant rape victim. Instead, the documentary situates Laux's questions within a Freudian psychoanalytical context that equates the body with the 'truth' of gender identity; constructs the female genitals as 'nothing to see'; and imagines female sexuality as a 'dark continent' whose depths must be plumbed by male exploration and expertise.

As evidenced below in an excerpt from The Brandon Teena Story, Laux's questions betray several assumptions about the sexual identity of Brandon Teena:

Sheriff Laux: Did he have trouble getting it in you? You say that you're 21 and you've never had sex. Is that true? Was he able to get all the way inside you? [repeats several times]...Did Lotter seem to take awhile? Did he have a hard time getting it up? Did you work it up for him?

In this exchange, Laux assumes that Brandon is lying about his virginity. As a result, he expresses disbelief that the rapists would have experienced any 'barriers' to penetration (such as Brandon's intact hymen). Even more strikingly, Laux suggests that this was not rape at all; instead, it could only have been a consensual sex act in which Brandon freely participated. [33] His comments echo those expressed by several of the men interviewed in Timothy Beneke's study of male attitudes toward rape. In Beneke's study, many rapists believed that women enjoy rape because "all sex is pleasurable." According to this formulation, the male-defined pleasurability of sex renders female consent irrelevant. Similarly, Laux's questions construe Brandon's consent as negligible. For Sheriff Laux, Brandon's identity is simultaneously woman-and-not-woman; 'it' is inhuman, debased and sexually depraved. Because Brandon is an 'it' with deviant sexual predilections, his consent to any sexual act is unimportant to Sheriff Laux.

By insisting on differences between the filmic representations and legal accounts of Brandon's story, I do not mean to suggest that the underreporting of rape and sexual assault is not a widespread phenomenon. Nor would I deny that Brandon was most likely hesitant to report his rape, especially in light of his 'closeted' sexual identity. But a close reading of these divergent representations of Brandon's police statement makes possible a more sophisticated analysis of the intersections between sexuality, violence, and gender identity in this case.