In the wake of his tragic suicide last weekend by self-immolation, 60-year-0ld David S. Buckel has been described most often as a “gay rights” lawyer. It would be far more accurate to describe him—as a smaller number of outlets did—as an “LGBT rights” advocate.
Indeed, one of Buckel’s most high-profile and impactful cases during his time at Lambda Legal centered on a young transgender man named Brandon Teena, whose story was featured in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry.
“This was one of the most visible cases that [Buckel] did concerning violence against LGBT people—and it happened at a time when transgender people were even less well-understood than they are now,” Lambda Legal general counsel Hayley Gorenberg, who worked with Buckel for five years, told The Daily Beast. “I think it was absolutely key and critical that we took the case—and that he championed it the way he did.”
Buckel’s sudden death has been shocking for the LGBT community.
As The New York Times and several other outlets reported, the prominent LGBT attorney sent an email to press early Saturday morning before lighting himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. His email referenced air pollution, ending with the statement that “[his] early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Since leaving Lambda Legal, Buckel had become an environmental activist and a coordinator for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s NYC Compost Project.
But although Buckel’s pioneering Lambda Legal work on the issue of same-sex marriage—like bringing civil unions to New Jersey through the 2006 case Lewis v. Harris—may account for some of his most recognizable legal contributions, his work in 2001’s Brandon v. Richardson County has proved to be an especially enduring and impactful piece of transgender advocacy.
It also came at a time when, as Gorenberg told The Daily Beast, “you could still find rampant debate over whether transgender people should be included in the [LGBT] movement, unfortunately.”
“That’s another reason why I think it was so important to work on this case at this time,” she added. “To help put that idea of exclusion to rest.”
Brandon Teena, a young transgender man living in Nebraska, was raped and murdered by two assailants, Thomas Nissen and John Lotter, in December 1993 at age 21.
In the week between being raped and being killed, Teena informed Richardson County Sheriff Charles Laux of the sexual assault he had suffered. But the young transgender man did not get the protection he sought from law enforcement. Instead, Laux committed a shameful dereliction of duty that likely cost Teena his life.
As the Daily Nebraskan reported in 2001, Laux not only asked Teena unnecessarily invasive and “prurient” questions about the rape during an interview—like “Did he play with your breasts or anything?” and “Was he enjoying it?”—he also “notified Nissen and Lotter of the accusation and made no effort to protect Brandon, allowing Lotter and Nissen to find and eventually kill Brandon several days later.”
Brandon Teena’s mother JoAnn Brandon successfully sued Richardson County over Laux’s negligence in 1999 but later had her $80,000 award reduced by 85 percent to a little over $17,000 by a district court judge.
At the time, JoAnn Brandon referred to her transgender son using female pronouns and the mainstream press described Teena as a “cross-dressing woman” or even “a woman who had posed as a man and dated women.”
But an amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and other civil rights groups in the subsequent legal challenge to the award reduction consistently referred to Brandon Teena as he “both to respect his self-identification as male in the last days of his life and to acknowledge the identity for which he was murdered.”
That legal challenge, led by Buckel and initiated in April 2000, asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to hold Laux accountable for his negligence and to restore the financial award. Buckel, according to Gorenberg, played a key role in ensuring a win.
“David was an absolute champion of justice in this case, like so many others that he handled,” she told The Daily Beast. “He had immense compassion and caring.”
The April 2001 decision in Brandon v. Richardson County was a huge success, reversing the 85 percent reduction, reversing the district court judge’s earlier “determination that Laux’s conduct [during the interview] was not extreme and outrageous,” and making it absolutely clear that Brandon Teena was in no way responsible for his own death.
“Based upon the undisputed facts in this case, we determine as a matter of law that Laux’s conduct was extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, and is to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision read.
As Lambda Legal notes on their case website for Brandon v. Richardson County, this 2001 decision was “one of the most important in LGBT history for helping to bring visibility to the transgender community” and it “strengthened the principle that law enforcement officials must be held accountable for fair treatment of people who are the targets of hate crimes.” There was no doubt remaining that Laux had grievously erred.
“I think it did help drive accountability home,” Gorenberg told The Daily Beast. “Taking a high-profile case like this up to the Nebraska Supreme Court to say that a transgender person’s life is not cheap, and fully deserves protection—that was pivotal.”
The issues raised by the Brandon Teena case are all too relevant today. Indeed, Buckel lived to see tremendous progress for the transgender community—but far from enough.
Violence against the transgender community, as well as the issue of trust between law enforcement and transgender victims of crimes, both remain pressing problems in 2018, even though huge strides in visibility and acceptance have been made since the time when Brandon Teena was seen as a “cross-dressing woman.”
Lambda Legal found in their community survey “Protected and Served?” that transgender respondents were not only much more likely than cisgender respondents to report abuse and harassment at the hands of police, they were also more likely to have their complaints about crimes ignored by law enforcement.
According to the survey: “52 percent of transgender respondents, compared to 33 percent of cisgender respondents, felt police did not fully address a complaint about sexual assault.”
The Brandon v. Richardson County decision helped establish that law enforcement can’t ignore victims because they are LGBT—and along with the case of slain Wyoming gay man Matthew Shepard, it helped establish our current understanding of anti-LGBT hate crimes.
But no single court ruling can stop transphobic violence, nor rid all police officers of prejudice. What a decision like the Nebraska Supreme Court’s can do is help catalyze and fuel a movement that continues to this day.
Buckel worked on addressing anti-LGBT violence throughout his time at Lambda Legal, with Gorenberg calling the creation of “landmark law” in that area “a through-line of his career.”
In the 1996 case Nabozny v. Podlesny, for example, Buckel scored what Lambda Legal called in their tribute to the departed attorney a “landmark victory” for a bullied gay teenager, marking “the first time a federal court had ever held that schools have an obligation to prevent anti-gay bullying.”
According to Gorenberg, Buckel would be the first to recognize how much further transgender rights—and LGBT rights in general—have left to go.
“He was intensely intelligent and driven to serve our clients,” she recalled. “I think that no matter what any of us did, including David—that in his view it was probably never enough, nor should it have been because there was always more to do.”