The Lauryn Paige Fuller Story
Of Murder and the Gender Continuum ...
By Jordan Smith
FEBRUARY 21, 2000: It's just weeks before Christmas, but outside it feels like spring. The sky is clear and bright, and there is a south wind whisking through the trees outside the Travis County Courthouse. Upstairs, in Judge John Wisser's 299th District Court, a pretrial hearing in the case of State of Texas v. Gamaliel Mireles Coria has just ended. The 28-year-old murder defendant sits next to his attorney, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, at the defense table, a distant look in his intense brown eyes. He doesn't show much emotion at all really, aside from recoiling nervously when several journalists begin taking notes, snapping pictures, and collecting footage for the evening news. The hearing was short, not even 10 minutes in duration, because final DNA tests the state requested last spring still aren't in. Preliminary results, though, indicate that blood found on defendant Coria's clothing and in the white conversion van he was driving on January 7 and 8, 1999, match the blood of the victim, 18-year-old Donald Scott Fuller.
Wisser schedules another hearing for early the following week. He really wants to get this case moving along, he says, which to date, it hasn't been. He has said this all summer. Finally, though, it seems a trial date is set: March 16, 2000, one year and three months after the beaten and bloody body of Fuller was found barely hidden beneath some brush outside the entrance to the Tokyo Electron Corporation in Southeast Austin. There were more than 60 stab wounds on Fuller, including a two-inch-deep slashing stab wound just above the young man's rectum and a nine-inch-long slice to his neck -- the wound that ultimately killed him -- which opened him up from Adam's apple to spinal cord.
Outside the courthouse near 11th Street, two people sit on a bench, talking in hushed tones. The man is young with streaked blond hair and a baby face, the woman older and solemn, a look of distrust in her blue eyes. She is Fuller's mother, and she doesn't want to talk to reporters about her son's death. "I don't have anything to say," she repeats when asked, and to her baby-faced friend, "Is that the one that you and Dixie have been talking to?" Just then a couple holding a toddler leave the courthouse. Minutes before, in the courtroom, defendant Coria made a lilting head gesture to the same couple, hunkered in the rear of the courtroom. While the couple denies knowing Coria when asked, their claim is belied when they drive by Mrs. Fuller in the same white conversion van that her son's blood was found in. "That's the van," she says just over the breeze. It is the first time she has engaged the reporter that has been imploring her for an interview.
"They're still driving around in that van."
The murder of Donald Scott Fuller was the first of 1999 in Austin and a particularly gruesome one at that. For some reason, not much has ever been made of it -- which seems odd. How could it come to pass that a teenage boy would be brutally murdered in Austin, Texas, and no one would even ask why? The answer, though neither polite nor "politically correct," seems simple enough: By living his life openly as a transsexual woman, Fuller lived outside the parameters of what most of society considers acceptable. Perhaps for society, the easiest way to deal with something so uncomfortable is to not.
Out of sight, out of mind.
To a few, like gender identity specialist and licensed master social worker Katy Koonce, this type of denial ensures that it is just a matter of time before a crime as heinous and as specifically targeted as this will happen again. Koonce, who works with Waterloo Counseling Services, says that for years transsexuals have been marginalized and disregarded, even by the gay community. And she cites research reporting that as much as 3% of the total U.S. population has questions regarding their gender identity. The Fuller case brings a simmering issue to full boil, and the only way to understand it and to keep it from happening again, says Koonce, is to confront it head on. In this case, it means asking what led up to Fuller's fateful last night and, perhaps more importantly, why he was murdered.
After the white conversion van passes, Fuller's mother, Kathy, falls into a brief lament about her son, forgetting for a moment that she's talking to a reporter. She smiles reflectively and chuckles slightly under her breath.
"He always wore my slippers and carried my purse," she says. "He didn't like trucks or to dig in the dirt. I mean, my god, he might break a nail. He was my son -- my daughter. It didn't matter which. He was a sweet kid."
"[Fuller] kept saying [to Coria], 'Be my boyfriend,'" says Dixie. "She kept saying, 'Oh, do you have a girlfriend? You're so cute and if you were my boyfriend I'd give you all my money' and stuff like that." According to Dixie, Fuller and Coria spent most of the time in the rear of the van having sex. At about 6am, Dixie was ready to get home. "I don't do coke," she says. "It was late. I was ready to go home." They drove back to Dixie's. "I told Lauryn, 'Let's go,'" she says. "But she kept saying, 'Girl, let me finish him.' I told her I loved her." And then Dixie went into her house and went to bed.
The van drove off.
According to a police affidavit sworn by Frank Santos and filed by Austin Police Homicide Detective Brian Manley, the next stop the van made was at Santos' Southeast Austin apartment, where he was dropped off. Coria and Fuller went on alone.
At 12:46pm, January 8, Fuller's body was found underneath some brush near the entrance of Tokyo Electron Corporation by one of the company's employees. Five days later, 28-year-old Coria was arrested by Manley and charged with the murder of Donald Scott Fuller. Coria is still in jail, unable to post the $1 million bond.
The murder was brutal. APD Commander Gary Olfers described it as "sadistic" to the Austin American-Statesman on January 13, the day Coria was arrested. Performing Fuller's autopsy, Travis County Medical Examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo cataloged 14 blows to Fuller's head and at least 60 knife wounds. "It was an overkill," said Bayardo after reviewing the autopsy report in his office in early May. "But that is typical in these sexual killing cases. This is what happens in crimes of passion."
It was a murder that received scant media attention, but which galvanized the activist gay community, and specifically the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, into a march, as part of their show of support for several anti-discrimination bills pending before the 76th Legislature -- including the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act. The Byrd Act died in the Senate just before session's close.
"We wanted to rally around Fuller's death and to say we need to protect our youth," says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of LGRL. "The tragedy of Scott Fuller is, again, the tragedy of kids who don't fit in anywhere -- and it happens too often with gay and trans kids," says Hardy-Garcia. "The one thing I kept thinking about was how did this kid end up on the streets to begin with?"
This same question gives Katy Koonce, arguably Austin's resident gender expert, a feeling of dread at how many more gender-questioning youth might be falling through the cracks. Koonce, who runs the Gender Continuum Support Group at Waterloo Counseling Services, offers up statistics from the 1997 book Transgender Care, published by Temple University Press, which indicates that 75% of gender-variant individuals say their identity caused serious problems during their high school years.
"Because we don't have any anti-discrimination policies in place," says Koonce, "they drop out [of school] and spin into a cycle of poverty: drugs, streets, club scenes -- and that's a horrible legacy." Add to it, she says, that gender-variant individuals have had a hard time being accepted by the larger gay community and activists, and the picture of a marginalized stepchild emerges. "They tack on 'transgender' and say, 'our doors are open,' but they're really not pursuing anything about it," says Koonce, perched on a sofa in Waterloo's offices.
"When thinking about these issues it is important to remember that sexuality is what you are and gender is who you are," asserts Koonce. "Identity is yours: You have to find it and shape it for yourself."
According to Fuller's friends, it was the family's uneasiness with Fuller as Lauryn that made him not want to spend much time at home. "She would tell me," says Dixie, "'I just don't want to go home because I'll have to hide who I am.'"
Fuller dropped out of high school after failing his freshman year twice. Counselors at Out Youth, an Austin support center for gay youth, have related stories Fuller told them about being stuffed in his locker by fellow students at Johnston High School as part of being ridiculed for being "gay." And he wasn't making much progress studying for his General Educational Development certificate (GED), at least partially because he suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.D.). Add to this equation that Fuller had just begun injecting black-market female hormones from Mexico -- to soften his appearance and aid in body development -- without any doctor's supervision, and the image of a boy on a serious downward spiral emerges.
It wasn't as if Fuller's demise occurred overnight. Indeed, he lived out his confusion for at least three years in Austin, and even reached out for attention and help, which he found, at least to some degree, in the places where he felt most "at home": Out Youth, a nonprofit support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and gender-questioning youth; the Forum nightclub at Fourth & Congress and the now-defunct Area 52 dance club on Colorado Street, where he performed in the weekly drag shows; and on the streets with other gay and transsexual youth, where he turned tricks for money.
From these three very different social scenes, Fuller drew support. Most who were close to him, however, agree that the troubled young man did not receive the attention and guidance he needed. These same friends are at a loss as to what else they could have done.
The KidsThe home of Out Youth is a nondescript pea-green house with a long front porch and a neatly clipped St. Augustine yard. On any given Wednesday night, you'll find a gaggle of teens congregating in the back yard, or inside the air-conditioned house lounging on one of the couches. Out Youth's Executive Director Gail Goodman sits with one leg cocked over the arm of a beige easy chair as she talks about her experiences with Fuller. Goodman, who began working at Out Youth as a volunteer in 1995, became its executive director in 1998.
"It's a safe place for these kids to come, to get support, to know there are other people who are like them. That they aren't alone," says Goodman. "When [Fuller] came here, he was dealing with a lot of rejection," she says. "We couldn't do enough for him. We literally put in hundreds of hours counseling him, but when you have 50 kids and one of them needs way beyond what you can do. -- He was one of a population that is really underserved."
Out Youth volunteers Kelly Luksovsky and Oen Ritley agree that Fuller needed extra attention, a fact that was complicated by his A.D.D. "He was one of our special cases, one of our special-needs kids -- that's the PC way of saying it -- but he needed a lot of attention," says Luksovsky. "His A.D.D. played a big part in his life and got him into trouble. He didn't have a very effective support system, so we were trying to make up for what he lacked in his life." And, according to both volunteers, paying attention to Fuller was often something they liked to do. Ritley says Fuller was always enthusiastic: He helped organize the 1996 AIDS walk and went to the University of Texas' School of Social Work and spoke to students about his experiences. "He was searching and looking at life and trying to deal with all the changes and finding identity," says Ritley, "and he just had a harder time with it." Fuller's search, agree the volunteers, was further complicated by his dropping out of school. "He was very unhappy at school. He was picked on a lot and had a hard time learning," says Luksovsky. "We tried to talk him out of dropping out. Then we tried to get him to get his GED, but he was going through so much in his life -- I mean, when you're wondering whether you are a man or a woman, arithmetic doesn't really matter."
By mid-1998, Fuller had stopped going to Out Youth. He was arrested for "lewdness" on South Congress and spent a while in the Del Valle juvenile facility. In October 1998, Ritley ran into Fuller near a bus stop on South First Street. "I asked him if he was going to start coming again [to Out Youth], and he just sort of shrugged his shoulders," he says. "A lot of people he knew at Out Youth were gone by then; they were in college or had jobs. I think he felt like he was being left behind."
Luksovsky and Ritley both feel that Fuller had a lot of potential: He was clever, helpful, and good-natured. "That was what was so frustrating from a volunteer standpoint," says Luksovsky. "I think that was one of the things that hurt the most: Here he was finally understanding who he was, and before he got a chance to explore it, he was killed." News of Fuller's murder delivered a startling blow to the volunteers and kids at Out Youth. "I don't know much about the family," Luksovsky says. "I think they tried their best, just like we tried our best, and in the end, quite frankly, it wasn't good enough because he's gone. I think in the push-pull he finally lost.
"I don't think that he knew, even as he was dying, what was going on," says Luksovsky. "In a broader sense, I don't think he knew he was self-destructing."
Goodman concludes that Out Youth needs to do a better job of providing gender-questioning youth the resources they need. Last year, according to Goodman, nine kids openly identified themselves as transgendered or transsexual in the Out Youth registry. "But not one of them is here today," she says. "Obviously we need to be doing more.
"You know, once someone has been rejected at home, but also if they're majorly rejected at school, then they're out on the street and everything changes," says Goodman. "Because once they're on the street, it's all about survival. How do you survive? Prostitution and drugs."
The ClubsIt's a good idea to empty your bladder before entering the Forum night club for the evening. The bathroom designations for men and women don't really mean anything, and on any given night, the stalls might be populated with people snorting crank or couples having sex. The Forum, located near the corner of Congress & Fourth, one of a number of hot gay clubs in Austin's trendy Warehouse District, serves as a locus and stage for Austin's drag community. While some of the club's drag show performers are traditional, gone are the days when men were men and merely dressed as women; the lines today are much more open and blurry. Likewise, the performances reflect a highly competitive culture, with more emphasis on beauty, glamour, and femininity. Transsexuals are held in high regard and doted on by a number of the gay male clientele, who offer free drinks, drugs, and sometimes a place to sleep for the night. Another striking aspect of the Forum clientele is that it's young. The largest segment of this young crowd begins flooding through the Forum's doors just before midnight, and the party doesn't stop until the club closes at 4am. Each evening, a deejay spins a cornucopia of driving dance tunes. Scantily clad bodies pack the dance floor and create a wave of motion beneath pulsing, multicolored lights.
Behind a nondescript black door in the rear of the establishment, Kelly Kline and Paris Channel are putting the finishing touches on their make-up and hair and getting into character to perform in this particular Thursday evening's divine attraction, the popular Forum drag show. They are elegant, sequined, and graceful as they take the stage. The crowd goes wild as they vamp and lip-sync under DJ Philthy Rich's choreographed lights. Channel even throws a cartwheel or two into his routine for good measure, and this drives the audience crazy.
Kline and Channel are both veteran performers in Austin's drag scene. Kline, who is transsexual, began her performing career in Brownsville 10 years ago "on a dare. -- And I was good," she adds over breakfast at the IHOP on Cesar Chavez. "I feel it is a God-given talent that I have." Two years later Kline moved to Austin. She works two day jobs -- in a bank doing international customer relations, and as a department store make-up artist -- and performs five nights a week. From 9 to 5 Kline dresses as a man, which is still ultimately her physical sex, because she knows the public -- and employers -- discriminate based on gender identity.
"I like to break the stereotypes. I don't believe in prostitution, so I work my butt off," says Kline. Her determination and strength are infectious. In many ways Kline, 27, serves as a role model and mentor to Austin's gender-questioning youth. "They call me Mom," she says.
It was almost two years ago that Kline met Fuller at the Forum. "She was dumbfounded," Kline says. "She thought I was so beautiful." After that, Fuller called Kline seeking help and advice about breaking into performing. "I like to help the newcomers. I encourage them to do it," she continues. "It really is a safe scene. Ru Paul has made a big difference by being everywhere. If she can be accepted, why can't we?"
Kline began to help Fuller with make-up techniques, wigs, dresses, and movement coaching. "I taught her how to do it, and she felt on top of the world," she remembers. "And she looked really good."
Kline tells how she encouraged Fuller to do a LeAnn Rimes number on stage. "I always told her she looked like LeAnn Rimes," she says. "[Rimes] sang that song, 'How Can I Live Without You?' It was really popular about a year back," she says as, ironically, the song begins to pipe out of the IHOP's dining room speakers at that very moment. "That's it! That's the song!"
Paris Channel, the stage name for the 28-year-old hairdresser-by-day, dancer-by-night, also remembers the first time Fuller performed as a woman. "She went out and her number started and she turned and her hair flew off," he laughs. "But the next week she got right into it -- she was never one to quit at something like that."
Channel, who began performing in drag 10 years ago, mostly for AIDS benefits, identifies as male and dresses as a woman "for entertainment purposes only," but says that a lot of the kids in the scene have serious gender identity questions or identify as transgender or transsexual. "I think she needed someone to help her understand that she is fine -- who she is and what she is doing is all right," he says.
Both Channel and Kline realize they serve as mentors to many of the club kids; neither of them approves of the prostitution, and they make it known. "My parents were always concerned about where I was. I'm overwhelmed by how [parents] could allow their kids to run off and do stuff like that," says Channel. "After so many times [prostituting, the kids] get used to it. I don't think she ever thought that she might actually lose her life."
Kline's stance on prostitution -- and the tack she took with Fuller -- was even more stern. "She always called me Mom, and I didn't care until I saw her standing on the corner. I said no hookers can call me Mom. I told her flat-out, and she was upset, she got mad at me," she remembers. "She said, 'But this is all I know.'"
Kline knows finding work can be difficult for gender-variant individuals, but she thinks it is compounded in the kids by their general lack of maturity and self-esteem. She adds that "employers look at them [as] androgynous. Overall appearance is a big factor, so they don't get the jobs."
Kline says Fuller told her that he didn't have to "sleep" with his customers, that he could steal money from them after he finished performing oral sex. "I'm like, when they catch you, they're going to kick your ass in or kill you. That's exactly what I told her."
After Kline reprimanded Fuller, she didn't see him for over a month. She was pleasantly surprised when, walking through Barton Creek Square mall one afternoon, she ran into Fuller, who had recently gotten a job as a mall janitor. The two talked for nearly two hours that afternoon, and Kline finally asked Fuller if she was still working the streets. Fuller complained that she didn't make enough money working at the mall to live on. "She said she needed more for make-up and stuff, and I said call me and I'll give you whatever I have that I'm not using anymore. I said I'd rather give it to you than have you hustle for it," she says. "She cried and cried."
The StreetIn half an hour, a tan Cadillac passes the side entrance of the Bel Air Motel four times, while down the street, a black-overall-clad blond woman walks past the Texan Market four times, swinging a small black purse. Hers is a jaunty walk, unafraid. Congress Avenue, south of Oltorf Street, is a fairly quiet place at 4am on a Friday night -- a good hour past the 2-3am traffic that pours onto the street from the parking lot of the Exposé "gentleman's club." It is this section of Congress that made hand-in-the-hooker-jar Texas Senator Drew Nixon a household name in the capital city. For the same reason, this stretch of Congress has patterns of foot and car traffic in the wee hours of morning, which only become apparent to those who frequent or steadily observe its action. This is the section of Congress Avenue that Fuller worked as Lauryn Paige the night he was killed.
Dixie says she and Lauryn always tried to work together on the streets -- a kind of buddy system: It was their MO. While Dixie admits she had already been providing favors for money to men she met at the clubs, she says it was a chance conversation with a street veteran that propelled her and Lauryn out into the night. "We were broke, and we met a prostitute who said we could make all this money and how easy it was, so we went," she says matter-of-factly. "Then we depended on the money. We couldn't handle the slow money anymore." Dixie -- who has been living as a woman since the age of 17 -- knows how hard it can be to find a day job.
In the summer of 1997, Dixie had a job as a cashier in the third floor cafeteria of the Stokes Building -- ironically or not, the Stokes Building is also home to the Travis County District Attorney's offices. According to Dixie, the cafeteria's "big boss" had received complaints from the cafeteria customers about her appearance. "They didn't like my long hair or my nails," she remembers. "The customers had been complaining." The options were to dress like a man or not work there.
Dixie left. "I've tried so hard to act like a man," she says.
Dixie reiterates that it was the "easy" money that drove her to the street. For Lauryn, she says, the seduction of the street was not only the money but the attention. "I knew she was depressed deep down. I'd say the majority of my friends are not happy and do not have that support [of their families], and it hurts so much because you're stuck," she explains. "Either you do what you do, and they're unhappy. Or you do what they want, and you're miserable. Either way, somebody gets hurt. I think that's exactly what happened to Lauryn."
Dixie's voice falters when recounting a conversation her mom had with Lauryn the week before she was killed. "She told my mom that she just didn't want to be here anymore." she remembers. "But she had just begun taking the [female] hormones; they make you so emotional, I thought it was just that."
Dixie remembers that, on occasion, Lauryn would go out onto the street alone and, when she came home with money in her pocket, would be elated. "But it was just covering up. Basically it was about survival."
Out Youth's Luksovsky, who had only heard rumors that Fuller was working the streets as Lauryn, said he could see how Fuller could have been drawn into it. "He was in desperate need of attention," he offers. "There is some guilt involved with that: We really tried hard with him, but I think he was really seeking attention any way he could get it."
Kelly Kline shares a similar view of Fuller's prostitution activities: "A lot of the girls [hooking] want to meet someone who will take them away. That's what Lauryn always said. She wanted a fairy-tale thing: that she'd meet someone that would tell her what to do, and she'd be on her way. The Pretty Woman thing -- but that doesn't happen to anyone."
The Morning AfterDixie's voice is flustered when she talks about the night Fuller was killed. "I've been doing this a long time, and I can pick up on vibes," she hesitates. "But besides him [Coria] being quiet, I didn't get any at all." Dixie's recollection reveals a sadness, and that she might be haunted by the possibilities: that if she'd just done something differently -- if she had picked up on a vibe -- or had insisted Fuller go home with her -- none of this would've happened.
Apparently, Dixie's parents only learned of her involvement in street prostitution as a result of Fuller's murder. They gave Dixie an ultimatum: Cut it out or get out. The decision was easy: Her best friend had been murdered. "I don't hang out in the scene anymore," she asserts. "I am trying to live my life as a straight female -- not a transsexual who hangs out in the gay scene."
As for the rest of the community, Fuller's shocking murder has propelled Katy Koonce's Gender Continuum at Waterloo Counseling and Out Youth into a new alliance -- one that Koonce hopes will be a big step toward effective support for gender-questioning youth. "My group was really angry [that in accounts of the murder] he was called 'gay youth,'" she relates. "Sexuality and gender are different.
"So we talked about what the youth need. They wanted to know what's being done for the youth," says Koonce. Koonce and Gail Goodman of Out Youth have put together a new program which debuted at the end of June, where Koonce went in to talk to the Out Youth kids about gender identity issues. Koonce said the event went well, and that several kids came forward and openly admitted gender identity questions.
Goodman and Out Youth have initiated a program to do outreach in area schools. "We're getting out there and educating the teachers and guidance counselors about gay/lesbian and transgender issues," says Goodman. The campaign is going better than expected, she says.
Interestingly enough, on January 18, 1999, ironically, within two weeks of Fuller's death, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released a guide for use among school personnel in addressing discrimination and hate crimes in schools.
Perhaps the chill is thawing when it comes to openness and discussion regarding gender identity. Fuller's murder has people wondering how they can keep any more kids from falling through the cracks.
Fuller's body was cremated in early January because, according to Fuller's mother Kathy, as reported in the daily on January 14, "We couldn't have dressed him in a wig like a female, and it was the only way he would have wanted to be presented," she said. "We brought the ashes home. He's finally at rest."
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