By Daniel Jeon
Brandon Teena was born Teena Renae Brandon in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1972. Brandon was born a female but was described as a tomboy since early childhood. Eventually Brandon was cross-dressing as a boy and attracted other girls. He desperately sought a sex-change operation to become a male. Brandon often got into trouble with the law and moved to Falls City, Nebraska in 1993 to start a new life as a man. He became acquainted with Lisa Lambert, Lana Tisdel whom he dated, and ex-convicts John Lotter and Tom Nissen. When Brandon got into legal trouble again he was placed in a holding cell with other females. When Lotter, who also dated Lana Tisdel, and Nissen found out that Brandon was actually a female, they became furious and disgusted. The ex-convicts forcibly confronted Brandon to get the truth. When it was revealed that Brandon was a female, Lotter and Nissen forced Brandon to a secluded area and raped him. Although Brandon reported the incident to the police, they took no action despite the threat of Brandon to be “silenced permanently” if word spread. When Lotter and Nissen found out that Brandon went to the police, they found him in Lisa Lambert’s house where the ex-convicts proceeded to kill Brandon, Lisa, and another friend who was staying with Lisa.
Brandon Teena was a gender non-conforming American trans man. As a female-to-male (FTM) transgender person, Teena’s life exposed the potential consequences of a non-normative gender identity. Brandon Teena seemed to be gender non-conforming in more than one way. For one, despite being born a female, he seemed to describe himself as a hermaphrodite: an individual with both male and female reproductive organs. In the movie Boys Don’t Cry, Lana Tisdel visits Brandon in jail. Brandon explains that it “sounds a lot more complicated than it is” and ultimately confesses “I’m a hermaphrodite… it’s a person who has both girl and boy parts” (Movie Transcript). In a more definitive way, he clearly projected himself as simply a male, with “sex reassignment surgery” being his “ultimate goal” (Eileraas). In 1992, David Bolkovac, director of the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center at the University of Nebraska, treated and counseled Brandon for his gender identity crisis. Bolkovac ultimately acknowledged that “Brandon believed she was a man trapped in a woman’s body” and that Brandon “did not identify herself as a lesbian” but “she believed she was a man” (Eileraas). Furthermore, Brandon cross-dressed as man and adopted practices to “coax her body into virtual maleness” (Eileraas). To suppress her femininity, she “strapped Ace bandages around her chest, shaved her face, and stuffed a sock into her jeans” (Eileraas). Brandon also viewed women from a man’s angle. Brandon’s mother once asked him if he was a lesbian and his reply was “that’s disgusting. I can’t be with a woman that way. I love them the way a man does. It’s like I’m really a man trapped inside this body” (Konigsberg, 92). Because of his strong expression towards women from a man’s perspective, it is safe to say that he was not a “closeted” lesbian.
The series of events leading up to the murder of Brandon Teena revolved around and was contained in an ultra-conservative state of Nebraska. Deputy Sheriff Jon Larson’s description of Falls City and Nebraska in general hinted at the dominant understanding of gender and sexuality during Brandon’s life. Larson described it as a place of “high degree of intolerance for difference”, which implied that anyone who was gender non-conforming, cross-dressing, homophobic, bisexual, or not strictly a male or female would be a malicious target (Eileraas). Another Sheriff, Charles Laux, who took the oral report from Brandon after John Lotter and Tom Nissen had assaulted and raped him, described Brandon as a “depraved, pathological, and dehumanized ‘other’” (Eileraas). Laux failed to arrest Lotter and Nissen even though both were suspects because Laux didn’t trust Brandon since he lied to everyone about his gender. Sheriff Laux also didn’t believe that Lotter and Nissen would pull down Brandon’s pants and not “fondle” or “put his hand in [Brandon’s] pants” (Joann Brandon v. Richardson County). The failure to issue an arrest warrant for Lotter and Nissen is even more magnified because Brandon visited the Falls City Hospital emergency room and had fingernail samples collected for evidence BEFORE Brandon even filed the report to the Police Station. The authorities also treated Brandon poorly by asking him crude and unnecessary questions. Instead of interviewing Brandon, Sheriff Laux’s questions probed Brandon’s gender identity by asking why Brandon interacted more with females than males. Furthermore, following his murder, media coverage of Brandon’s death completely tarnished any dignity and respect that he had. Brandon’s non-conformity to his biological sex and genitalia combined with the fact that people viewed Brandon’s gender identity as misaligned and therefore a “construction of trickery and cunning.” The media deemed Brandon “deceitful” (Eileraas). Newspaper headlines read “Death of a deceiver”, “Deadly Deception: Teena Brandon’s Double Life May Have Led to a Triple Murder” and “Cross-Dresser Killed Two Weeks After Town Learned Her True Identity” to name only a few (Eileraas). It is evident that the media portrayed Brandon’s gender identity crisis and the fact that he cross-dressed as the pure causes of his death. Also, journalist Eric Konigsberg, in Death of a Deceiver: Teena Renee Brandon, evokes the “easy truth” of Brandon’s deceit: “Teena Renee Brandon’s mystery was over the moment her body was discovered, facedown on a bed in a farmhouse in Humboldt, Nebraska” (Konigsberg, 92). In addition, author Judith Butler discusses a “cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible” where certain identities simply cannot exist (Butler, 17). In other words, only masculinity and femininity were accepted as possible avenues of gender identification. Anything aside and out of the binary sexual identification was “invisible, impossible, deviant, and/or deceitful” (Eileraas). Society at the time simply had no regard for non-binary identities and viciously rejected Brandon’s gender non-conformity.
Brandon Teena’s TGI status greatly impacted his life. The inevitable consequence of his TGI status prompted a life filled with lies and deceit. Brandon had to keep his periods hidden so no one would find out. He had to get dressed with bands to flatten his chest, socks for his pants, and go up against men with inferior strength. Brandon went against social norms and continued cross-dressing while dating another female. Brandon’s life before and after exposure of his biological sex was completely different. Before people knew, he was a female to male cross-dresser and seemed to hide his biological sex well. After the exposure, it seemed like the world was against him. Most of his acquaintances turned against him, Lotter and Nissen especially. If they didn’t turn against him, they were speechless and shocked to say the very least. Even the police failed to aid Brandon. It in fact could have been police brutality because by not arresting John Lotter and Tom Nissen, the police left the door open for additional assault and rape of Brandon. Ultimately, Brandon’s status as a trans man was enough for Lotter and Nissen to murder him. When Joann Brandon, the mother of Teena Brandon, challenged Richardson County for failing to protect Brandon, Chief Justice John Hendry pointed out that Sheriff Laux’s inability to provide protection for Brandon was “extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency” (Joann Brandon v. Richardson County). Although JoAnn Brandon won multiple cases on behalf of Brandon, the impact of Brandon’s TGI status showed that as in the case with Sheriff Laux, the law could be bent and ignored.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990)
- Eric Konigsberg, "Death of a Deceiver: Teena Renee Brandon," Playboy 42. 1 (January 1995)
- Jo Ann Brandon v. The County of Richardson, Nebraska
- Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993)
- Karina Eileraas, The Brandon Teena Story: Rethinking the Body, Gender Identity, and Violence Against Women (Michigan: University of Michigan, 2002)