Who was Brandon Teena? (1972-1993)

January 20, 2004

Hilary Swank plays Brandon Teena in Searchlight's film on his life Boys Don't Cry
The brutal murder of Brandon Teena, a biological female who lived as a man, called attention to violence against transgender people and played a major role in galvanizing transgender community activism in the 1990s.

Brandon Teena was born Teena Renae Brandon in December 1972 in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father died in a car accident before Brandon was born, and Brandon and his sister were raised by their young mother in a trailer park. Brandon was a tomboy and prankster throughout his youth. As a teenager, he frequently got into trouble, and he was expelled from his Catholic high school shortly before graduation.

Brandon began cross-dressing at an early age. By the time he left school, he was using male names, wearing a rolled-up sock in his pants, and dating local girls. Brandon was, by all accounts, a charismatic lover who wrote poetry for his girlfriends, showered them with gifts, and displayed gentlemanly manners seldom seen in the other young men they dated. He financed his generosity with odd jobs, theft, and scams such as check forgery.

Several girlfriends were initially convinced he was a man; one even claimed he had gotten her pregnant. But Brandon's relationships typically ended when someone revealed that he was female to his girlfriend of the moment. He usually then told them he had been born a hermaphrodite or that he had undergone or was planning sex-reassignment surgery.

Brandon hung around with gay men, including his cousin Maury, but he consistently denied that he was gay himself. "[I]t's not okay for me to love women as a woman," he told a former classmate. "I have to be a man if I'm going to love women."

In the summer of 1993, Brandon's fiancee, Gina, broke off their relationship after she tired of his repeated but unfulfilled promised to undergo surgery. With a criminal record and the constant risk of exposure by past acquaintances, Brandon decided to get a fresh start. In November, he moved to rural southern Nebraska, first staying in the small town of Humboldt with Lisa Lambert, a single mother he had met through mutual friends. He starting dating a woman from nearby Falls City, Lana Tisdel, and soon moved in with her and her mother and began hanging out with her friends, including two ex-cons, John Lotter and Tom Nissen.

In December, soon after he turned 21, Brandon was arrested for check forgery. He was put in a women's cell and the Falls City Journal listed him as female in a crime report. Although Lana's mother kicked Brandon out of her home, Lana stuck by him. "Brandon was a man on the inside, where it counts," she later said.

But others were outraged by the gender deception. At a Christmas Eve party, Lotter and Nissen pulled down Brandon's pants and displayed him to Lana and the other guests. Later, they forced Brandon into a car and drove to the outskirts of town, where they beat and raped him. When Brandon reported the assault, he was subject to a humiliating interrogation by Richardson County Sheriff Charles Laux, who seemed more interested in Brandon's personal life and identity than in the crime. Laux not only failed to arrest Lotter and Nissen, but warned them that Brandon planned to press charges.

The next day, armed with rope and a hatchet, Lotter and Nissen began searching for Brandon in Lincoln and elsewhere. After several days, Lotter stole a gun and they returned to Falls City. Shortly after midnight on December 31, they visited Lana's home. Although Lotter said he wanted to kill someone, Lana's mother nevertheless told the men that Brandon was back at Lisa Lambert's place in Humboldt. In the early morning hours, Brandon, Lisa, and a visitor named Phillip Devine were each shot twice at close range. Only Lisa's eight-month-old baby was spared.

Lotter and Nissen were arrested that afternoon, charged with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault. During their trials, the two men blamed each other for the crimes. Nissen eventually agreed to a plea bargain under which he testified against Lotter. Nissen was sentenced to life in prison, and Lotter received the death penalty. After two unsuccessful appeals, he remains on death row. Brandon's mother won a nearly $1 million civil suit against Laux for negligence.

Even in death, Brandon's gender identity remained a source of controversy. Although he was buried in his preferred masculine attire, his tombstone reads "Beloved Daughter." While some accounts referred to Brandon as female and blamed his deception for his murder, the transgender community rallied to his defense and adopted him as one of their own. News reports, and later two films, focused national attention on anti-transgender violence, increased the visibility of female-to-male transgenders, and spurred an upsurge in trans activism. But, says Susan Muska, who co-produced the documentary The Brandon Teena Story, "I think he'd be mortified at being held up as an icon for the transgendered or transsexual community. He wanted to be a straight guy, to live his life, and that was it."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Minkowitz, Donna. 1994. "Love Hurts." The Village Voice (April 19)
  • Muska, Susan, and Greta Olafsdittir. 1998. The Brandon Teena Story (Zeitgeist Films)
  • Peirce, Kimberly. 2000. Boys Don't Cry (Searchlight Productions)

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