Reclaiming Brandon Teena on this Transgender Day of Remembrance

Transgender Day of Remembrance gives us an opportunity to remember and honor transgender people who have lost their lives due to transphobia and hate. 

This Day of Remembrance, #GAYNRD‘s Cole Hayes wants to remember a man many of us have heard of, Brandon Teena, but whose life experience as a person of trans masculine experience is not often known. 

Teena, for those that don’t know, was the subject of an Academy Award winning film called Boys Don’t Cry starring actor Hillary Swank that premiered in 1999. While the film presented Teena as a lesbian trying to pass — for those that don’t know, Brandon Teena was a young transgender man in the early 90s, living in a rural area of Nebraska.

Like many LGBTQ+ people during this era, Brandon lived and navigated in a society with almost no understanding of what it meant to be gay, let alone transgender. 

At 18 years-old, Brandon began presenting as male, doing many of the things some trans men do, like binding his chest and dressing in traditionally masculine clothing. Later, he went into therapy where it was concluded that Brandon was suffering with “sexual identity crisis.” This part in his story always confused me. I understand that back then things were different but it shows just how tightly wound our society’s thoughts were around sex and gender. 

Eventually, he started to live full time as male, but the cisgender men around him soon learned that he was transgender. 

In late 1993, Brandon was violently murdered for being his authentic self. He was sexually assaulted, shot, and then stabbed. His gravestone reads, “Teena R. Brandon, December 12, 1972 – December 31, 1993, Daughter, Sister & Friend.”

Even in death, Brandon was not seen for the man he was.

I think about him a lot. I remember watching Boys Don’t Cry long before I realized I was trans and the movie broke my heart, shattered it completely when I learned it was a true story. It stuck with me, it really did. I wonder who Brandon, and all the other beautiful people murdered out of ignorance and bigotry, could have been had he been born a decade or two later. 

Buzzfeed, reporting on The Legacy of Teena, said in 2014: Much has changed in the two decades since Brandon’s death. While members of the Nebraska transgender community express concern that Brandon has been somewhat forgotten, they are also upbeat about the progress that was wrought, at least in part, from Brandon’s death. LGBT activism in Nebraska, much like in the rest of the nation, has increased exponentially in the last 20 years. Parent groups, liberal churches, local government leaders, and transgender individuals of prominence are creating a culture of acceptance and support that would have been unimaginable outside of the very largest American cities in 1993.

Meredith Bacon, a political science professor at University of Nebraska, Omaha, argues, “The murder of Brandon Teena did to the transgender community a lot what the murder of Matthew Shepard did to the gay community. It created anger.” She credits Brandon’s death with the formation of The Transsexual Menace, an activist group that demonstrated in Falls City during the murder trials and continues today as an advocacy group for the transgender community.

On Dec. 19,1993, almost a week after his 21st birthday, Brandon landed in the female ward of the Richardson County jail after he was arrested, according to some sources, for forging checks. The name “Teena Brandon” appeared in the local paper’s police blotter, and his identity was compromised. On Christmas Eve, Nissen and Lotter kidnapped Brandon and raped him. Brandon subsequently escaped through a bathroom window to the house of his girlfriend, Lana Tisdel, and her mother called the police.

Charles Laux, then Richardson County sheriff, grilled Brandon about the rape. The scene in Boys Don’t Cry is taken word-for-word from the stomach-turning transcripts. Here, in part, is an excerpt of that graphic conversation:

Charles Laux: [A]fter he pulled your pants down and seen you was a girl, what did he do? Did he fondle you any?
Brandon Teena: No.
CL: He didn’t fondle you any, huh. Didn’t that kind of amaze you? Doesn’t that kind of, ah, get your attention somehow that he would’ve put his hands in your pants and play with you a little bit? […] [Y]ou were all half-ass drunk․ I can’t believe that if he pulled your pants down and you are a female that he didn’t stick his hand in you or his finger in you.
BT: Well, he didn’t.
CL: I can’t believe he didn’t.

“What [Sheriff Laux] did to this girl was pretty unconscionable,” Friedman said. “This is a girl that had been raped, she’d been kidnapped, she’s been beaten up, she escaped and ran six or seven blocks in 20-degree weather, barefoot on the streets … it’s at 5 o’clock in the morning and this god awful sheriff starts grilling her like that. It was so bad that his sheriff’s deputy left.”

On New Year’s Eve 1993, Nissen and Lotter tracked down Brandon at Lisa Lambert’s house, where her sister’s friend, Phillip DeVine, was also a guest. According to Elworth, they shot and killed Brandon to shut him up about the rape. DeVine and Lambert were shot and killed because of their role as witnesses. Only Lambert’s toddler son was not killed.

In Boys Don’t Cry, there was some artistic license taken with the murder scene, but for many people, their only knowledge of Brandon’s story — and maybe even rural Nebraska — is from the film. This is a state that prides itself on exciting college football, great steak, and a Midwestern work ethic. Understandably, Nebraskans bristle at the suggestion that Nissen and Lotter somehow exemplify attitudes in the state and that people in Middle America might be portrayed as “unenlightened rubes,” as the former prosecutor in charge of the criminal trial, Jim Elworth, wrote in an email. He continued, “Nebraska has not changed, and thank goodness. It remains populated by good people who get up and go to work every day, treat others with respect and try their best to raise their children properly…” Elworth won convictions for both men. Lotter is on death row, and Nissen is in prison for life.

As a community, we’re still fighting our battle to exist, to live freely and safely the way we are, but for many of us, myself included, I find I am celebrated and supported far more than not. In other words, I live in privilege not fearing for my life when others find out I am a transgender gay man. 

Brandon’s story is a devastating one and mirrors many other transgender people’s stories. Today, let’s take some time to think on those we have lost, those that never deserved the hate and violence they were given, but let’s also continue to fight against transphobia in the hopes that one day, we can all live safely as our authentic selves.