This week, we’ll be taking a look at Brandon Teena, including his life, his death, and his overall cultural and legal significance. Brandon Teena was born Teena Renae Brandon on December 12, 1972. Brandon was born a genetic female, and later became a trans man, so for the purposes of this story, we’ll be referring to him by his preferred pronoun, and his chosen name Brandon. Brandon’s life and death, including his eventual rape and murder, was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, written and directed by Kimberly Peirce, and starring Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon. Brandon’s violent death, along with the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, led to increased lobbying for hate crime laws in the United States.
Brandon was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the younger of two children to Patrick and JoAnn Brandon. His father died in a car accident eight months before he was born, and he was raised by his mother. JoAnn named him, her second child, after their German shepherd dog, Tina Marie. Brandon and his older sister Tammy lived with their maternal grandmother in Lincoln, before they were reclaimed by their mother when Brandon was three years old and Tammy was six. The family resided in the Pine Acre Mobile Home Park in northeast Lincoln, and JoAnn worked as a clerk in a women's retail store in Lincoln to support the family. As young children, Brandon and Tammy were sexually abused by their uncle for several years, with Brandon seeking counseling for this in 1991. JoAnn remarried once from 1975 to 1980, with the marriage failing due to her husband's alcoholism. Brandon’s family described him as being a tomboy since early childhood. He began identifying as male during adolescence and dated a female student during this period. His mother rejected his male identity and continued referring to him as her daughter. On several occasions, Brandon claimed to be intersex, or not fitting the typical binary notions of male or female bodies, though this assertion was later disproved.
Brandon and his sister attended St. Mary's Elementary School and Pius X High School in Lincoln, where Teena was remembered by some as being socially awkward. During his second year, he rejected Christianity after he protested to a priest at Pius X regarding Christian views on abstinence and homosexuality. He also began rebelling at school by violating the school dress-code policy to dress in a more masculine fashion. During the first semester of his senior year, a U.S. Army recruiter visited the high school, encouraging students to enlist in the armed forces. Brandon then enlisted in the United States Army shortly after his eighteenth birthday, and hoped to serve a tour of duty in Operation Desert Shield. However, he failed the written entrance exam by listing his sex as male.
In December 1990, Brandon went to a skate park with his friends, binding his breasts to pass as a boy. The 18-year-old Brandon then went on a date with a 13-year-old girl. He also began regularly dressing as a male. In the months nearing his high school graduation, he became unusually outgoing and was remembered by classmates as a "class clown". He seemingly began coming into his own. Brandon also began skipping school and receiving failing grades, and ultimately was expelled from Pius X High School in June 1991, a mere three days before high school graduation.
In the summer of 1991, Brandon began his first major relationship, with a girl named Heather. Shortly after, he began his first job as a gas station attendant in an attempt to purchase a trailer home for himself and Heather. His mother, however, did not approve of the relationship, and convinced his sister Tammy to follow Brandon in order to know if the relationship was platonic or of a sexual nature.
In January 1992, Brandon underwent a psychiatric evaluation, which concluded that he was suffering from a severe "sexual identity crisis". He was later taken to the Lancaster County Crisis Center to ensure that he was not suicidal. He was released from the center three days later and began attending therapy sessions, sometimes accompanied by his mother or sister. He was reluctant to discuss his sexuality during these sessions but eventually revealed that he had been raped. The counselling sessions ended two weeks later.
In 1993, after some legal trouble, Brandon moved to the Falls City region of Richardson County, Nebraska, where he identified solely as a man. He became friends with several local residents there, and seemed to be settling into his life more. After moving into the home of roommate Lisa Lambert, Brandon began dating Lambert's friend, 19-year-old Lana Tisdel, and began associating with ex-convicts John Lotter and Marvin Nissen.
On December 19, 1993, Brandon was arrested for forging checks and Tisdel paid his bail to get him out. Because Brandon was assigned to the female section of the jail, this is how Tisdel learned that he was transgender. When Tisdel later questioned Brandon about his gender, he told her he was a hermaphrodite pursuing a sex change operation, and they continued dating. In a lawsuit regarding the film adaptation Boys Don't Cry, this was disputed by Tisdel. Brandon’s arrest was ultimately posted in the local paper under his birth name and his acquaintances subsequently learned that he was assigned female at birth…
Sexual assault and murder
Around this time immediately after the arrest and the discovery of his birth sex, Brandon attended a Christmas Eve party. At that party, Nissen and Lotter grabbed Teena and forced him to remove his pants, proving to Tisdel that Brandon was anatomically female. Tisdel said nothing and looked only when they forced her to. Lotter and Nissen later assaulted Brandon, and forced him into a car. They drove to an area by a meat-packing plant in Richardson County, where they assaulted and raped him. They then returned to Nissen's home where the two men ordered Brandon to take a shower. He escaped from Nissen's bathroom by climbing out the window, and then went to Tisdel's house. He was convinced by Tisdel to file a police report, though Nissen and Lotter had warned him not to tell the police about the rape or they would "silence him permanently". He also went to the emergency room where a standard rape kit was assembled, but later lost. Sheriff Charles B. Laux questioned him about the rape; reportedly, he seemed especially interested in Brandon’s transsexuality, to the point that Brandon found his questions rude and unnecessary, and refused to answer. Nissen and Lotter learned of the report, and they began to search for him, presumably to make good on their threat to him. They didn’t find him, and three days later, the police found the two, and questioned them. The sheriff declined to have them arrested due to lack of evidence.
Around 1:00 a.m. on December 31, 1993, Nissen and Lotter drove to Lambert's house and broke in. They found Lambert in bed and demanded to know where Brandon was. Lambert refused to tell them. Nissen searched and found him under the bed. The men asked Lambert if there was anyone else in the house, and she replied that Phillip DeVine, who at the time was dating Tisdel's sister, was staying with her. They then shot and killed DeVine, Lambert and Brandon in front of Lambert's toddler. Nissen later testified in court that he noticed that Brandon was twitching after having been shot, and asked Lotter for a knife, with which Nissen stabbed Brandon in the chest, to ensure that he was dead. Nissen and Lotter then left. The two were later tracked down, and arrested and charged with murder.
As the details of the murder surfaced after police questioning, Nissen accused Lotter of committing the murders. In exchange for a reduced sentence, Nissen admitted to being an accessory to the rape and murder. He testified against Lotter and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. Lotter denied the veracity of Nissen's testimony, and his testimony was discredited. The jury found Lotter guilty of murder and he received the death penalty. Lotter and Nissen both appealed their convictions. In September 2007, Nissen recanted his testimony against Lotter. He claimed that he was the only one to shoot Teena and that Lotter had not committed the murders. In 2009, Lotter's appeal, which used Nissen's new testimony to assert a claim of innocence, was rejected by the Nebraska Supreme Court, which held that since—even under Nissen's revised testimony—both Lotter and Nissen were involved in the murder, the specific identity of the shooter was legally irrelevant. Both were there; both were culpable. In August 2011, a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected John Lotter's appeal in a split decision. In October 2011, the Eighth Circuit rejected Lotter's request for a rehearing by the panel or the full Eighth Circuit. Lotter then petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for a review of his case. The Supreme Court declined to review Lotter's case, denying his petition for writ of certiorari on March 19, 2012, and a further petition for rehearing on April 23, 2012, leaving his conviction to stand, permanently.
Cultural and legal legacy
Because Brandon had neither commenced hormone replacement therapy nor had sex reassignment surgery, he has sometimes been identified as a lesbian by media reporters. However, some reported that he had stated that he planned to have sex reassignment surgery.
Brandon’s mom, JoAnn Brandon, sued Richardson County and Sheriff Laux for failing to prevent his death, as well as being an indirect cause. She won the case, which was heard in September 1999 in Falls City, and was awarded $80,000. District court judge Orville Coady reduced the amount by 85 percent based on the responsibility of Nissen and Lotter, and by one percent for Brandon's alleged contributory negligence. This led to a remaining judgment of responsibility against Richardson County and Laux of $17,360.97. In 2001, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed the reductions of the earlier award reinstating the full $80,000 award for "mental suffering", plus $6,223.20 awarded for funeral costs. In October 2001, the same judge awarded the plaintiff an additional $12,000: $5,000 for wrongful death, and $7,000 for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Laux was also criticized after the murder for his attitude toward Brandon–at one point, he referred to Brandon as "it". After the case was over, Laux served as commissioner of Richardson County and later as part of his community's council before retiring as a school bus driver. He has refused to this very day to speak about his actions in the case and swore at one reporter who contacted him for a story on the murder's twentieth anniversary.
In 1999, Brandon became the subject of a biographical film entitled Boys Don't Cry, starring Hilary Swank as Teena and Chloë Sevigny as Tisdel. For their performances, Swank won and Sevigny was nominated for an Academy Award. Tisdel sued the producers of the film for unauthorized use of her name and likeness before the film's release. She claimed the film depicted her as "lazy, white trash, and a skanky snake". Tisdel also claimed that the film falsely portrayed that she continued the relationship with Brandon after she discovered that he was transgendered. She eventually settled her lawsuit against the movie's distributor for an undisclosed sum.
JoAnn Brandon publicly objected to the media referring to her child as "he" and "Brandon". Following Hilary Swank's Oscar acceptance speech, JoAnn Brandon took offense at Swank for thanking "Brandon Teena"—the name Teena Brandon adopted—and for referring to him as a man. "That set me off", said JoAnn Brandon. "She should not stand up there and thank my child. I get tired of people taking credit for what they don't know." It seems Brandon’s mother never really accepted Brandon’s wish to be viewed by the world as a male.
Ultimately, Brandon’s violent death, along with the murder of Matthew Shepard only five years later, sparking a national debate about hate crimes as they pertain to the LGBT community, led to increased lobbying for hate crime laws in the United States.
Teena is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Lincoln, Nebraska, his headstone inscribed with his birth name and the epitaph shamefully reading “daughter, sister, & friend.”