Today is the 45th birthday of Brandon Teena. He died a couple weeks after his 21st birthday, the result of a hate crime. There are things that I take for granted every day, one of them being that my outsides match my insides. Meaning, I feel the same on the inside that I look on the outside. I think that for a lot of people it is probably very difficult to even understand how that would feel. Think of the bravery it takes to be true to yourself, to wake up ever morning and know that in order for you to feel your true self, you are also putting your life at risk. The stares and judgement of strangers that starts the second you leave your home, just so you can feel your truth. We all strive to live our truth, usually in slight undetectable alterations that are not up for public scrutiny. Being transgender requires more bravery than I believe I possess. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he is gone.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Brandon Teena, a young transgender Midwesterner, was attacked and murdered in 1993. His story is the subject of the film ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and has brought wide attention to hate crimes against the trans community.
The youngest of two children, Teena Renae Brandon was born in the heartland city of Lincoln, Nebraska, on December 12, 1972. Teena’s childhood was marked by difficulty. His mother, JoAnn, was only 16 years old and recently widowed when he was born. (His father, Patrick, died in a car accident eight months before Teena was born.) JoAnn remarried for a short time but got divorced when Teena was 8 years old, and she struggled with raising two kids on a retail sales clerk’s salary. In addition, both Teena and his sister were sexually molested by a male relative during childhood.
Despite these difficulties, Teena was a full of life tomboy who enjoyed sports, including basketball, football and weightlifting, and kept a boyish appearance with short hair. He and his sister attended religious private schools in Lincoln, but Teena had difficulties with the schools’ strict rules. In his sophomore year, he moved away from home to live with a girlfriend, Traci Beels, and began exploring his burgeoning sexuality. But Beels was reportedly abusive, and Teena quickly landed back at his mom’s house.
By his senior year, Teena was self-identifying as a man and dating girls, sometimes introducing himself as Billy Brinson and later as Brandon. Teena had transformed himself from a socially awkward teen into an outgoing class clown. However his mother was not supportive of this transition and she refused to accept his male identity, continuing to refer to Teena as her “daughter.” Eighteen-year-old Teena lost interest in academics and attempted to join the U.S. Army, but failed to pass the written exam. Toward the end of his senior year, Teena began skipping school and receiving failing grades. He was expelled three days prior to graduation in June 1991.
Described as the “ideal man” who was the perfect balance of rugged cowboy and athletic jock with a Kennedy-like jawline, Teena had a handful of romances. But with a lack of support from loved ones and trepidation about his own gender and sexuality, he was also severely depressed. Following a suicide attempt, he spent a few days in the Lancaster County Crisis Center, where a psychiatrist determined that he was suffering from a gender identity crisis and personality disorder. This also trudged up memories of his childhood sexual abuse.
Upon his release, Teena began attending therapy sessions but abruptly stopped. Teena never got the help he needed because he quickly began engaging in compulsive behavior, forging checks and stealing credit cards—mostly to buy gifts for his girlfriends. In 1993, faced with multiple warrants for theft and forgery, Teena left his hometown and headed to a place where nobody knew that he was biologically female.
Just before his 21st birthday, Teena arrived in Humboldt, Nebraska, where he sought a fresh start in a community where he could solely identify as a man. He quickly fell in with a new group of associates, including John Lotter and Marvin Thomas Nissen. He also began dating 19-year-old Lana Tisdel, but money was still an issue and Teena began forging checks again.
On December 19, 1993, Teena was arrested. When Tisdel showed up to pay his bail, much to her surprise, she found Brandon housed in the female section of the jail. This was Tisdel’s first awareness that Teena was transgender. Teena tried to explain to her that he was intersex (although no evidence supports this claim) and that he was interested in seeking gender reassignment surgery. Despite his attempt to identify as a man, everyone in town found out that Teena was biologically female when his arrest details were published in the local paper, along with his birth name.
Shortly thereafter at a Christmas Eve party, Teena was confronted by Lotter and Nissen. Lotter, who had previously dated Tisdel, was especially angered by the fact that Teena was biologically female. Lotter and Nissen forced Teena into a car, drove him to a remote area in Humboldt, physically restrained him and raped him. Afterward, they drove back to Nissen’s house, threatening to kill Teena if he reported the incident. Teena snuck out of a bathroom window and went to Tisdel’s house. Tisdel promptly called an ambulance.
Teena arrived at the Falls City Hospital emergency room, where a rape kit was conducted, and filed a police report. Unfortunately, the victimization report turned into an interrogation when Sheriff Charles Laux blamed Teena for his assault and made inappropriate comments about his identity. (Teena’s mother later filed a lawsuit against Richardson County and Laux for their negligent treatment and was awarded nearly $100,000 in 2001.)
Laux subsequently interviewed Nissen and Lotter about the assault but did not arrest them. After being questioned by the police, the two were furious that Teena had reported the incident and sought revenge. On December 31, 1993, Lotter and Nissen went to where Teena was staying. The duo shot and killed Teena at point-blank range and then stabbed him. They also murdered the other two adults in the household, Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine, who at the time was dating Tisdel’s sister, all in front of Lambert’s 8-month-old son. Nissen and Lotter were arrested and charged the same day. Both were found guilty of murder. Nissen received life in prison in exchange for his testimony against Lotter and Lotter received the death penalty. (In 2015, Nebraska abolished the death penalty, thus giving Lotter a life sentence.)
Teena’s story has been retold in numerous publications and media offerings, including the 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story and the very first online Guggenheim art project. The most well-known depiction of his life is the 1999 biopic Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank as Teena and Chloë Sevigny as Tisdel—both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their work. Swank went on to win Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2000. The film and its related story has brought attention to the epidemic of violence against transpeople, with Teena thus receiving an outpouring of support and acceptance that he never experienced in life.