Pride

How I Broke, and Botched, the Brandon Teena Story

The original writer of the Village Voice story that inspired “Boys Don’t Cry” looks back on her reporting — and the huge error she still regrets

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On December 31, 1993, a 21-year-old trans man named Brandon Teena was shot and stabbed to death near Falls City, Nebraska, by two other young men because he was trans. A week earlier, they had raped and brutally battered him.

I wrote about it at the time in a long, reported feature for the Voice that introduced Brandon Teena’s story to a broad audience, and helped to galvanize the cultural conversation about trans people. After moving to Falls City from his hometown of Lincoln, Brandon met a 19-year-old woman named Lana Tisdel and swept her off her feet. But a week after he was arrested on a check-forging charge, local police revealed his birth gender in the newspaper. A few days later, Tisdel’s friends John Lotter (Tisdel’s ex-boyfriend) and Tom Nissen forcibly stripped Brandon and forced Tisdel to look at his genitals; then they kidnapped, raped, and beat him, and subsequently killed him.

Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce told me in a recent interview that my article had been the major inspiration for her film about Brandon’s life and murder: “Your article was on fire. I read it and I fell in love with Brandon. It made me love his vulnerability, his daring, his innocence, the way that he gave pleasure sexually. I was in love with this person who had shaped himself.”

It also proved to be the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written.

For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing. Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated “her” body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. (One of Brandon’s acquaintances had told me he’d said he was “disgusted by lesbians,” and several friends said Brandon had said, “I can’t be with a woman as a woman. That’s gross.”) I saw this youngster’s decision to lead a life as a straight man as incredibly bold — but also assumed it was a choice made in fear, motivated by internalized homophobia.

At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead “easier,” more conventional heterosexual lives.

Even in New York City, someone like me, a journalist who considered myself very involved in queer radical politics, could be massively ignorant about what it meant to be transgender. In particular, I conjectured that Brandon’s long-term sexual abuse by an uncle and a rape in high school had led him to abjure his “female” genitals and breasts. It’s the aspect of my article that makes me cringe the most today.

Twenty-five years later, we are in a time of enormous cruelty in the body politic, a time when rebuilding solidarity is the most precious task we have. I hope this article can be my way of making amends by revisiting Brandon’s life and murder — along with those of his companions Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine, who were slain in the same moments by Nissen and Lotter. Their deaths became a touchstone for the then-nascent trans movement, and, perhaps more than any other single event, have shaped how Americans view transgender people.

***

Brandon Teena was born into a conservative, patriarchal, poor white family that lived in a trailer park in Lincoln, Nebraska. Irish American, he’d gone to Catholic school and been supported by a single mother who’d had him as a teenager and worked in retail. His father had died at age 19 in an alcohol-related car accident when Brandon’s mother was still pregnant with him.

There was almost no awareness about trans or any kind of gender-variant people in his Nebraska city at the time Brandon was alive (1972–1993), especially in Brandon’s family and friendship networks. A bare whisper of a word, transsexual existed in a cyclone of psychological, medical, moral, and even legal judgment — when Brandon was raped, Falls City sheriff Charles Laux refused to arrest the men who had committed the crime on the grounds that, as Laux told me at the time, “What kind of a person was she? The first few times we arrested her she was putting herself off as a guy.” In the wrongful death suit Brandon’s mother later filed against the sheriff, the Nebraska Supreme Court found that Laux’s refusal to arrest Lotter and Nissen was what left them free to murder Brandon.

This is how I first found out about this beautiful, funny, ill-fated, imperfect young man: One morning in January 1994 I read, amazed, an AP wire story in the New York Times that began: “A woman who had posed as a man and dated women was found shot to death on Friday, two weeks after residents of this rural area learned her true identity, the authorities said today.”

An article in the Chicago Tribune made the slain youngster sound particularly compelling: “Brandon was like a breath of fresh air, to hear the girls of Falls City tell it…blue-eyed, clean-cut and handsome-cute. ‘He was the talk of the town,’ said Michelle Travis.… ‘He was one of the nicest boys I ever met,’ said Lana, 19, who recalls Brandon as ‘a good kisser.’ ” Apparently, the young women of several municipalities in the heartland had seen him as far more appealing than the other available male talent.

I was electrified by the story — which, as I say, I assumed was about a lesbian. Lesbians had been talking for years about playing with gender, taking on different gender identities, and using and even eroticizing male signifiers and roles to take back power from a world that continually disparaged us as barely worthy of notice and boringly powerless. The conversation about genderplay among lesbians had started in the Eighties, when many of us had begun speaking once again about sexual role-playing, dildos, and other ways of freeing our sexualities from the vanilla, non-phallic, and non-penetrative limits the leaders of 1970s feminism had unwittingly placed on it.

But it wasn’t just a matter of taking on male signifiers in the bedroom. The rich, creative conversation going on in the early Nineties in the lesbian community was also about feeling free to “be” male, to some extent, in the psychic fantasy arenas of our own minds, and out in the world. As in: the boy in all fantasy stories, the one who can make his way through adventures, and, at the end of the story, grow into the kingship. I and a number of other lesbians saw ourselves in Brandon Teena, someone born with the same chromosomes as us who had determined to live as a boy, to woo women with a vengeance, to (as we saw it) walk in freedom upon the world.

Also, lesbians and straight men had been in a kind of cultural competition for decades over who truly made the better lovers for women. I believe this is one reason for the fury some straight men have been directing at me since I began cutting my hair butch and short at 18. The screams of “fuckin’ dyke” with which large, hulking men have frightened me for years stemmed from their fear that I could take something away from them. Therefore, the idea that we — any and all lesbians, or any and all women, really — might be able to go out into the world and “become” men galvanized many of the lesbians who first heard about the Brandon Teena story in early 1994.

My gay male editor at the Voice, Richard Goldstein, was excited by the story, too, and sent me out to cover the murder in March of that year.

***

Because I don’t drive — surely an irony for someone who wants to be the king in her own story — I went to Nebraska with another young lesbian, a filmmaker named Susan Muska who at the time was filing freelance reports for Dyke TV. The Voice agreed to pay for most of Muska’s travel, and in return she drove me and amassed research for a project that would eventually become The Brandon Teena Story, the extraordinary documentary she put out in 1998 with her partner in love and art, Greta Olafsdottir. (Full disclosure: Muska and Olafsdottir are friends of mine.)

Being with Susan doubled my reporting prowess; it was like having not just another set of eyes and ears, but a second brain to assess all the information and a second mouth with which to persuade sources. Susan was more dogged a reporter than me, and perhaps a more diplomatic one. Together, we first interviewed JoAnn Brandon, Brandon’s sad, pissed-off, asthmatic, conservative mom, still shell-shocked after his death.

It’s amazing looking over my reporting notes from 1994, seeing what I chose to emphasize, what I left out and forgot, what never registered. At the time, as a callow 28-year-old myself, I principally saw JoAnn as a homophobic parent, because she told us, “I don’t feel you walk up to someone and tell them what your sexual preference is.” She also said that when girls would call asking for Brandon by the male name he initially adopted, Billy, she would tell them, “We don’t have a Billy.” As JoAnn explained to Susan and me, “That’s when [Brandon] moved [out], because she knew I wouldn’t play the game. I wouldn’t refer to her as something she wasn’t.”

Seeing JoAnn’s conservatism, I somehow failed to see that she was grieving when she railed against Lana, who she thought had betrayed Brandon to his death by telling the killers where he was hiding out. (I have seen no evidence that she did so.) As I failed to hear her grief when she griped, “I still don’t know how I’m going to pay for the funeral.” I missed the note of sadness and horror in her voice when she said, “For my daughter to be that scared…,” referring to Brandon’s frightened phone call to her the night after he was raped. I missed the devastation in her voice when she said: “When I touched her head” — Brandon’s head, at his funeral — “I couldn’t touch her head anywhere there wasn’t a bump on it.”

Hearing a mother’s discomfort with the precepts of gay pride, and her refusal to facilitate Brandon’s male identity, I somehow declined to hear these things she also said: “I think [the police] are bigots. They were referring to her as ‘thing’ in jail. [Nissen and Lotter] should have been arrested the first time she reported [the rape].” And: “I just told her I wanted her to be happy. Whether she was or wasn’t [LGBT], she was still my daughter. She was the most lovable person.”

I also never registered JoAnn telling me that Brandon had wanted to be a commercial artist, or that he was “really outspoken” in high school. (“If the priest at Pius X would say one thing, she’d be sure to say the opposite.”) For decades, I have regretted that I couldn’t learn much about what Brandon had been like as a person, but I ignored the one time anyone ever told me what he might have liked to have done when he grew up.

***

An even more surprising thing in my notes was an interview I had done before my trip to Nebraska with Leslie Feinberg, the late brilliant writer and activist who called herself both FTM “transsexual” and stone butch lesbian and who had painted an incendiary portrait of the crossover FTM/stone experience in her novel Stone Butch Blues.

For decades, I have remembered vividly how Feinberg screamed at me without respite in the Voice editorial offices when trans activists protested after my article came out. But I never remembered having interviewed her about Brandon for the piece. We’d been friendly years before when we’d often attended protests against anti-queer police brutality together. But at one of them, which Feinberg had organized with the Workers World Party, I had felt terrified and betrayed by her and the other leaders when they’d encouraged us to run into the street on the West Side Highway without attempting to block the traffic from hitting us. No car struck me, but a cop did hit me on the forearm with his nightstick.

So, beyond my defensiveness about my article — which was powerful — I’m sure I brought some baggage to both our phone interview and our encounter at the Voice that may have made it hard for me to listen to what she was actually saying.

What was she saying?

“It’s not so much how I see Brandon Teena, as how Brandon Teena saw himself. I use the pronoun ‘he’ because a), it’s the pronoun Brandon Teena chose, but b), it’s ultimately what he died for.”

She was right. I was apoplectic with Feinberg for decades because she’d publicly called my article “sleazy, salacious psychosexual babble,” and falsely claimed the “article [let] the cops off the hook for their culpability in instigating the violence against Teena in the first place.” But in many of her criticisms, Feinberg was correct. I shouldn’t ever have suggested that Brandon wanted to be a man because he was sexually abused, and I should have listened to his own wishes as reflected in the memories of his survivors, and called him trans.

***

The second most surprising thing I found in my notes was the first draft of my article, where I openly acknowledged that lesbians and trans activists were even at that moment sparring over who got to claim Brandon:

Ironically, though, the murder has sparked the greatest controversy among people who agree it was a hate crime.… Transsexual activists [what trans folks called themselves at the time] claim Brandon as a preoperative, female-to-male transsexual, a straight man who had unremarkable, hetero urges for girls but the misfortune of being born in the “wrong” body. Lesbians, on the other hand, celebrate Brandon as a dyke who usurped male prerogatives and very nearly got away with it.… Brandon, who splashed on Preferred Stock aftershave every morning…told many different stories about her own physical sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

That much is true, although I would have used a different pronoun today. Scholar Susan Stryker, who might be called the dean of trans studies, recently told me by email, “One of the things that made the murder so tragic is that Brandon was so young, still figuring himself out, and we will never know what path his future would have taken. The violence, in many ways, was against Brandon as the bearer of a youthful fluidity of gender possibilities being brutally foreclosed.”

Brandon did, years before he came to Falls City, variously tell several family members, friends, and apparently, psychological counselors that he thought he might be “gay” — i.e., a gay woman. To various girlfriends, he said at various times, “I was born with both parts, but I’m nothing but a man now. I had the operation done in eighth grade”; “Some part of the operation…remains to be done”; “I’m a hermaphrodite”; “[My breasts] are a deformation from birth”; “I was born a girl, I am a girl, but I have all the feelings and intentions of a man.”

Both Brandon’s focus in his self-descriptions on whether he had had “the operation” — of course, that term has always phallocentrically stood for more than one potential operation — and my own focus on the matter reflect a belief of the early Nineties: that trans meant (solely) “surgically altering your body to align with your gender identity.” Both society at large and many leading trans activists of the time saw trans as a matter of being transsexual, i.e. surgically transitioning to “the” other gender, not today’s activists’ wider definition that seeks to embrace all who experience misalignment between their gendered bodies and their felt gender identities.

Of course, a gorgeous plethora of felt gender identities have emerged in the years since — genderqueer, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, bigender, agender — that were unavailable to Brandon. Where I went wrong was to deny transness as a real possibility for who Brandon would have become — and, in fact, the possibility he mentioned most often in the later years of his life, and the way in which he most consistently told his intimates he wanted to be seen.

***

One aspect of my piece that greatly angered both trans men and stone butches was my claim that Brandon experienced enormous sexual “frustration,” or a terrible diminishment of pleasure, because, as reported by his lovers, he chose never to be touched on his vagina or his breasts.

Why did I assume this, besides transphobic ignorance? In brief, I was projecting. Reader, I was sexually abused as a child, and I at certain points in my life have identified with stone butches because the intensity of genital sensations was too painfully overwhelming for me to want or be able to continue to experience genital touching. For a chunk of my life, I was greatly frustrated, I was resentful about what I experienced as diminished pleasure, and I projected this frustration and resentment onto Brandon.

Obviously, I also projected my own experience of sexual abuse onto his, and used it to concoct my own biased theory of trans origins.

(In fairness, Brandon did “give without getting” in myriad ways, insisting on doing every single bit of housework for his girlfriends and showering them and his friends and family with extravagant and expensive gifts he could not actually afford. There does seem to have been some resentment — or at least ambivalence — operating in the fact that he often paid for these presents by fraudulently charging them to the recipients’ own credit cards, or by forging their checks. Brandon, who had charmed Lana by giving her a stuffed black bear, once asked that she hand over her family’s rent money to pay bail for him. But I did not have any grounds in my reporting to apply this to his sexual practice and experience, nor is there any evidence that trans men as a group feel resentful about the kinds of sex they have.)

Where this matter comes most importantly into play is in the piece’s ending. How it originally ended was bad enough:

Brandon had to go to Humboldt because everyone who loved her in Lincoln was finally too infuriated with her, whether she’d stolen their love or taken the money that they needed to live. The frustration she had felt for so long had finally frustrated others, and the fury she could not express was ultimately expressed on her.

Enter a man (a cis one). My editor, Richard, had encouraged the development of my “frustration theory” by suggesting (according to my notes from an editing session) that what I should emphasize in the story was that “everything she did to protect herself put her in more danger.” I came to agree — though I now think that that theory was bogus as well. The terribly mistaken idea operating here was that living as a man was something that Brandon did to protect himself from the “danger” of living as a lesbian — not something he did because he was a man.

But now Richard wanted me to add two final words to the piece: “By men.” That is, the piece would now end on the declaration that the fury “she” could not express was ultimately expressed on “her” by men. By implication, by real men.

I didn’t like adding “By men,” and I opposed the victim-bashing addition as long as I could, but Richard insisted. I have to take responsibility for the words because I did in the end allow them to appear under my own name, but they are what I hate most in the piece, even today.

Asked to comment, Richard said he did not remember the article, or working on it with me. He did say: “Whatever suggestions I may or may not have made, the final decisions about wording rested with the author, and the piece would have appeared even if the writer rejected my ideas.”

In fairness, from my memories of working with Richard for six years, I think he identified with Brandon as much as I did, and that’s why he wanted to put the “By men” in there. I don’t think he wanted to gratuitously hurt him with a verbal dollop of “real” men’s violence at the end, but to bear notice to himself that as a gay man he, like Brandon, was always going to be in social danger from the world of those more powerful. 

***

All stories are about more than one thing, and Brandon’s was also the story of a young white woman and young disabled black man who was gunned down by Lotter and Nissen along with Brandon in the early hours of December 31, 1993.

As far as I can tell, none of the journalistic reports for the first few months after the murder mentioned that Philip Devine was a black man visiting an all-white town. Mine mentioned that, as well as the fact that Phillip had come to Falls City to romance a white woman, Lana’s sister, Leslie, and that there was considerable public racism in the town, including the bald denial of service to African Americans at the town’s fast-food restaurant. But neither my article nor any of the other major media representations of this case has seriously examined the possibility that race may have played a role in his death.

In the mid Aughts, trans scholars began to argue that we need to do just that. Several, like the Africana and gender studies specialist C. Riley Snorton, have recently begun to suggest that the de-emphasis of DeVine’s story, from accounts of the Brandon case like mine, Boys Don’t Cry, and others, contributes to the systematic, omnipresent devaluation of black lives.

I have begun to agree.

While so far, the record seems to buttress that Nissen and Lotter went to that Humboldt farmhouse explicitly to silence Brandon — his mother says, “Teena said [after the rape] that these guys told her to keep her mouth shut or they’d permanently shut it for her” — the record is also clear that Nissen, at least, is or at least was an open, virulent racist. (Writing from jail to the late New Yorker writer John Gregory Dunne, Nissen referred to O.J. Simpson after his acquittal as “one lucky rich nig,” and he apparently once belonged to a white supremacist organization called the White American Group for White America.) Susan Muska says that according to her research, Falls City had previously been a “sundown town” where African Americans who stayed past twilight were at risk of being killed.

Of course, Nissen and Lotter had previously hung out with DeVine socially at the Tisdel’s house, where the family was raising Leslie’s biracial child — and Brandon was the only one who was stabbed as well as shot. It’s hard to know without further research whether they killed DeVine primarily as a witness to the attack on Brandon, or out of anti-black animus — but not hard to guess that his race made him easier for Nissen to kill. And Lisa Lambert, too, may have been murdered not just because she was a witness, but because she, like their friend Lana, was a woman who had dared to have sex with the hated trans man.

As poet and activist Carolyn Forché has written, “Go after that which is lost/and all the mass graves of the century’s dead/will open into your early waking hours.” All stories are partial, but the deaths go on in their fullness.

Donna Minkowitz is author of “Love Hurts,” which ran in the April 19, 1994, issue of the Village Voice, and which is reproduced below.

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