Brandon Teena | Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies
University of Pittsburgh

Brandon Teena

Brandon Teena was a murdered transgender who was born female, but identified himself as a male. Born in 1972 and murdered in 1993, Brandon struggled most of his life with what he called an ‘identity crisis’. The movie Boys Don’t Cry and the documentary The Brandon Teena Story were both based on his story, although there were differences in the Hollywood version that I felt less empowered the story. Brandon had a history of stealing to help him get through life and moved to Falls City in Nebraska from his hometown of Lincoln to avoid legal trouble at age 21. In Falls City Brandon stayed with a women named Lisa Lambert and began dating a women named Lana Tisdel. Brandon was forging checks and stealing money from Lisa that lead to an arrest, putting him in a female section of the jail and causing questioning when Lana bailed him out. Brandon told Lana he was a hermaphrodite and they continued to date. More people in the town of Falls City started to question Brandon’s gender and on Christmas Eve two of Brandon’s friends, John Lotter and Tom Nissen, forced Brandon to remove his pants and show Lana his anatomical gender. The two later assaulted Brandon, took him in a car, assaulted him again, and raped him. When Brandon pressed charges, John and Tom were questioned, but no arrests were made. About a week later, on New Years Eve, John and Tom drove to Lisa’s house where Brandon was staying and shot Lisa, Brandon, and another man who was at the house by the name of Phillip DeVine. Brandon was also stabbed to ensure he was dead, all in front of Lisa’s toddler who lived. John and Tom were both later arrested and charged with murder, John is currently appealing his conviction to death row and Tom is serving consecutive life sentences for cooperating with prosecution and testifying against John. 

The story of Brandon Teena is important to gender studies and for people to hear because he was a transgender and murdered for it. No one deserves to die for being who he or she is and for being different than what is taught to be ‘normal’. Sex is the biological as well as physiological characteristics that define someone as a male or female. Often, people get this confused with gender, or associate the two together as meaning the same thing. However, gender is the social roles a person plays, with behaviors, activities, and attributes that are considered to be appropriate for a male or female. The two have completely different meanings and society needs to be made more aware of the difference.

Media can help teach our society about the difference and bring awareness to people that are unsure. Unfortunately for Brandon, Falls City was a small town and little difference was known or accepted there. Today, compared to 1993, our society is much more educated about transgender, bisexuals, and homosexuals. While watching the documentary I couldn’t help but wonder if Brandon’s story had happened twenty years later what the outcome would be? Would Brandon have felt more comfortable explaining his situation to people and would people be more accepting? Would Brandon have still gotten murdered?

I liked how in both movies they gave the entire story of Brandon Teena and showed or talked about the assault as well as the murder. I know that many people criticize movies for showing such details, but it is such a vital part to his story. I also liked how they went in detail with the questioning Brandon went through with the cops while pressing charges. In my opinion the cop wasn’t being professional asking Brandon what was ‘popped’ and if they stuck their finger inside of him. The cop also made fun of Brandon in a way when he answered that he was a virgin. It wasn’t even so much the questions, but the tone of voice. It really made me feel for Brandon and realize how cruel people can be. Brandon was a person too and he deserved to be treated the same and have the same rights, whether he had a past with lying and the law or not.

I didn’t agree with how Hollywood added effects to create more drama in Boys Don’t Cry. For example, after Lana bailed Brandon out of jail it showed Tom and John questioning Brandon about his sex right away after showing Lana’s mom his name written as ‘Teena Brandon’ in the newspaper. Directly after the questioning, the assault occurred at Lana’s house where they forced Lana to look and later took Brandon to rape him. It also added Tom and John showing up at Lana’s house and questioning her mother where Brandon was the night they murdered him and showed Lana trying to stop them, driving the house with them, and almost getting shot herself while trying to step in. In my opinion the documentary made a much greater impression by making it seem more real and more from Brandon and his point of view on the events that occurred.

Movies like Boys Don’t Cry and The Brandon Teena Story were huge steps by media to start educating society on the different types of people in the world. Since both of these, media has also put features in magazines such as People addressing transgender and sex change operations and a transgender male was a participant on MTV’s The Real World where their life was followed showing America the hardships and what they had to go through. While trying to search other transgender issues in media, I struggled to find examples. This surprised me and made me think about how much more our society needs to do to bring awareness. Transgender is a serious issue and many people struggle with it in their lives. It is real, even if we don’t directly see or know about it. So this raises an important question of what we can do to bring more awareness and help out those people dealing with this issue? I wonder how many other people have been assaulted or abused in some way because of who they are. People need to talk about the issue and can use these two movies to help. It should be done on every college campus and nationwide through the news and events to raise awareness. Our class as well as others can start by discussing it and using it outside of class by being non-judgmental to all types of people, not just transgender and starting more organizations that teach our society and offer a place of support for those dealing with the issue to have a place to go to.


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