Brandon Teena (December 12, 1972 – December 31, 1993) was an American trans man who was raped and murdered in Humboldt, Nebraska. His life and death were the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, which was based on the documentary film The Brandon Teena Story. Teena’s violent death, along with the murder of Matthew Shepard, led to increased lobbying for hate crime laws in the United States.
Teena was born Teena Renae Brandon 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 her second child after their German shepherd dog, Tina Marie. Teena and his older sister Tammy lived with their maternal grandmother in Lincoln, before they were reclaimed by their mother when Teena 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, Teena and Tammy were sexually abused by their uncle for several years, and Teena sought counseling for this in 1991. JoAnn remarried once from 1975 to 1980, with the marriage having failed due to her husband’s alcoholism. Teena’s family described him as being a tomboy since early childhood; Teena 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 Teena claimed to be intersex though this assertion was later disproved.
Teena and his sister attended St. Mary’s Elementary School and Pius X High School in Lincoln, where Teena was remembered as being socially awkward. During his sophomore year, Teena 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. Teena 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, Teena went to Holiday Skate Park with his friends, binding his breasts to pass as a boy. The 18-year-old Teena went on a date with a 13-year old girl. He also met the girl’s 14-year-old friend, Heather, and began dressing as a male regularly in an attempt to attract teenage women. In the months nearing his high school graduation, Teena became unusually outgoing and was remembered by classmates as a “class clown”. Teena also began skipping school and receiving failing grades, and was expelled from Pius X High School in June 1991, three days before high school graduation.
In the summer of 1991, Teena began his first major relationship, with Heather. Shortly after, Teena was first employed as a gas station attendant in an attempt to purchase a trailer home for himself and his girlfriend. His mother, however, did not approve of the relationship, and convinced her daughter to follow Teena in order to know if the relationship was platonic or sexual.
In January 1992, Teena underwent a psychiatric evaluation, which concluded that Teena 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, Teena moved to the Falls City region of Richardson County, Nebraska, where he identified solely as a man. He became friends with several local residents. After moving into the home of Lisa Lambert, Teena began dating Lambert’s friend, 19-year-old Lana Tisdel, and began associating with ex-convicts John L. Lotter (born May 31, 1971) and Marvin Thomas “Tom” Nissen (born October 22, 1971).
On December 19, 1993, Teena was arrested for forging checks; Tisdel paid his bail. Because Teena was in the female section of the jail, Tisdel learned that he was transgender. When Tisdel later questioned Teena 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. Teena’s arrest was 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
During a Christmas Eve party, Nissen and Lotter grabbed Teena and forced him to remove his pants, proving to Tisdel that Teena was assigned female at birth. Tisdel said nothing and looked only when they forced her to. Lotter and Nissen later assaulted Teena, 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 Teena to take a shower. Teena escaped from Nissen’s bathroom by climbing out the window, and went to Tisdel’s house. He was convinced by Tisdel to file a police report, though Nissen and Lotter had warned Teena not to tell the police about the rape or they would “silence him permanently”. Teena also went to the emergency room where a standard rape kit was assembled, and later lost. Sheriff Charles B. Laux questioned Teena about the rape; reportedly, he seemed especially interested in Teena’s transsexuality, to the point that Teena found his questions rude and unnecessary, and refused to answer. Nissen and Lotter learned of the report, and they began to search for Teena. They did not find him, and three days later the police 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 Teena was. Lambert refused to tell them. Nissen searched and found Teena 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 Teena in front of Lambert’s toddler. Nissen would later testify in court that he noticed that Teena was twitching, and asked Lotter for a knife, with which Nissen stabbed Teena in the chest, to ensure that he was dead. Nissen and Lotter then left, later being arrested and charged with murder.
Brandon Teena is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Lincoln, Nebraska, his headstone inscribed with his birth name and the epitaph daughter, sister, & friend.
Nissen accused Lotter of committing the murders. In exchange for a reduced sentence, Nissen admitted to being an accessory to the rape and murder. Nissen testified against Lotter and was sentenced to life in prison. Lotter proceeded to deny 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, and their cases have gone to review. 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, using 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. 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 en banc. Lotter next 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.
Cultural and legal legacy
Because Teena 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 Teena had stated that he planned to have sex reassignment surgery.
JoAnn Brandon sued Richardson County and Sheriff Laux for failing to prevent Teena’s death, as well as being an indirect cause. She won the case, 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 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 – at one point Laux referred to Teena as “it”.
In 1999, Teena became the subject of a biopic entitled Boys Don’t Cry, directed by Kimberly Peirce and 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 Teena after she discovered Teena was assigned female at birth. 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.”
The British duo Pet Shop Boys released a song called “Girls Don’t Cry” (a bonus track on U.K. issue of I’m with Stupid) about Teena in 2006.
Teena’s violent death, along with the murder of Matthew Shepard, led to increased lobbying for hate crime laws in the United States.