On the 20th anniversary of his murder, Brandon Teena's headstone in Lincoln Memorial Park was unadorned save for a slightly faded artificial blue rose between his headstone and his father's. The marker — almost surely against Brandon's wishes — still displays his birth name, "Teena Brandon," with the epitaph "Daughter, Sister, Friend." Nothing to honor Brandon's identity as a transgender man, and certainly nothing to indicate that this is the final resting place of a tragic LGBT icon. Two decades after Brandon Teena was murdered near Falls City, Neb., his ghost is in danger of being forgotten. More people remember that Hilary Swank won an Oscar for a film called Boys Don't Cry than they remember Brandon's name or where he was from.
Brandon — along with Lisa Lambert and Phillip Devine, two witnesses to his murder — was killed on New Year's Eve 1993. In Nebraska, the anniversary passed with little commemoration. There were a few feature articles reflecting on the murders in Brandon's hometown paper, the Lincoln Journal-Star, but little else.
Much has changed in the two decades since Brandon's death. While members of the Nebraska transgender community express concern that Brandon has been somewhat forgotten, they are also upbeat about the progress that was wrought, at least in part, from Brandon's death. LGBT activism in Nebraska, much like in the rest of the nation, has increased exponentially in the last 20 years. Parent groups, liberal churches, local government leaders, and transgender individuals of prominence are creating a culture of acceptance and support that would have been unimaginable outside of the very largest American cities in 1993.
Meredith Bacon, a political science professor at University of Nebraska, Omaha, argues, "The murder of Brandon Teena did to the transgender community a lot what the murder of Matthew Shepard did to the gay community. It created anger." She credits Brandon's death with the formation of The Transsexual Menace, an activist group that demonstrated in Falls City during the murder trials and continues today as an advocacy group for the transgender community.
Bacon isn't the only Nebraskan to believe that Brandon's death ignited outrage that, in some ways, translated into local LGBT activism. Transgender man Ryan Sallans grew up in Aurora — a town with around 4,400 people and about the same size as Falls City. In his autobiography, Second Son, Sallans explains, "After Brandon's murder, in 1993, people in the transgender community decided they didn't want to be in hiding anymore."
In 2005, Dr. Bacon decided that she didn't want to hide anymore either. After decades teaching political science, including a course on LGBT politics, the 67-year-old professor announced that she was transitioning to a life as a woman. She and her spouse Lynne stayed married, and the Bacons have enjoyed a level of acceptance that outsiders might be surprised to find in a "red state" like Nebraska.
"Most people were cool from the beginning," said Dr. Bacon. After transitioning, she was elected to a third term as president of the faculty senate at UNO, and the Bacons remain active at All Saints Episcopal church in Omaha.
Dr. Meredith Bacon (left) and Ryan Sallans.
More than 20 years ago, Brandon Teena couldn't find the kind of acceptance that the Bacons and Ryan Sallans have today. About a month before he was murdered, Brandon — struggling to make ends meet in Lincoln and estranged from his family — went to Richardson County to stay with his friend Lisa Lambert, who was renting a small house outside the tiny town of Humboldt (near Falls City). Lisa introduced him to friends of hers, including ex-convicts Tom Nissen, 22, and John Lotter, 22, who accepted Brandon as another male friend. Lotter, in particular, already had a quite reputation with local law enforcement. Herb Friedman, an attorney who represented the Brandon family in the wrongful death civil suit, said he once tried to escape his jailers while shackled, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and surrounded by cops: "Obviously, this guy was just nuttier than a cockeyed fruitcake!"
On Dec. 19,1993, almost a week after his 21st birthday, Brandon landed in the female ward of the Richardson County jail after he was arrested, according to some sources, for forging checks. The name "Teena Brandon" appeared in the local paper's police blotter, and his identity was compromised. On Christmas Eve, Nissen and Lotter kidnapped Brandon and raped him. Brandon subsequently escaped through a bathroom window to the house of his girlfriend, Lana Tisdel, and her mother called the police.
Charles Laux, then Richardson County sheriff, grilled Brandon about the rape. The scene in Boys Don't Cry is taken word-for-word from the stomach-turning transcripts. Here, in part, is an excerpt of that graphic conversation:
Charles Laux: [A]fter he pulled your pants down and seen you was a girl, what did he do? Did he fondle you any?
Brandon Teena: No.
CL: He didn't fondle you any, huh. Didn't that kind of amaze you? Doesn't that kind of, ah, get your attention somehow that he would've put his hands in your pants and play with you a little bit? [...] [Y]ou were all half-ass drunk․ I can't believe that if he pulled your pants down and you are a female that he didn't stick his hand in you or his finger in you.
BT: Well, he didn't.
CL: I can't believe he didn't.
According to the Nebraska Supreme Court judgment in the wrongful death case, Sheriff Laux used "crude and dehumanizing language" when questioning Brandon about the sexual assault. Friedman still gets angry when he talks about it, noting, "His conduct was so bad that every law enforcement officer down in Richardson County testified against him."
Sheriff Laux decided not to arrest Lotter and Nissen despite ample evidence connecting them to the attack. The current Richardson County sheriff, Randy Houser, said the men should have been arrested: "I mean, you have sexual assault, you have false imprisonment, which in Nebraska is what the law calls kidnapping, because they transported her out [of town] into the country — him, her — and I don't mean to be insensitive there…"
Houser and Friedman aren't the only professionals familiar with the case who tend to misgender Brandon when discussing his case. For the criminal and civil trials, he was legally "Teena Brandon" and referred to as such. JoAnn Brandon still refers to her child as a female, and several people connected to the case admit that they're unsure about appropriate pronouns.
Sallans explains that the use of appropriate pronouns is very important to the transgender community and wishes that Brandon could have his male identity dignified on his tombstone, but "for me, I will respect [JoAnn] and her own journey with Brandon."
When Friedman was working with another Lincoln attorney and Lambda Legal Defense to sue Richardson County, he said a lot of what they "hung their hat on" was the idea that there was intentional infliction of emotional distress by Sheriff Laux.
"What [Sheriff Laux] did to this girl was pretty unconscionable," Friedman said. "This is a girl that had been raped, she'd been kidnapped, she's been beaten up, she escaped and ran six or seven blocks in 20-degree weather, barefoot on the streets … it's at 5 o'clock in the morning and this god awful sheriff starts grilling her like that. It was so bad that his sheriff's deputy left."
Houser said that to this day people who have seen Boys Don't Cry call the dispatch to give them hell about the movie. He is a former Marine and businessman who moved to the community about 10 years ago and the dispatchers have to explain that there is literally a new sheriff in town and that Lotter and Nissen are in prison.
After taking Brandon's statement, Laux not only failed to arrest Nissen and Lotter, he let them know that the rape was reported. That decision, intentional or not, was essentially Brandon Teena's death sentence. "If that was to happen today, we'd be making an arrest the next day at the latest," Houser said.
Houser describes Brandon's treatment as "a lack of sophistication" on the part of his predecessor and explains that officers now receive better training when it comes to handling a rape crisis and working with the LGBT community.
On New Year's Eve 1993, Nissen and Lotter tracked down Brandon at Lisa Lambert's house, where her sister's friend, Phillip DeVine, was also a guest. According to Elworth, they shot and killed Brandon to shut him up about the rape. DeVine and Lambert were shot and killed because of their role as witnesses. Only Lambert's toddler son was not killed.
In Boys Don't Cry, there was some artistic license taken with the murder scene, but for many people, their only knowledge of Brandon's story — and maybe even rural Nebraska — is from the film. This is a state that prides itself on exciting college football, great steak, and a Midwestern work ethic. Understandably, Nebraskans bristle at the suggestion that Nissen and Lotter somehow exemplify attitudes in the state and that people in Middle America might be portrayed as "unenlightened rubes," as the former prosecutor in charge of the criminal trial, Jim Elworth, wrote in an email. He continued, "Nebraska has not changed, and thank goodness. It remains populated by good people who get up and go to work every day, treat others with respect and try their best to raise their children properly…" Elworth won convictions for both men. Lotter is on death row, and Nissen is in prison for life.
Elworth also feels national media has focused attention on the wrong aspects of Brandon's story. He doesn't think that Brandon was genuinely transgender. He knows this flies in the face of every common assumption over the last two decades. "It wasn't a 'sexual identity crisis,'" he said. "That angle is so overblown. It's just not accurate if you look at the facts. She went to Falls City and pretended to be a male because it made her popular." Elworth clarifies that LGBT issues are important, and said, "It's a legitimate issue, but it wasn't her issue."
Lynne Mytty, a transgender woman from Omaha, thinks of Brandon's situation a little differently than Elworth does. "When you first realize that you're different," she said, "you can't just change overnight, and sometimes you have to go out and try something."
Mytty tried to transition more than once before finally committing to it 20 years ago this month, immediately after Brandon's murder. "Show's you how crazy I am," she laughs.
In a purple sweater, jeans, gold accessories, and carefully styled hair, Mytty looks like anybody's middle-American, middle-class mom, but in private, her adult children still call her "dad." She describes her family as "all-American." "We had a wonderful Christmas, we have good trips together, but it hasn't been easy."
Mytty tried to transition in the '70s, but found it too difficult. "Most people confused being transgender with being gay or just assumed you were gay, which wasn't a good place to be in Nebraska, and I couldn't move out of Nebraska because of family," she said. She gave up living as a woman and instead married and fathered children. In 1994, she transitioned for the second time.
She points out that 20 years ago, when Brandon Teena was transitioning, community support was limited. "There was only one [gay] organization in Nebraska," Mytty said. "There were smaller ones around the country, but most of them were [in] the larger metropolitan areas...There were not any national organizations that even recognized transgender until PFLAG did it in 1999." That's when the "T" was added to "LGB."
Mytty is educated and professional, though she's retired now. For a poor kid like Brandon, access to resources would have been much more difficult. Even today, Mytty says most transgender people don't have her financial resources.
Tessa is a soft-spoken, intelligent, thirtysomething individual who identifies as "genderqueer." "I don't really like the binary gender system," she said, sitting in the Omaha-area apartment she shares with two transgender women.
Tessa prefers female pronouns and says that she identifies as female in terms of her body image. She looks a little like a punk rocker, and many people mistake her for a butch lesbian, which is fine with her because it elicits fewer questions.
She has mainly worked lower-wage jobs and often finds that co-workers and supervisors are disrespectful. At a call-center job, a supervisor outed her to her co-workers, most of whom did not know she was transgender. Tessa said, "They'll say that they're doing it for our protection, but they'll also say it like they're exposing a fake."
Workplace stories like Tessa's are one of the reasons Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray authored an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance. In 2010 the city council voted it down, but in March 2012, he tried again and it passed. The state nondiscrimination laws have yet to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Gray said that it was not a priority nor was it "on the radar" when he took office in 2009. It was a former colleague from Gray's days as a television reporter who suggested that the legislation was needed. "I wanted to do something I thought would pass, but I also wanted to do something that could stand the test of a constitutional challenge," Gray said. "The ordinance that I think we passed was a really good ordinance because it did protect the LGBT community from discrimination in the workplace and discrimination in public accommodations."
Sallans, Mytty, and Bacon are happy about the Omaha bill in part because it included the "T." "As [a bill] gets close to getting passed, usually they'll drop gender identity because of fear," said Sallans.
"I had compromised on a couple of things, but you know, the part about including the 'T' part of the LGBT community, I was not going to compromise on that," said Gray.
Bacon mentions outrage in the transgender community on a national level when, in 2007, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) promised to keep transgender people included in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but several weeks later compromised on that part of the legislation. Bacon was on the the board of the National Center for Transgender Equality in those days. She said she was so angry about the betrayal that she sat with her back to President Joe Solmonese as he spoke at the HRC national dinner.
"Between the time that my bill failed the first time and my introduction of it the second time, I just couldn't live with myself knowing that three young people in my district committed suicide in that time frame, and all of them were gay," Gray explained. "We ought not live in a country where anybody feels like that."
When the Omaha legislation was being debated, most of the opposition came from religious organizations. Gray, who is African-American and represents a majority African-American district with high poverty, said, "The majority of people who were opposed to my bill were leaders of church organizations in my district."
Gray, who worked as a television reporter and producer for more than 30 years before pursuing public office, covered the Brandon Teena story for the Omaha ABC affiliate. He calls Brandon's death a "contributing factor" in the progress we've made as a country. While he was opposed by some church leaders in passing his ordinance in 2012, he said that just as many clergy came out in support of the legislation.
On the Sunday morning before Christmas, Lynne and Meredith Bacon were clearly an integral part of the parish at All Saints Episcopal. Lynne has been a deacon in the church for 20 years and sings in the choir. Meredith is deeply involved in religious education. After mass, she and a fellow parishioner discussed their bell choir rehearsals.
A few days later, Tessa arrived just in time for the Christmas Eve service at the Second Unitarian Church of Omaha. She sidled up to an old friend and settled in for the service. She doesn't attend regularly, but a congregant remembered her from the days when she helped out with the transgender youth group. The church provides a safe space for teens and young adults to meet and get support; this is a lifeline that did not exist for Brandon 20 years ago.
Reflecting on why Brandon's death would be less likely to happen today in Richardson County — or elsewhere — Houser said, "It was the wrong two guys, the wrong person, the wrong cops, you know, just a confluence of events."
That unlikely "confluence of events" resonated louder than anyone might have anticipated 20 years ago. These days people may remember Boys Don't Cry more than his name, but Brandon Teena — an unlucky kid in a sleepy corner of Nebraska — unintentionally paved the way for others in the LGBT community by just being himself.