"The Brandon Archive": Revisiting Brandon Teena's Brave Life & Tragic Death

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Teena pic Anchored by Hilary Swank’s still-astonishing, Oscar-winning performance, “Boys Don’t Cry†catapulted Teena’s story into mainstream awareness, where it was met with compassion, if little understanding.
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly Following his 1993 murder in tiny Humboldt, NE, Brandon Teena's story was told again and again by journalists and filmmakers attempting to make sense of his transgender existence, for which most of them lacked any frame of reference. Surveying those materials today — a body of work author and academic Jack Halberstam, in his book "In a Queer Time and Place," terms "the Brandon Archives" — one is struck by its subject's unshakable sense of self. Over and over his gender identity was rejected: by his mother JoAnn, by the army, in which he attempted to enlist as male at 18, by his school, which expelled him, and by the hospital that diagnosed him with a "sexual identity crisis" the year prior to his death. Despite these unending refutations, he asserted his maledom, and pursued the romances with women that so clearly animated his ambitions. The Brandon Archive today serves as both a Rorschach and a time capsule. The same story is told in it again and again: Teena's move from Lincoln to Falls City (I will refer to Brandon Teena by his last name), the romances and friendships he formed, the arrest for check forging, through which his birth assignment became known, and his rape and eventual murder. Over this outline is lain the ignorance, prejudice, and transphobia of the time. In his book "Disciplining Gender," author John Sloop enumerates the trends one finds in these accounts: that Brandon Teena was a "deceiver," that his rural girlfriends were too naive to know he was not "actually" a man, and that his killers, in their ignorance and hate, were emblematic of small town, mid-western homophobia. Transphobic and classist, these "true crime" accounts, which ran in high profile publications, such as “The New Yorker,†“The Village Voice,†and “Playboy,†sensationalized the story and its subject's tragic death, while "other"-izing everyone involved. The trial of Teena's assailants took place in 1995. John Lotter and Tom Nissen had raped Teena on Christmas Eve of 1993, a hate crime motivated by the deceased's gender identity. When Teena reported the crime he was harassed at length by Falls City's sheriff Charles Laux (infuriating audio from their exchange can be heard in the documentary "The Brandon Teena Story"). Laux did not question or arrest Teena's assailants. Instead he informed them of the latter's accusations, an act that precipitated the New Year's Eve murder, which occurred in the Humboldt barn where Teena had sought shelter. The Transsexual Menace, a direct action advocacy group, staged a demonstration at the trial to draw attention to the scourge of violence faced by trans people. Among the demonstrators were authors Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, and Riki Wilchins, the latter of whom wrote of the experience, "By mid-afternoon, the local Neo-Nazis and skinheads were circling the block, spitting out their windows at us, trying to sideswipe us, and giving 'Seig Heil' salutes. Eventually the police had to step in to protect us.  Such is the climate of violence and hate in which we as transpeople live, even when simply trying to mourn our dead." The Menace convened in New York, as well, to protest the “The Village Voice's†coverage of the murder.  In the Voice article, "Love Hurts: Brand on Teena was a Woman Who Lived and Loved as a Man: She was Killed for Carrying It Off," lesbian writer Donna Mankowitz presented Teena as a confused, self-loathing lesbian who adopted a male identity to cope with her homophobia. Such was the lack of trans awareness and social capital at the time that the Transsexual Menace's protest was met by a simple restatement of her thesis and brush off in a follow-up piece by Minkowitz. Reporting of this type was typical. As Sloop writes in his book, "Most stories prior to the release of 'Boys Don't Cry' represent Brandon as a 'real' woman who was intentionally posing as a man in order to fool others." An example of this is seen in Eric Konigsberg's lengthy Playboy piece, where he wrote, "Posing as a man got Teena Brandon what she couldn't get as a woman — adoring girlfriends and a fiancee. It also got her killed." It's not until the 1998 documentary "The Brandon Teena Story" that the archive begins to reveal Teena's genuine personality. Through interviews with the young women he dated and friends he'd confided in, a picture emerges of a gregarious, hopeless romantic, with the bad habit of funding courtships via forged checks. The film also displays an identity somewhat in flux, as different interviewees refer to Teena by different male names, revealing how what Halberstam describes as, "The political complexities of an activism sparked by murder and energized by the work of memorializing individuals" helped fix an image that, itself, may not yet have been fully in focus. 1999 saw the release of the feature film "Boys Don't Cry." Anchored by Hillary Swank's still-astonishing, Oscar-winning performance, the movie catapulted Teena's story into mainstream awareness, where it was met with compassion, if little understanding. In a featurette made at the time of its release, director Kimberly Pierce misgenders Teena, as his mother and sister do throughout "The Brandon Teena Story." Teena's grave still bears his birth name. Teena's death sparked widespread interest. Unlike Matthew Shepard's, however, which occurred a year prior to the release of "Boys Don't Cry," it took place in a world with scant awareness of, or respect for, his identity. The expulsion of trans people from the LGBT rights movement they helped found by post-Stonewall activists, left their advocacy decades behind that of LGB people. To plunge into the Brandon Archive is to encounter all manner of hate, violence and ignorance. At its heart, though, one finds a young man of preternatural self-understanding and belief; a young man who spent his too few years loving and being loved as his true self.