Message

Introduction

Teena Brandon [Brandon Teena] was a twenty-one-year-old woman who dressed 'like a male.' On December 24, 1993, John Lotter and Marvin Nissen raped and brutally assaulted Brandon. The incident began at a gathering in Richardson County, Nebraska...After Brandon refused Lotter's advances, Lotter grabbed Brandon's hands while Nissen pulled her pants and underwear to the floor. Later, the two men cornered Brandon in the bathroom and Lotter held the door closed while Nissen hit Brandon in the head, kicked her in the ribs, and stepped on her. The men then dragged Brandon out to their car and drove to a remote location where they each raped her. After the rape, Nissen again brutally beat Brandon and threatened her not to tell anyone about the incident.

The following day, Brandon went to the authorities and was interviewed by Deputy Olberding and Charles Laux, the then-duly elected sheriff of Richardson County. Brandon gave a three-page written statement detailing the rape and assault. Laux asked Brandon crude questions about the incident, telling Brandon that they were necessary in order to present the case to the County Attorney. Laux also questioned Brandon why she dressed "like a male" and why she socialized with females instead of males. Brandon cancelled two follow-up appointments with Laux because she feared his abusive treatment.

On December 31, 1993, Lotter and Nissen broke into the home of Lisa Lambert where Brandon was staying and fatally shot and stabbed Brandon and two others who were present in the home. The plaintiff asserts that the conspiracy to kill Brandon was simply an extension of the conspiracy to rape Brandon because she was a female who dressed like a male. [1]

To become acquainted with the facts of Brandon Teena's case is to be implicated in a crime that overpowers with its brutality. Brandon's murder—by close range shots to the head followed with numerous stab wounds—amounted to an execution. [2] And execution is not easily expressed, represented, or analyzed in our culture; words fall short. Yet this paper will attempt to make sense of Brandon's execution by viewing it through the intentionally mixed lenses of the film Boys Don't Cry; [3] the documentary, The Brandon Teena Story; [4] legal case documents; police reports; journalistic accounts; and contemporary feminist theoretical debates. I hope to use the powerful vision of Boys Don't Cry to spark a broader conversation about gender identity, sexuality, and violence against women.

Brandon Teena's story—especially its representation in American popular culture—raises several important questions for feminist and queer theory and praxis. First, how does this case challenge us to re-conceptualize violence against women? Do sex crimes play out differently—i.e., with different dynamics and according to alternative 'logics'— when they target transgendered individuals? If so, does transgender violence call for new strategies of feminist intervention? Does the case of Brandon Teena necessitate a new emphasis on the body within feminist politics, or a reassessment of the social meanings ascribed to female bodies?

Brandon Teena's story troubles conventional feminist understandings of the body, sexual difference, and violence against women. Especially, it points to a need for intersectional political alliances between feminist, queer, and transgender communities. Such alliances would foster nuanced approaches toward violence against women that might more effectively promote legislative change. As narrated in Boys Don't Cry and The Brandon Teena Story, Brandon Teena's storyhighlights the need to address intersecting facets of oppression. Yet it also locates the female body as the site of particularly brutal inscriptions of power, 'truth,' and difference.

Identity, invisibility, and violence: boys don't cry

To assess media portrayals of Brandon Teena, it is useful to review the legal history of his case. After Brandon Teena's murder on New Year's Eve 1994, his mother sued the perpetrators as well as Charles Laux, the County Sheriff. The prosecution argued that Brandon's murder was the culmination of a conspiracy to rape him, and that both crimes were motivated by "hatred for a female who dressed like a male." [5] Furthermore, prosecutors claimed that because Sheriff Laux did not intervene in the week between Brandon's rape and murder—despite incriminating evidence—he breached his official duty to protect Brandon Teena.

In September 1997, Judge Richard Kopf disagreed with the prosecution. On behalf of the Nebraska District Court, he opined that Sheriff Laux did not have a duty to protect Brandon Teena. According to Judge Kopf, Laux had no reason to believe that Brandon's rape was motivated by disdain for a female-to-male (FTM) transgender individual, or that such hatred—even if documented—could lead to murder. Four years later, on April 20, 2001, the Nebraska Supreme Court overruled the lower court's decision. Chief Justice John Hendry held that "based upon the undisputed facts in this case, we determine that Laux's conduct was extreme and outrageous, beyond all possible bounds of decency, and is to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community." [6] Judge Hendry remanded the case to district court for a new determination of damages.

The viewpoint expressed in Boys Don't Cry sheds some light on the State Supreme Court's ruling. The film presents Brandon Teena's murder as intelligible only as part of a continuum of sexual violence that begins with dehumanizing hate speech and finds its logical conclusion in murder. In order to think about sexual violence as a continuum, I will first explore discourses of sex, truth, transgression, and transgender identity.

The 'question' of identity: brandon teena

Apart from media portrayals and the personal testimony of friends and family, who was Brandon Teena? Many journalists evoke Brandon in terms of monstrosity and deviance, most notably as a "cross-dressing rape accuser."  [16] In his description of Brandon Teena and his adolescent girlfriends, Eric Konigsberg observes that "almost everyone that knew Teena as a boy still refers to her with masculine pronouns." Since Konigsberg frames his article as a tale of cunning deceit and vengeance, his own usage of the male pronoun throughout the article discursively serves to produce an effect of truth. Although Teena's girlfriends were duped, Konigsberg has gotten to the 'bottom' of this mystery and has been disabused.

At the most basic level, Brandon was a female cross-dresser: a woman who dressed like a man. Teena Brandon, a teen-aged girl, was a tomboy from an early age: she refused to wear dresses, played pranks in school, and longed to join the army. Feminists might contend that Teena, like other female-to-male (FTM) transgendered people, resisted the conventional scripts of femininity by employing the mask of masculinity. Because she felt trapped by her female body, Brandon dressed like a man and adopted various disciplinary practices to coax her body into virtual maleness. She strapped an Ace bandage around her chest, shaved her face, and stuffed a sock into her jeans. She cross-dressed in order to accede to the privileges of masculinity, and possibly to express her sexual preference for women in a homophobic society. Some feminists have understood Brandon as a transgressive woman who performed gender and sexuality as a continuum of practices and behaviors rather than a fixed identity. From this perspective, Brandon Teena radically questioned gender norms, heteronormative society, and the family. [17]

Other feminist theorists would argue that cross-dressers like Brandon Teena merely reinscribe essentialist conceptions of gender identity. In their view, Brandon's desire to be a man is problematic or, at best, ambivalent. If Brandon feels uncomfortable as a 'woman,' how does she know that what she really wants is to be a 'man'? Although Brandon is unhappy with conventional femininity, she does not contest its hegemony. Rather than questioning femininity or binary sexual difference per se, she desires conventional masculinity. As a result, although her cross-dressing complicates conventional gender roles, it ultimately leaves them intact as opposed to upsetting the status quo.

Yet the latter view rests on some reductive assumptions about transgendered identity. The transgender community encompasses a wide variety of people: cross-dressers; drag queens; individuals who do not feel that they belong to either 'sex'; people who are in the process of transitioning from one gender identity to another; people who are able to 'pass' as their preferred gender with little or no medical intervention; and those who have already completed their transition via hormonal treatment and/or sexual reassignment surgery. Given the diverse and fluid expressions of gender ambiguity and sexual identity within this group, it is reductive to conclude that transgenderism reinscribes conventional masculinity and femininity. This standpoint erases the complicated nexus of desire and gender incongruity expressed, for example, by Brandon Teena.

From another perspective, Teena Brandon might be considered a repressed or homophobic lesbian, "a young woman struggling to come to terms with being a lesbian in an unyielding environment." [18] Yet she often made homophobic remarks and actively denied that she was a lesbian. In the following exchange, Brandon tried to allay her mother's fears about Brandon's sexual identity:

[Mother]: Are you a lesbian?

[Brandon]: That's disgusting. I can't be with a woman that way. I love them the way a man does.

It's like I'm really a man trapped inside this body. [19]

Based on these and other comments, many activists in the GLBTQ community would resist identifying Brandon as a closeted lesbian. Some gay and lesbian organizers do not take an interest in Brandon's case on the grounds that transgender issues do not concern sexual orientation but, rather, identity. Within the transgender community, Brandon's purported homophobia initially presented an obstacle to political mobilization. Immediately following Brandon's death, the local community debated whether Brandon was an 'authentic' transsexual or simply a homophobic lesbian. Ultimately, however, a core group of transgendered activists agreed that it was crucial to protest and publicize Brandon's murder. Members of Transsexual Menace held vigils on the courthouse steps in Nebraska during Brandon's murder trial, and later organized rallies in Kansas City. [20]

Within the medical community, Brandon would most likely be understood in the pathologizing terms of gender dysphoria or sexual identity crisis. Contemporary case management for transgendered individuals is based on standards of care first proposed by endocrinologist Harry Benjamin in 1966. Until about ten years ago, these standards required that a transgendered [21] individual spend a trial year living according to the conventions of his or her desired gender, without benefit of hormonal treatment or surgery and without disclosing the details of his 'experiment' to anyone. During this trial year, the individual was expected to quit his or her job, move to a new town, and find a new, 'gender-appropriate' profession (such as law for FTM transgendered persons or secretarial work for MTF individuals). After this trial year, doctors routinely reinforced sexist and heterosexist biases by refusing to perform surgery on MTF transsexuals who refused to assume the conventional props of femininity (such as makeup and dresses), or those who did not plan to pursue heterosexual relationships post-transition. Although these standards of care have been modified somewhat in the last few years, a diagnosis of gender identity disorder followed by a trial year is still required by most physicians before a transgendered individual can undergo sex reassignment surgery. [22] Furthermore, the prohibitive cost of this surgery causes most transsexuals to wait several years in order to procure sufficient funds to complete their transition. [23]

In January 1992, Brandon's mother tricked him into visiting a psychiatrist at Lincoln General Hospital, who diagnosed Brandon with a sexual identity crisis.  [24] The psychiatrist admitted Brandon to a county crisis center, from which he was released three days later on the premise that he did not exhibit suicidal tendencies. [25] The medical community's handling of Brandon's identity as a form of pathology conforms to its broader objectives to manage or cure that which it deems abnormal.

Amidst this flurry of voices, how did Brandon identify himself? Brandon alternately described himself as either a hermaphrodite, an individual with a sexual identity crisis, or simply a male. He professed to several friends and family members that he had received counseling and was required to live as a man before obtaining sex reassignment surgery—which he expressed as his ultimate goal. David Bolkovac, director of the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center at the University of Nebraska who counseled Brandon in 1992, acknowledged that "[Brandon] believed she was a man trapped in a woman's body. She did not identify herself as a lesbian. She believed she was a man." [26] In light of the war over gender pronouns that play out in media reports of Brandon Teena's murder and psychological assessments of his gender identity, [27] I see a need to align my own account with Brandon's chosen identification. Yet it is important to remember that Brandon's identity is, ultimately, a site of contest. Its undecidability attests to both the inadequacy of a binary model of sexual difference and to the limits of our contemporary sexual imagination.

Sex, truth and transgression

By and large, media coverage of Brandon Teena's murder portrays it as the inevitable consequence of sexual deviance and deceit. Newspaper headlines routinely address Brandon Teena's ambiguous gender identity as the true 'cause' of his murder. Such headlines include: "Death of a deceiver"; "Deadly Deception: Teena Brandon's Double Life May Have Led to a Triple Murder"; "Man Who Killed Cross-Dressing Rape Accuser Gets Death Penalty"; "Cross-Dresser Killed Two Weeks After Town Learned Her True Identity." These headlines mirror the sentiment of Sheriff Laux, to whom Brandon Teena issued an oral and written statement regarding his rape by John Lotter and Marvin Nissen. When asked why he didn't arrest the two suspects after Brandon's rape accusation, Laux stated that he did not trust Brandon because she had lied about her gender. [7]

Media portrayals of Brandon Teena's behavior as 'deceitful' typically equate gender identity with biological sex and genitalia, such that any expression of gender identity that does not correlate to biological sex is construed as trickery or cunning. Journalist Eric Konigsberg asserts journalistic authority over Brandon Teena by evoking the 'truth' of her dead body in the opening sentence of his article. In his assessment, "Teena Renee Brandon's mystery was over the moment her body was discovered, facedown on a bed in a farmhouse in Humboldt, Nebraska." [8] Konigsberg's account persistently blames Brandon for deceit and, implicitly, for his own death. He uses judgment-laden terms to evoke the "double life of Teena Brandon: uneasy tomboy by day, cool lady-killer by night. Teena didn't seem to have trouble finding new people to con, new women to woo." [9]

Given the prevalence of public anxieties to know the 'truth' about one's sex, it is important to inquire into the stakes of a discourse that posits sexual 'deceit' as the cause of, and justification for, execution. The notion that there might be a truth of sex is produced by "regulatory practices" [10] underlying the binary construction of sexual difference, through which masculinity and femininity are constituted as the only possible avenues for gender identification. As Judith Butler notes,

The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of "identities" cannot exist—that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which practices of desire do not "follow" from either sex or gender. "Follow" in this context is a political relation of entailment instituted by the cultural laws that establish and regulate the shape and meaning of sexuality. [11]

This matrix produces non-binary sexual identification as invisible, impossible, deviant, and/or deceitful. When medical practitioners assign a gender to intersexed infants, for example, their decisions ensure that the gender expressions of such children will conform to the 'truths' of their genitalia. Similarly, sex education that construes the female body as rapeable helps to construct 'true' masculinity as aggressively sexual, and to ensure that 'good' girls will conform to the passive sexual practices associated with 'true' femininity. The net effect of these regulatory discourses is to prohibit and punish any gender identifications that upset the sexual status quo.

Transgendered identity is especially perceived as a threat to binary sexual difference. Many theorists regard transgenderism as a challenge to the purported truths of sexual identity. For example, Marjorie Garber interprets the cross-dresser as a transgressive embodiment of ambiguity, or a "figure that disrupts." [12] Similarly, Judith Butler maintains that cross-dressing "provides critical opportunities to expose the limits and regulatory aims of the [binary] matrix of intelligibility, and to open up [...] rival and subversive matrices of gender disorder." [13]

Although it is crucial to imagine the subversive potential of 'gender disorder,' it is also important to recall that with such potential come certain limits. As Butler acknowledges with respect to drag, the practice of parodying dominant gender norms does not necessarily displace them. [14] While some people celebrate the disruptive potential of transgenderism, others respond to transgendered individuals with a hatred that manifests itself as an obsessive will to truth and power. [15]

In Boys Don't Cry, the will to power is most brutally portrayed in an episode of forced bodily exposure. In this filmic scene, Lotter and Nissen expose Brandon's body for everyone to see. The act of revealing produces in the perpetrators an effect of absolute power and orgasmic pleasure. Later, when Lotter and Nissen beat and rape Brandon, they effectively carve their initials onto the surface of his body. Their actions reassert male dominance over a woman (or, in their words, a "lying bitch"), and violently engrave her body with their power and authority as a theoria of knowers and truth-tellers. Lotter and Nissen delight in forcefully exposing Brandon Teena's genitals, which they equate with her 'true' gender identity. Through this incident, it becomes possible to read Brandon Teena's murder as the acting-out of hatred for a woman who rejects binary sexual difference. Brandon's genital exposure involves a gruesome performance of patriarchal, heterosexist power that brands enforceable limits and truths about gender identity onto the female body. These limits are enforceable in the sense that they can be upheld at whim, at the very moment that someone decides to punish perceived transgression of the sexual status quo.

Rereading sex, identity, and violence: police sensitivity or brutality?

Sheriff Laux: When he pulled your pants down, did he fondle you?

Brandon: No

Sheriff Laux: No? Doesn't that amaze you? Doesn't that get your attention, doesn't it seem like he would put his hands inside you and play with you a little bit? I can't believe that.

Brandon: Well he didn't.

Sheriff Laux: Huh. I can't believe that he pulled your pants down and you are a female that he didn't stick his hand in you or his finger in you.

Brandon: Well he didn't.

Sheriff Laux: Can't believe he didn't. [28]

Brandon Teena was murdered on New Year's Eve 1994 in Falls City, Nebraska. Deputy Sheriff Jon Larson describes Falls City as a small town with a high degree of intolerance for difference and a disproportionately high incidence of domestic violence. Within this town, John Lotter and Tom Nissen were well known among law enforcement officials; both had previously served time in prison on various criminal charges. On December 24, 1993, one week before murdering Brandon Teena, Lotter and Nissen raped and assaulted her, and then threatened to 'permanently silence' her if she disclosed the incident to anyone.

For Sheriff Laux, Brandon Teena was a depraved, pathological, and dehumanized 'other.' On one level, Brandon was, for Laux, female; hence the questions that he asked during Brandon's oral statement: why did she dress like a man? Why did she pull her pants down for those boys? Why didn't Lotter and Nissen stick anything inside of her when they pulled down her pants and exposed her genitals? Why did she kiss girls? [29] From Laux's perspective, Brandon was ultimately a liar who "pulled the wool over everyone's eyes." Why should he take her rape accusation seriously? Laux asks this question implicitly, by failing to promptly issue arrest warrants for Nissen and Lotter on suspicion of rape and battery. And he asks this question even though he was apparently unable to conceive of Brandon's female genitals without something stuck inside of them, without some attempt at male penetration. I want to focus here on the female genitals, particularly as they are evoked in the above-referenced exchange between Brandon and Sheriff Laux. As I hope to show, conflicting versions of this exchange lead to significantly different conclusions about police sensitivity to rape allegations and to their duty to protect the lives of endangered citizens.

In Boys Don't Cry, the above-mentioned exchange between Brandon and Sheriff Laux is presented as part of a spliced, hence discontinuous, chronology. When the film first depicts Brandon's oral statement to Sheriff Laux, the audience knows only that Brandon has been beaten by Lotter and Nissen. Within Boys Don't Cry, Sheriff Laux's questions (cited above) imply a suspicion that Brandon has not only been beaten, but raped as well. His words seem to solicit testimony to this effect. As audience members, we slowly learn, through the filmic devices of flashback and decoupage, that Brandon has indeed been both beaten and raped. The film's jump cut techniques lead us to believe that it is Sheriff Laux's questioning that compels Brandon to report his rape.

Case documents from the trial in the US District Court for the District of Nebraska show the course of events in a slightly different light. The judges' summary of facts in the case indicates that when Brandon spoke with Sheriff Laux at approximately 3:40 PM on December 25, 1993, he had already provided a three-page written statement of the rape and battery to another police officer, Deputy Sheriff Tom Olberding, earlier that day. The judicial account of Brandon's discussion with Sheriff Laux—culled from Brandon's written and oral police statements—indicates no time lapse between Brandon's report of the genital exposure, battery, and rape. Instead, case documents indicate that Brandon verbally relayed to the sheriff the entire series of events, including the forced exposure of his genitals and his subsequent rape and battery. [30] Furthermore, legal documents show that before he filed his report at the Falls City Police Station, Brandon visited the Falls City Hospital emergency room. There, an on-duty nurse discussed the assault with Brandon and collected fingernail samples as evidence for a state-mandated rape kit. In connection with the rape and Brandon's willingness to report it to the police, the hospital forwarded their medical report to the police station. [31]

In The Brandon Teena Story's account of this incident, Brandon visited the county hospital on the morning of December 25, 1993, in order to receive medical treatment for injuries sustained during battery and assault. Hospital authorities contacted Police Chief Hammerling about the assault, and Hammerling arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter with an evidence collection kit. After questioning Brandon about the assault, Hammerling confirmed with attending physicians that Brandon's injuries were consistent with rape, and he decided to launch an investigation rather than to immediately apprehend Lotter and Nissen. Later that day, Brandon Teena filed written and oral statements about the assault with Sheriffs Laux and Olberding. The sheriffs knew the identities and whereabouts of both suspects, yet failed to issue a warrant for their arrest.

During Brandon's murder trial, Sheriff Olberding testified that he had believed Brandon Teena's allegations. Based on his belief in the credibility of Brandon's testimony, he and Laux called the suspects in to the police station for questioning on December 28, 1993. At the station, Nissen confessed that Lotter had raped Brandon, although Lotter denied this allegation. Both suspects were subsequently released. Later that day, Olberding communicated to his boss, Sheriff Laux, that he had decided to issue an arrest warrant for the two suspects based on corroborating evidence. Laux advised him against this course of action, and urged him to file a police report instead. A few days later, when Brandon's sister called Laux to ask why he had not arrested the two suspects, Laux replied that the investigation was 'under his control' and quickly ended their conversation. During his brief investigation, Sheriff Laux called Brandon's girlfriend's mother into the police station for questioning. When she fumbled over the appropriate usage of gender pronouns (he/she) with which to describe Brandon, Laux advised her to "just call it an it." [32]

The Brandon Teena Story follows Brandon's oral testimony with an interview of suspect John Lotter, who admits that his friend, Nissen, placed his finger inside Brandon's vagina after pulling down her pants. By juxtaposing Laux's line of inquiry with Lotter's account of what 'really' happened, the documentary sheds new light on Laux's tactics. The Sheriff's questions express disbelief that a male quest to determine Brandon's true identity would be satisfied by simply seeing Brandon's genitals. Instead, Laux insinuates that Lotter and Nissen would need to touch or otherwise penetrate the female genitals to fully verify the 'truth' of Brandon's sexual identity. In this respect, the documentary allows us to read Laux's line of questioning as something other than a 'sensitive' attempt to extract testimony from a hesitant rape victim. Instead, the documentary situates Laux's questions within a Freudian psychoanalytical context that equates the body with the 'truth' of gender identity; constructs the female genitals as 'nothing to see'; and imagines female sexuality as a 'dark continent' whose depths must be plumbed by male exploration and expertise.

As evidenced below in an excerpt from The Brandon Teena Story, Laux's questions betray several assumptions about the sexual identity of Brandon Teena:

Sheriff Laux: Did he have trouble getting it in you? You say that you're 21 and you've never had sex. Is that true? Was he able to get all the way inside you? [repeats several times]...Did Lotter seem to take awhile? Did he have a hard time getting it up? Did you work it up for him?

In this exchange, Laux assumes that Brandon is lying about his virginity. As a result, he expresses disbelief that the rapists would have experienced any 'barriers' to penetration (such as Brandon's intact hymen). Even more strikingly, Laux suggests that this was not rape at all; instead, it could only have been a consensual sex act in which Brandon freely participated. [33] His comments echo those expressed by several of the men interviewed in Timothy Beneke's study of male attitudes toward rape. In Beneke's study, many rapists believed that women enjoy rape because "all sex is pleasurable." According to this formulation, the male-defined pleasurability of sex renders female consent irrelevant. Similarly, Laux's questions construe Brandon's consent as negligible. For Sheriff Laux, Brandon's identity is simultaneously woman-and-not-woman; 'it' is inhuman, debased and sexually depraved. Because Brandon is an 'it' with deviant sexual predilections, his consent to any sexual act is unimportant to Sheriff Laux.

By insisting on differences between the filmic representations and legal accounts of Brandon's story, I do not mean to suggest that the underreporting of rape and sexual assault is not a widespread phenomenon. Nor would I deny that Brandon was most likely hesitant to report his rape, especially in light of his 'closeted' sexual identity. But a close reading of these divergent representations of Brandon's police statement makes possible a more sophisticated analysis of the intersections between sexuality, violence, and gender identity in this case.