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The Inconvenient Truth about Teena Brandon

Teena Brandon is remembered today as the female-to-male, transgender victim of a brutal murder motivated by transphobia. When she was eighteen years old, three years before her death, she had been admitted to a crisis center as a result of a drug overdose, which may have been intentional. At the time, she was seriously underweight from an eating disorder and taking seven showers a day, with seven complete changes of clothing. Drinking heavily, she faced twelve pending charges of forgery and a possible charge of sexual assault on a minor, was suffering from a recent, unreported and untreated rape, and was involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old girl, in which she was passing as male. She reported to therapists that, as a child, she had been a victim of years of sexual abuse perpetrated by a male member of her family. According to her biographer, she was diagnosed with "mild gender identity dysphoria," reporting to her friends that a sex-change operation had been suggested.

I want to talk about an inconvenient truth. I want to talk about the fact the person who was named Teena Brandon was a survivor of incest. You won't hear this mentioned in Boys Don't Cry, and you won't hear it mentioned in the documentary "The Brandon Teena Story." You won't read about it in the current Wikipedia entry. It is, like I said, inconvenient.

"Inconvenient" means "causing trouble or difficulties." The inconvenient truth of Brandon's incest history causes trouble because incorporating information about child sexual abuse into the narrative of Brandon's life pathologizes the transgendered identity adopted by Brandon and for which she has become an icon. This is perceived as disrespectful and transphobic—as an attack on Brandon's identity and a posthumous attempt to appropriate a victim's identity.

But the omission of Brandon's incest history is disrespectful and phobic to survivors of child sexual abuse. It also constitutes a posthumous attempt to appropriate a victim's identity. As a survivor, I am disturbed by the revisionist histories of Brandon that omit Brandon's status as a victim of child sexual abuse—and all of the subsequent inconvenient truths accompanying that status.

Inconvenient truths have a way of remaining unarticulated, because they exist outside the frame of reference that has been established. The first difficulty one encounters in telling this inconvenient truth about Teena Brandon is the issue of pronouns. Brandon was sexually abused as a female child, born biologically female, by an adult male perpetrator who was a family member. The gender of victim and perpetrator are clinical details that are critical to the understanding of the perpetration and the impact it had on Brandon. Because of this, I will be using a female pronoun to refer to Brandon as a child, even though, in adulthood, Brandon would identify as male. This places my narrative outside the accepted protocol of respectful dialogue about trans identity.

In this essay, I will refer to her as "Brandon," because, as an adult, she chose to adopt her given surname as her personal name. In titling the essay, I have used her legal, given name "Teena Brandon." It is another inconvenient truth that Brandon never used the name "Brandon Teena." This name was posthumously ascribed, and then picked up by the media. It was a convenient untruth, because it constituted a clever reversal of Brandon's birth name, flipping the name to correspond with flipping gender. "Brandon Teena" is a PR-savvy metaphor… and a fiction.

The Incest

In Aphrodite Jones' biography, All She Wanted, the first narration of the sexual abuse shows up in an interview with Sara Gapp, Brandon's best friend when Brandon was twelve. "She [Brandon] told me that one of her relatives was doing something to her that she didn't like. She just kinda said that, you know, he would kinda whip this thing out and kinda play with it a little bit… and she said occasionally he'd have her touch him and then he would play with her and tell her, 'oh, you like it. You know this feels good… You know you don't want me to stop.'" (Jones, 43) According to Sara, "At that point in time, she didn't want anyone to know about what happened. She didn't want the guy mad at her… She was embarrassed. No matter what he did to her, she still loved him." (Jones, 43)

Brandon's therapist later confirmed the story of the abuse, adding that, according to Brandon, the sessions of abuse would last for hours and that the molestation continued for a period of years, from childhood into adolescence. In one counseling session, Brandon confronted her mother JoAnn about it, but requested that she not confront the perpetrator, who may have been one of JoAnn's relatives. Brandon's sister Tammy, also a victim, confirmed Brandon's account. It is possible that this abuse was a factor in Brandon's decision to leave home at sixteen, get a job, and move in with her then-girlfriend, Traci Beels, an older classmate.

Brandon's Gender Expression

Brandon didn't like wearing dresses to school. When her mother asked the reason for this, Brandon told her that dresses were cold (this was Nebraska) and that the boys could look up them when the girls climbed the stairs. Because she attended a school that required uniforms, she wore the pants and ties that were standard for the boys, but that girls were also allowed to wear. According to her best friend Sara Gapp, "People kept saying she dressed like a guy. She didn't… She dressed in clothes that she felt comfortable in. She didn't go to the guys' section to buy those clothes. Those were women's clothes she was wearing. She just liked baggy clothes. She wore short hair. Does that make her a guy?" (Jones, 55)

The choice to wear baggy clothes is consistent with the choices of many survivors of sexual abuse. Brandon's "passing" as a man began later as a practical joke on a teenaged girl who dialed Brandon's number by accident and mistook her for a boy on the phone. According to Sarah, "Up until Liz Delano [the mistaken caller], if you had called her a boy, Teena would be offended. She didn't want to be recognized as a guy. She didn't feel like a guy." (Jones, 54)

Brandon has also been described as indulging in male role-playing. According to her sister Tammy,

The church was really significant to her. We went to Catholic school, and I think they kind of brainwash you in kindergarten on being priests and nuns. They always bring in priests and nuns to talk about how they got the calling and how you'll know if you have the calling… Teena never wanted to be a nun; she always wanted to be a priest, and I thought it was funny because I had to participate in her masses, and I'd get really bored half the time, 'cause she'd read from the Bible and make us sing. I thought it was just a game she played; then every once in a while she'd say, 'Oh, I want to be a priest someday.' (Jones, 34)

Was Brandon identifying with the power to officiate or with the gender? In light of the Church's ban against women priests, which denies women the prestige, ceremonial office, and opportunity for leadership associated with the priesthood, it would be irresponsible to attribute Brandon's desire to be a priest to "gender dysphoria"—a term that, when applied to females, could as well be defined as "sex-caste resistance." Identification with gender roles in a male dominant culture cannot be separated from identification with the privileges that accompany those roles. As pioneer psychoanalyst Karen Horney notes, "We live… in a male culture, i.e. state, economy, art and science are creations of man and thus filled with his spirit." (Horney, 152)

Brandon's discomfort with her developing body has been documented. In her book, Aphrodite Jones reports that Brandon hated the pain caused by her developing breasts, and that she also complained of the pain of menstrual cramps and the inconvenience of having to deal with a monthly flow of blood. Were these the objections of a "male trapped in a female body," or of a particularly self-assertive and articulate girlchild appalled by the inconvenience, embarrassment, and pain of the adult female body?

Brandon's discomfort ran deeper than annoyance. She reported that it would "make her feel sick" (Jones, 47) to have anyone stare at her chest. Again, a girl need not be an incest survivor to register disgust at the sexual objectification of her developing body at puberty, but the female incest survivor who has internalized a masculine ideal faces a different set of obstacles:

While puberty represents a painful time for many adolescent girls, for daughters in incest families this transition into female adulthood may be especially difficult and confusing as her body signals not only the passage into female adulthood but the recognition that the internalized masculine ideal is truly a fantasy of other and can never be the real self. (Jacobs, 86)

The rejection of the female self can offer an explanation for the prevalence of eating disorders at puberty among incest survivors. Brandon, at the time of her attempted suicide, was reported as manifesting serious eating disorders.

For the incest survivor, her body becomes the symbol of her victimization and thus the focus of her desire for control. Further, the obsession with a thin, boyish body, rather than an expression of femininity, may represent an unconscious rejection of the female self through which the daughter attempts to integrate the internalized male ego ideal with an external image of a masculinized child's body. (Jacobs, 88)

Victim Responses to Incest

In her book Victimized Daughters: Incest and the Development of the Female Self, Janet Liebman Jacobs states that incest represents "the most extreme form of the sexual objectification of the female child in patriarchal culture." (Jacobs, 11) She makes a compelling case for the fact that incest has a major impact on female personality development, including gender identity.

Jacobs' book highlights significant developmental issues that influence the personality formation of sexually abused daughters, and among these is identification with the perpetrator. Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud and the founder of child psychoanalysis, elaborates on this process:

A child introjects some characteristic of an anxiety-object and so assimilates an anxiety-experience which he [she] has just undergone… By impersonating the aggressor, assuming his attributes or imitating his aggression, the child transforms himself [herself] from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat. (Freud, 121)

Turning away from her mother, whom she perceives as an untrustworthy betrayer-of-her-own-kind, the victimized daughter looks toward the male perpetrator, who, because he is her abuser, is perceived as powerful, and who, because he is male, still hold the potential for objective idealization. "Female," for the daughter, has become identified as the subjective gender for victims and betrayers. According to trauma researcher Judith Herman, "In her desperate attempts to preserve her faith in her parents, the child victim develops highly idealized images of at least one parent… More commonly, the child idealizes the abusive parent and displaces all her rage onto the nonoffending parent." (Herman, 106) Describing her research with survivors of father-daughter incest, Herman notes, "With the exception of those who had become conscious feminists, most of the incest victims seemed to regard all women, including themselves, with contempt." (Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 103)

Rejecting the mother and her own female identity, the victimized daughter begins to imitate the aggressor. E. Sue Blume, author of Secret Survivors, describes how the daughter reinvents herself through identification with the perpetrator.

...child victims often recreate themselves, developing alter egos who offer a positive live alternative to their own. Most commonly, this is a male persona: female survivor clients may either substitute alternative male personalities, or attach to a male fantasy companion. This is simple to understand: as a victim, and a female, she associates her vulnerable state with defenselessness; males, however, are seen as physically stronger, and not easily targeted for victimization. (Blume, 85)

Brandon's Lesbophobia

Brandon reported that in October 1990, she was raped. That same fall, when she was almost eighteen, Brandon tried to join the army. According to her friends, she was eager to be a part of Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately, she did not pass the written exams. This appears to have been a turning point for her. According to her mother, "She was really upset… She started to change." (Jones, 47)

One of the biggest questions about Brandon's choices is "Why didn't she identify herself as lesbian?" She may well have been trying to do that when she attempted to enlist. Why would a transman want to enlist in a strictly segregated, all-female environment? The military, in spite of its homophobic policies and witch hunts, has always appealed to lesbians, because it has historically provided a same-sex living and work environment for four years.

Although rape and sexual harassment occur in the military, a survivor who associates her violation with isolation and ongoing exposure to access by males might feel there was safety in an all-female environment, and especially if she had just been raped. Also, army regulation uniforms provide protective covering that de-emphasize sexual characteristics and discourage sexual objectification. It would be naive to assume that Brandon, who had, by high school, identified her sexual attraction to women and who had already moved in with one girlfriend, was unaware of the association of lesbians with the military. She may well have been looking for the lesbians, and this may explain in part her extreme reaction to failing the entrance exam.

If this is the case, then why didn't she go looking for the communities of lesbians in her hometown? Because "don't ask, don't tell" was not a policy that applied to working-class gays and lesbians in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1990. The homophobia there was overt and potentially life-threatening. Harassment could take the form of anonymous, obscene phone calls, drive-by threats and insults, and physical assault. Because rape is viewed by homophobes as a "cure" for lesbianism, harassment can take the form of threats of rape, or the act itself.

For a young woman who had a horror of male sexuality and who had told friends that rape was one of her biggest fears, and who had just been raped, the prospect of this kind of harassment must have been terrifying. The October rape may, in fact, have been a homophobic assault directed against her, as a woman who didn't date men and who had a history of cohabitation with a girlfriend.

But there was another reason why Brandon wasn't identifying herself as lesbian: Lesbianism had become a power issue between Brandon and her mother.

In March of 1991, shortly after Brandon's rejection by the army, a teenaged girl named Liz Delano dialed a wrong number and reached Brandon by mistake. Liz mistook Brandon for a teenaged boy, and Brandon played along, calling herself "Billy." For a joke, she put a sock in her underwear and met Liz at a skating rink as Billy. Liz continued to call the Brandon home and ask for "Billy," and JoAnn began to understand that her daughter was posing as a boy. She was not happy.

A few weeks later, Brandon began a relationship with Heather, a fourteen-year-old friend of Liz. She moved in with Heather, posing as a male and calling herself "Ten-a." JoAnn Brandon understood that this relationship was a sexual one, and she began telephoning both Heather and Heather's mother, insisting that the young man they had taken into their home was her daughter. Heather, like Brandon, was an incest survivor. According to the account in Jones' biography, the focus of Brandon's relationship was intense, romantic role-playing, not genital sex, and Heather responded initially with gratitude for the thoughtful behaviors and absence of sexual pressure. Brandon deeply resented JoAnn's attempt to sabotage the relationship, and she especially resented her mother's attempt to cast her in the role of a sexual (lesbian) predator.

To explain away her mother's persistent calls, Brandon told Heather that she had been born a hermaphrodite, but that JoAnn had chosen to raise her as a female in order to "keep her for herself." (Jones, 89) According to Heather, "He [Brandon] had a legitimate answer for everything. He'd tell me his mother couldn't accept the fact that he was male, that she wanted two little girls, that she was just playing a joke." (Jones, 67) Brandon's knowledge of hermaphroditism had come from an episode of the Phil Donahue show.

JoAnn herself tells a different story: "I knew that all of a sudden there were beer parties going on and I have an eighteen-year-old daughter over there that's not supposed to be drinking or doing anything."(Jones, 67) She understood that any sexual activity between Brandon and the fourteen-year-old Heather was statutory rape. JoAnn was outraged by Brandon's claim of hermaphroditism. "I gave birth to her; I know what sex she is. There were no attachments anywhere that had to be removed." (Jones, 68)

JoAnn stepped up her campaign to "out" her daughter. She sent two lesbian co-workers to visit Heather's mother. They had photographs of Brandon as a little girl and a copy of her birth certificate. In response, Brandon tore up every picture of herself she could find. Perceiving lesbianism as her mother's attempt to break up her relationship, Brandon began binding her breasts, lowering her voice, and using men's rooms in public.

In June 1991, Brandon filed a complaint against her mother for harassment. She and Heather took the tape from their answering machine to the police. On it was a message from JoAnn calling them lesbians and threatening to expose them. Her mother's insistence on Brandon's lesbianism had become a serious enough power issue to involve the police.

Lesbianism was a family issue in another sense. The winter following Brandon's attempt to enlist, her sister Tammy had given up a baby for adoption—to a lesbian couple from San Francisco. Brandon had urged her sister to keep the baby. She had wanted desperately to be an aunt. Later, one of Brandon's gay male friends would report how "He [Brandon] hated lesbians; he was totally against lesbians," (Jones, 93) citing the adoption as the reason for this hatred.

That same summer, Brandon began forging checks in order to buy groceries and gifts for Heather. She had obtained a fake identification card and was getting jobs as a man. She began telling friends that she had gotten a sex-change operation in Omaha. By October, she had been cited on two counts of second-degree forgery. Brandon's illegal activities began to accelerate, as did her drinking, compulsive behaviors, and eating disorders. Finally, Sarah, her best friend, decided to take matters into her own hands. She met with Heather and explained to her that Brandon was a female. Heather terminated the relationship and Brandon attempted to kill herself by taking a bottle of antibiotics. This landed her in a crisis center, and here, finally, she was able to receive professional counseling.