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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.