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.