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.