20 Years After Brandon Teena's Death, Trans Rights Still Have a Long Way to Go
On December 24, 1993, 21-year-old Brandon Teena was sexually assaulted by John L. Lotter and Marvin Thomas "Tom" Nissen. Lotter and Nissen forced Teena into a car and drove him to an isolated area in Richardson County, Neb. There Lotter and Nissen — acquaintances of Teena's — took turns raping him.
Teena eventually escaped his captors and found his way to an emergency room, where a rape kit was compiled. Charles B. Laux, a sheriff later criticized for repeatedly referring to Teena as "it," interviewed Teena about the incident but did not arrest Lotter or Nissen. The rape kit was somehow lost, and the two men were never charged with sexual assault.
In the early hours of December 31, 1993, Lotter and Nissen broke into the Humboldt, Neb., home of Lisa Lambert, a woman who had taken in the then-homeless Teena earlier that year. After finding Teena hiding under a blanket, Lotter and Nissen shot and killed Lambert and Teena as well as an out-of-town guest, Phillip DeVine. (The assailants have given conflicting accounts as to who fired the shots.)
According to a breakdown of the crime at TruTV, both Lotter and Nissen had been friendly with Teena before carrying out these violent crimes. So what was the motive for these actions? The answer is sadly simple: transphobia.
Just days before these events, Teena was publicly outed as a transgender man after his birth name was published in the local newspaper following his arrest for forging checks. Apparently enraged to find that their friend was transgender, Lotter and Nissen set out to committ these acts of hate and malice.
At Teena's gravesite, he is erased in death, just as he was erased in life. Despite going by the name Brandon Teena, his headstone lists him as "Teena R. Brandon," his birth name, followed by the words, "Daughter, Sister, and Friend."
In the years that followed, Lotter was found guilty of murder, receiving a death sentence, while Nissen entered into a plea agreement that allowed him to be sentenced to life in prison in return for his testimony against Lotter. Lotter has exhausted every available appeal, with the Supreme Court turning down his request to hear his case in 2012, and he remains on death row, awaiting execution.
Teena's death, along with the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, became a catalyst in the push for national hate-crimes legislation, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, 16 years after Teena's death.
In 1999, a biopic of Teena’s life was released, titled Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank as Teena. The film received critical acclaim and earned Swank the first of her two Academy Awards. Despite the praise, the movie failed to impress Teena’s mother, JoAnn, who criticized Swank’s acceptance speech, in which the actress referred to Teena as male. Teena was also the subject of a well-received documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, released in 1998.
Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund believes that even 20 years after Teena’s death, there’s still a long way to go for transgender rights.
"The transgender community still faces tremendous rates of violence, unemployment, and poverty, and a lack of access to proper health care and public accommodations," Silverman said in a statement Monday. "Yet despite these challenges, transgender people across this nation continue to forge ahead, living authentic lives, and overcoming immense obstacles. As we honor the memory of Brandon Teena, a man who lost his life simply for being himself, we are emboldened to carry on his legacy by staying the course in the relentless pursuit of safety, equality, and dignity for transgender lives."