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20 years after 'Boys Don't Cry' murders, transgender violence still happens

20 years after 'Boys Don't Cry' murders, transgender violence still happens

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Twenty years have passed since two Falls City men murdered Brandon Teena, Lisa Lambert and Philip DeVine in a shabby farmhouse on the outskirts of Humboldt.

Brandon Teena — who dated women and whose Nebraska-issued ID was marked male — was born a daughter and a sister on Dec. 12, 1972, in Lincoln and named Teena Renae Brandon.

Teena's death at the hands of two men furious after they learned the guy they'd been hanging out with was born a woman gripped Nebraska and the nation, inspiring an Academy Award-winning film, a documentary, a true crime novel and countless news articles and broadcasts.

But Teena's story is far from unique.

“For many Americans, Brandon Teena's death was their first introduction to transgender issues, and 20 years later, we still see alarmingly high rates of violence directed toward transgender people,” said Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In terms of public understanding, transgender rights lag about 20 years behind the mainstream gay and lesbian movement, he said during a recent interview.

Most Americans know someone who is gay or at least have an understanding of what it means to be gay, but few know a person who is openly transgender.

“That makes a huge difference in the public’s understanding of what it means to be transgender. We end up seeing that reflected in much higher rates of discrimination for transgender people,” Silverman said.

The dictionary definition of transgender is this: of, relating to, or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person's sex at birth.

A recent survey of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming people found that 63 percent had experienced serious acts such as the loss of a job, eviction, school bullying so severe the respondent had to drop out, sexual assault or denial of medical treatment, according to a report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

The Trans Murder Monitoring Project recorded 1,123 homicides of trans people worldwide from 2008-12, including 69 in the United States. The actual numbers likely are higher, because many hate crimes related to sexual identity are not labeled as such and it's impossible to estimate the number of unreported cases.

While the details of Brandon Teena's story have begun to fade from the public consciousness, his struggles and death continue to resonate as individuals, communities and governments struggle to understand and address issues of sexuality and gender, said Pat Tetreault, director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's LGBTQA+ Resource Center.

Once, women wearing pants and working outside the home were an affront to gender roles. Now same-sex couples soon will be able to marry in 16 states, and opinion polls have shown a majority of Americans support it, something that would be almost inconceivable two decades ago.

Still, many people find the issue of gender identity to be foreign.

“We're a very gendered society," said Tetreault. "People like for people to conform to what they see as the two primary genders. But that is actually a very limited view of gender.”

And many transgendered people are happy and healthy, she said.

Ryan Sallans, a 30-year-old man who grew up as a girl in Aurora, began exploring his sexuality in 2004, and with the aid of therapy, hormone treatments and surgery, reshaped his body.

“I was never a woman. My gender identity was male. My biological sex was female," Sallans said. "You can change the body, but you cannot change the brain. So I chose to align my body with my brain. And it would be impossible for me to live any other way.

“When I decided to transition, I told my parents in a letter, 'You can either have a happy kid or a dead kid.' Because I couldn’t go on any longer not living as my authentic self and having people validate who I was.”

Sallans learned about Brandon Teena the same way most Americans did, through the independent film, "Boys Don't Cry," which earned actress Hilary Swank a best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of Teena. Sallans went on to watch the more factual documentary, "The Brandon Teena Story."

While shocked and saddened, Sallans didn't let fear stop him from telling his story. If anything, it inspired him to be more open. He put his experience into a book, "Second Son," and tours the country talking about transgender issues.

“I recognized that when I was open and I shared my story, it helped change people’s minds or break down the misconceptions around being transgender,” he said. “Me being out is a core part of my work. That doesn’t mean I don’t get scared sometimes.”

Sallans said his parents initially struggled to accept his decision, and while they still don't understand it, they are proud of him, and use his chosen name and pronoun.

That's something Brandon Teena's family was unable to do in the aftermath of the murders. Teena's grave marker reads “Daughter, Sister & Friend.”

His father, Patrick Brandon, died in an alcohol-related crash while JoAnn Brandon was pregnant with Teena, her second child.

Both children were molested as kids by an uncle. JoAnn didn't find out until later, and it was not reported to police.

As a teenager, Brandon Teena experimented with sexuality, became a ladies' man.

He knew what women liked, swept them off their feet with flowers, gifts and romantic letters. But the women soon learned their admirer had stolen from them and forged checks to pay for the gifts.

Teena left Lincoln in November 1993, fleeing criminal charges and disenchanted girlfriends. He landed at the home of Lisa Lambert, 24, a friend of a friend who rented a house in rural Richardson County.

He met Lana Tisdel, a blond beauty from Falls City, and began hanging out with her circle of friends, including Tom Nissen and John Lotter. Both men came from unstable homes, had violent pasts, and spent time in prison. They liked to get drunk and were well known by Richardson County Sheriff Charles Laux.

It didn't take Teena long to run afoul of the law. On Dec. 15, 1993, he was arrested for forging checks to buy Tisdel gifts. Two days later, he signed a confession and jailers found the person they believed to be a man was biologically a woman.

They put Teena in the women's side of the jail, and word quickly spread through the small farming community.

Nissen posted bail on Dec. 22 with money from Tisdel, who was too young to do it herself.

They went to a party at Nissen's house on Christmas Eve, and things quickly turned violent. Lotter and Nissen pulled down Teena's pants and made Tisdel admit her boyfriend was in fact a woman.

Later that night, Lotter and Nissen forced Teena into a car and drove outside of town. They parked on a country road and took turns raping Teena. They beat him and threatened worse if he went to police. Then they took Teena, bloodied and bruised, back to Nissen's house and locked him in a bedroom with no shoes.

He escaped out a window and ran barefoot without a coat in 20-degree weather to Tisdel's house a mile away.

A local hospital performed a rape test but later lost the kit, and Sheriff Laux began his investigation.

His interview of Teena on Christmas Day was “like pouring vinegar in an open wound,” University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology Professor Mario Scalora said during a civil trial that stemmed from a suit JoAnn Brandon brought against the sheriff and county.

Laux badgered Teena and seemed more concerned with the gender issue than the rape.

It would take three days for authorities to question Lotter and Nissen about the rape, and after the interview, they were allowed to go free.

Then, on the morning of New Year's Eve, Lisa Lambert's mother found the bodies of her daughter, Teena and DeVine. Lisa's baby, Tanner, was in his crib, crying.

DeVine, 22, hailed from Fairfield, Iowa, and was dating Tisdel's sister, Leslie, but planned to take a bus home the next day.

Authorities found a .380-caliber handgun and a knife wrapped in a pair of working gloves on the frozen Nemaha River near Falls City. The name “Lotter” was written on the knife sheath.

A jury found Nissen guilty of first-degree murder for killing Brandon and second-degree murder for the deaths of Lambert and DeVine.

Nissen turned state witness to avoid the electric chair. He told a Richardson County jury he and Lotter began to plot the murder immediately after Teena went to the Sheriff's Office. After he drove to the farmhouse, Nissen said, Lotter kicked the door in and shot them each in the head at close range.

Nissen said he plunged a knife into Teena's twitching body to be sure their accuser was dead.

The jury found Lotter — who maintained his innocence and said Nissen framed him — guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

Nissen later recanted his testimony and said he fired the shots that killed Teena, Lambert and DeVine. But he said Lotter helped plan the murders and was at the farmhouse that night.

Richardson County District Judge Daniel Bryan denied an attempt by Lotter to get a new trial, and all of his appeals have been denied.

Lotter remains on death row in Tecumseh. Nissen is serving a life sentence at the Lincoln Correctional Center.

The civil suit filed by Brandon Teena's mother went to the Nebraska Supreme Court three times and ended with Teena's estate being awarded $5,000 for wrongful death, $7,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress, $80,000 for mental suffering and $6,223.20 for funeral expenses.

Reach Nicholas Bergin at 402-473-7304 or Follow him on Twitter at


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