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

Posted by DRIESA on April 17, 2014 at 4:10 AM

December 29, 2013

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.

 

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 Brandon 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. Brandon Teena's grave marker reads “Daughter, Sister & Friend.”

 

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

 


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