“I’m not as strong as I thought.
I can’t fight.
I don’t think I can make it alone.” – an excerpt from Brandon’s journal.
Brandon, a 21-year-old trans man from Nebraska, was every woman’s dream. He knew exactly what to say and how to please the women he met and often showered them with flowers and gifts. The only caveat was that none of them knew his real identity.
Brandon was born as Teena but never felt quite like a girl to begin with. At 18, he cut his hair, changed his name, and began introducing himself as a man. Unfortunately, two ignorant criminals, Tom Nissen and John Lotter, decided it was their call to take the life of a kid who had his whole life ahead of him. Simply because he was different.
Brandon’s story inspired the film Boys Don’t Cry. But the filmmakers changed a lot of it. Here’s what really happened.
Pants Over Skirts
Teena Brandon never liked wearing dresses. When his mom asked him why, he told her it was because boys could look up them when he climbed the stairs. In truth, he didn’t feel like they suited him. He preferred pants to skirts, sneakers to preppy shoes, and big hoodies to tight shirts.
Born as Teena Renae Brandon, for the first several years of his life, Brandon was referred to as a girl. It was only during adolescence that he began presenting himself as a man to others. He changed his name, cut his hair, stuffed socks in his pants for the bulge, and didn’t tell the girls he dated that he was actually female.
While most girls don’t feel too confident about their bodily changes, Brandon truly hated it. According to Aphrodite Jones, the author of the memoir “All She Wanted,” Brandon detested the pain caused by his developing breasts and hated dealing with a monthly flow of blood.
He often complained when people stared at his growing chest. In general, any objectification by men “made him feel sick” to his stomach. Brandon also reportedly suffered from an eating disorder, which could be attributed to his reluctance to transition into a womanly body.
Nowadays, feeling like a “male trapped in female body,” is a known phenomenon. But when Brandon was going through those changes, he felt entirely alone.
Brandon’s Mom Struggled to Accept His Changes
Shortly after high school, a girl named Liz Delano phoned the wrong number and called Brandon by mistake. She mistook him for a teenage boy. Brandon didn’t correct her. He said his name was Billy and that he would love to meet her at the local skating rink.
For weeks after their date, Liz Delano called the Brandon household and asked to speak to “Billy.” Brandon’s mom, JoAnne, caught on to the fact that her daughter was posing as a boy. She certainly wasn’t happy. She later told reporters that she always struggled to accept his changes.
A Great Kisser
Liz Delano was the first of many girls Brandon went out with. He became known as a true gentleman around town: a great kisser, a great listener, a man who knew exactly how to treat a lady. One of Brandon’s first girlfriends was Heather, Liz’s fourteen-year-old friend.
Brandon’s mom quickly understood that this relationship was a sexual one, and she began phoning Heather’s mother, insisting that the young man dating her daughter was in fact a girl. Brandon deeply resented his mom for attempting to sabotage their relationship.
Slipping Into a Life of Crime
JoAnn couldn’t stop her daughter, who, by then, was already binding her breasts, lowering her voice, and even using men’s public bathrooms. Brandon wanted to spoil the girls he dated, but being a young, broke 18-year-old, he couldn’t afford to buy anything. So, he stole.
The slippery slope into a life of crime was too easy to slide down. Brandon forged checks and easily obtained a fake I.D. so he could identify himself and find work as a man.
Along with his thefts came drinking and impulsive behavior. While Brandon was finally feeling more like himself as a man, he was still living a lie.
An Attempted Suicide
Brandon’s girlfriend at the time, Heather, was approached by her friend Sarah, who decided to put an end to everything by exposing Brandon’s true sex. “She’s a GIRL,” Sarah told her. Heather felt betrayed and decided to end things for good.
Brandon attempted to kill himself shortly after. He took a whole bottle of antibiotics and went into a spin. This dramatic stunt landed him in a crisis center, where he began receiving professional counseling. This was the first time he had ever talked about his situation to strangers. And the first time he heard the term “sexual identity crisis.”
Desperate for a Sex Change Operation
After a week at the crisis center, Brandon packed his bags and took off to start life someplace else. Staying close to home was proving dangerous. He was bullied, teased, mocked. Everyone knew he was “a girl posing to be a guy.” He wanted to go someplace no one knew him.
He took the bus to Falls City, a sleepy city populated by mostly white people. Black families are pretty much nonexistent, and gay people are nowhere to be found (at least that was true back in the ‘90s. I’m assuming today things are different).
His Biggest Love – Lana Tisdel
Now with a completely new identity, Brandon befriended a girl named Lisa Lambert, who invited him to stay at her place. Brandon soon began dating one of Lisa’s friends, a blonde, outspoken girl named Lana. He was taken by her from the very first moment.
“It was really nice being treated like a lady,” Lana would later tell reporters, “instead of being treated like… like nothing.”
Lana’s mom, Linda, agreed, saying that Brandon was always extremely kind and considerate.
A Troublesome Crowd
Hanging out with Lana meant hanging out with her friends. Unfortunately, they weren’t the best crowd out there. In her circle of friends were two former criminals named John Lotter and Tom Nissen. To fit in, Brandon went along with their troublesome behavior.
They rode around town together, stealing, drinking, and vandalizing public property. “We talked about women. We went out drinking together. We’d ride around saying ooh what about that one, mm what about that one over there? You know, just guy talk,” Tom Nissen told reporters interviewing him for “The Brandon Teena Story.”
The Word Was Out
Brandon eventually got arrested for forging checks. And his little brush with the police exposed his real identity. They registered his I.D. into the system and came out with the name “Teena Brandon” with the sex categorized as “female.” The word was out.
Lana was stumped. “Brandon didn’t even look like a woman,” she told interviewers. Despite her initial shock, she rushed to the station to bail him out. By that point, Lana loved Brandon so much that she couldn’t have cared less about his real sex.
Other People Weren’t as Forgiving
Lana’s mom, Linda, was extremely upset. She cornered Brandon one day and forced him into a private room with her. “Just prove to me right now if you are a man or a woman. I don’t care. All I want to know is the truth,” she told him.
Brandon shyly took off his pants and started lowering his underwear until Linda could see just a hairline. Then Tom Nissen walked into the bedroom and urged him to keep pulling it down. At that moment, Brandon pulled everything back up and said “no.”
“Them Kind of People…”
Linda was so upset with Brandon that she pushed him back into the dresser which then hit the window and cracked it. “I was only acting like a concerned mother,” she explained; “I wasn’t there to cut him down or do any of that. I just really wanted the truth.”
Even though Brandon promised never to hurt Lana, Linda was adamant about keeping her daughter away from him. She told her daughter to get away from Branon “because them kind of people have AIDS.” Lana was appalled by her mom’s beliefs. “He DOES NOT have AIDS,” she told her.
“He’s a man. I’ve seen it in the flesh.”
Things got so out of hand that Lana was once ordered to go into the room with Brandon and see his real sex for herself. So, she went in, and when Brandon began unbuttoning his pants, she said, “you don’t have to do this. We’ll just tell them what we want them to know and what we believe.”
She walked out there and told everyone, “He’s a man. I’ve seen it in the flesh. Now leave him alone.”
But some bizarre reason, no one was willing to leave them alone. It was like they were all so bored with their sad lives that they felt like they had to intervene.
Ignorance Isn’t Bliss, It’s Dangerous
Tom Nissen and John Lotter were the least forgiving. They couldn’t bear the thought that a girl had tricked them like that. They felt it was perverted and twisted, and it grossed them out. Their little, ignorant minds couldn’t cope with anyone out of the norm.
They decided to “teach Brandon a lesson.” On Christmas eve, Tom Nissen had a party at his house. They were hammered and acting dumb (per usual) when Tom suddenly grabbed Brandon, held his arms, and ordered John to pull down Brandon’s pants and underwear down in front of everyone.
They Forced Lana to Look
The first thing Lana did was cover her eyes. But the boys wouldn’t allow her to run away from it. John pulled her towards Brandon and yelled, “Well you better look! Because we’re going to hold him like this until you do look.”
With blurry, tear-filled eyes, she looked at Brandon, who was hardly breathing under Tom’s relentless grip. John then violated Brandon by touching his private parts, doing with him as he pleased. Next thing Brandon knew, he was being shoved in a car and taken to a parking lot nearby.
“We’re Still Friends, Right?”
That night, Tom and John raped Brandon. They took turns, thrusting violently against him, pinning his head onto the car seat. Brandon let out a few whimpers, but apart from that, he kept quiet. He didn’t resist or yell or fight them off. He knew better if he wanted to get out of it alive.
Once they had their way, they punched Brandon a few more times until finally they brushed the dirt off his shirt, grabbed him by the shoulders, and said, “We’re still friends, right? No one can know about this.”
Brandon fearfully nodded.
Lana Convinced Him to File a Complaint
After the rape, Brandon limped to Lana’s home. “He was out of breath. He was cold. He had a big fat lip with blood dripping from it. He had no shoes on and one shirt,” Lana told reporters. She managed to convince him to go the police station and file a complaint.
Even Lana’s mom Linda agreed he should go to the police. “Regardless of who you are and what you do, no one, I repeat NO ONE, deserves to be treated like that,” she told him. Together, they marched into the station.
A Disgrace of a Cop
Unfortunately, the cop interrogating Brandon, Charles Laux, was a sexist pig. He wanted to discuss the event with Lana’s mom first, who was struggling with the pronouns. She described Brandon as he and then she and then he again. At one point, Laux angrily blurted, “ohhhh just call it a ‘it’ already.”
Charles Laux clearly couldn’t have cared less about Brandon’s situation. When they sat down to talk, he approached the matter in such a disgusting way that it was like he derived pleasure out of making Brandon relive it again. It was like hearing Brandon describe the rape turned him on.
The Humiliation Continues
“So, after he pulled your pants down and seen that you were a girl, what did he do? Did he fondle you any?” Laux asked Brandon. “No,” Brandon lied. “He didn’t fondle you any, huh. Didn’t that kind of amaze you? Doesn’t that kind of, ah, get your attention somehow that he would’ve put his hands in your pants and play with you a little bit?” Laux continued.
“So, when they got ready to poke up, how was you positioned in the back seat?” Laux asked, followed by “Where did they try to pop it in at first?” and then, “Did [John Lotter] have a hard on when he got back there or what?”
Throughout the whole conversation, Brandon’s voice was withdrawn and hesitant.
“I don’t know [if John had a hard on], I didn’t look,” Brandon responded.
Laux: “You didn’t look. Did he take a little time working it up, or what? Did you work it up for him?”
Brandon: “No, I didn’t.”
Laux: “Then you think he had it worked up on his own, or what?”
Brandon: “I guess so, I don’t know.”
Laux: “So when he got in the back seat you were already spread out back there ready for him, waiting on him.”
A Kick Out of Asking Completely Irrelevant Questions
Calling the interrogation humiliating would be too nice of a word. It was degrading, violating, belittling, dehumanizing. And Brandon had to sit through it all. The only time he refused to answer was when Laux began asking questions about his girlfriends.
Laux: “Why do you run around with girls instead of, ah, guys being you are a girl yourself?”
Brandon: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Laux: “You haven’t the slightest idea? You go around kissing other girls?…. [T]he girls that don’t know about you think you are a guy. Do you kiss them?”
Brandon: “I don’t see what that has to do with last night.”
Brandon: “I don’t see why I have to answer you.”
Tom Nissen’s Sorry Excuse
When Tom Nissen was questioned about the assault, he gave short, flat responses. Attorney Mike Fabian asked him whether he beat Brandon after sexually assaulting him. “Yes.” “Why?” “Because I was upset.” “Oh, I see,” Mike responded, “You had just sexually assaulted her, raped her, and YOU were the one upset.”
Nissen and John Lotter had been to prison before, and as it turns out, they were both terribly bullied. They were pushed around, kicked around, and sexually harassed. It looks like once they got out, they took their grudge out on others. “[They] finally had the chance to be the bulldog,” an inmate named Leon Thompson told reporters.
Nissen’s Girlfriend Was Concerned With All the Wrong Things
Word of the rape got out pretty quickly. The news reached Nissen’s girlfriend, Melissa. And when interviewers from “The Teena Brandon Story” questioned her, the answers she gave and the things that concerned her were unbelievably ridiculous.
“I woke up that next morning, and my friends told me my boyfriend was a faggot,” she said, “And I asked him how, because Brandon was actually a SHE. So, Tom raped a girl. Not a boy!”
It seemed to be worse for her that her boyfriend would be gay than rape someone. Truly, truly unbelievable…
Brandon Gradually Disappeared
“She seemed so different after the rape,” Brandon’s mom recalled, “There was just something different in her voice. It was almost like they’d killed everything that was happy.” Once outgoing and spontaneous, Brandon was now withdrawn and timid.
He kept to himself most days, not saying much and barely showing any emotions. Eventually, he moved back to Lisa Lambert’s house in Humboldt, Nebraska. Thirty miles away from Tom and John. Thirty miles away from trouble. Tragically, trouble came out to get him.
Lisa and Brandon, Side by Side, Lifeless
On the morning of December 31st, 1993, Lisa Lambert’s mom came by to visit her. She knocked on the door. No response. She knocked again, and on the second try, she could hear Lisa’s baby cry. That’s when she began to panic. It was strange that Lisa wasn’t getting up to take care of her baby.
She opened the door, and the second she stepped into the living room, she froze. She spotted a man on the floor with a coffee table over his lap. No time to stop. She kept on walking towards her crying grandson and, after picking him up from the crib, turned to face her daughter’s bed. That’s when she spotted Lisa and Brandon, their bodies pale and bloody.
A Cold-Blooded Murder
Sherriff deputies were called to Lisa’s house immediately. The victims of the shooting were Lisa Lambert, Brandon, and a 22-year-old man named Phillip Devine, who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Tom Nissen and John Lotter barged in that morning. With a gun and a knife and decided to take all their fury out on the helpless victims. They were mad at Brandon for filing a complaint, mad at Brandon for lying to them, mad at Brandon for simply being different. Being himself. They took away the lives of three people who did virtually nothing to harm them.
No Regrets Whatsoever
Michael J. Hall, Tom Nissen’s inmate, told reporters how he did it. “He told me he pulled the trigger, then stabbed her [Brandon]. He killed both the girls and he said Lotter killed DeVine.” What’s scarier, is that when asked whether he regretted it, Tom told his inmate: “that if he had a chance to do it all over again, he would. But this time, he wouldn’t get caught.”
When the prosecutor in court asked Nissen why he stabbed Brandon, he answered: “To make sure she was dead. She was still twitching.”
Needless to say, the man isn’t ashamed of what he did. He genuinely doesn’t believe what he did was wrong.
Nissen Testified Against Lotter
After making a bargain to testify against John Lotter, Tom Nissen was sentenced to life in prison, without parole. Only twenty-two at the time of his conviction, he’s currently at the Lincoln Correctional Center in Nebraska. It took only a few short hours to reach that decision.
As a result of Nissen’s testimony, John Lotter was given the death penalty. Lotter denied the murder and was furious that his friend would give him away like that. Today, he remains on death row at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.
A Scottish Woman Fell in Love with Lotter
It’s hard to imagine anyone falling for a convicted murderer. Yet, incredibly, one woman grew infatuated with John Lotter. Michele German from Scotland said she followed his case from the very beginning and always believed he was innocent.
“I didn’t know who he was or anything, but there was just something about him that I just had to find out more,” she explained; “I couldn’t get him out of my head.” In 2017, she wrote him a letter. The two have been in a long-distance relationship ever since.
Boys Don’t Cry
Brandon’s story brought attention to the dangers of homophobia and transphobia. It brought attention to the dangers of ignorance, of close-mindedness, of unresolved anger. From every tragedy there’s much to learn, and, hopefully, Brandon’s story opened people’s eyes to the danger at hand.
Brandon’s story inspired Boys Don’t Cry, a biographical film starring award-winning actress Hillary Swank. To create the film, director Kimberly Pierce spent five years extensively researching the case. In 1999, it was finally ready for release.
Kimberly Pierce Was Just a Grad Student
Peirce was just a graduate film student at Columbia University when she became interested in Brandon’s story. She decided to do her thesis film about him after reading an article in the Village Voice. “I fell instantly in love with Brandon,” Pierce admitted.
The director herself was dealing with exploring her own gender queerness. She met with several trans people to help her tell Brandon’s story in the most authentic way possible. “I wanted to tell his story as a movie so that other people could empathize with him,” she explained.
Hillary Swank Won an Award for Best Actress
Boys Don’t Cry grossed $11.5 million at the domestic box office and earned Hillary Swank an Oscar for Best Actress. In her acceptance speech, Swank thanked Brandon Teena: “His legacy lives on through our movie.”
The movie’s success catapulted Brandon’s story into the mainstream. For many people, it was their first time hearing about a trans man. And the fact that the film was told from Brandon’s point of view turned him into someone the audience could empathize with.
Not Everyone Was Pleased With the Result
Some trans men weren’t too happy with the film. Actor JJ Hawkins said that seeing Hillary Swank on the red carpet in feminine clothes was confusing. “Of course, it’s a step in the right direction,” he said, “but also, she played a boy, and she won best actress.”
He added: “That was the first time I realized that people who see me see me as a girl dressed up as a boy because when they’re watching ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ they’re watching a girl dressed up as a boy.”
Other trans people said they couldn’t watch the film because of its brutality.
How Did Lana Tisdel React to the Film?
Lana Tisdel was portrayed by Chloë Sevigny. She later told interviewers that she hated the way the film made her look. Lana claimed that the movie depicted her as some drug addict who looked like a “lazy, white trash and a skanky snake.”
Lana had several justified reasons to be upset by her portrayal. For one, Boys Don’t Cry showed her falling asleep at the murder scene (false). And two, it showed her doing absolutely nothing about the murder other than crying (also false).
How Did Brandon’s Mom React to the Film?
JoAnn Brandon was upset by the movie’s portrayal of Brandon. In early 2000, JoAnn, who was out of work due to severe asthma, was in debt as a result of Brandon’s funeral. She was angry that a fund set up to pay for the funeral received little attention, yet the filmmakers were making millions.
“I’m really sick and tired of people making money off my child,” JoAnn told interviewers; “I don’t understand how you can put three weeks of somebody’s life up on film and win an award for it.” JoAnn was so upset she refused to participate in any interviews.
How Did the Locals React to the Film?
Reactions from the citizens of Falls City, Nebraska, were far from positive. The movie depicted most of the locals as uneducated, reckless drunks who were bored out of their minds and spent most of their days smashing beer bottles.
“It’s nothing like the town that’s in the movie,” said Virginia Ernst, a local from Falls City. Resident Jared Kirkendal agreed: “That’s not Falls City,” he said at the end of the movie’s first premiere in the city. “It’s weird they made it more of a love story than a crime,” Jared added.
Does Kimberly Peirce Believe Her Movie Remained True to the Story?
Pierce said she is aware that she tweaked and changed and took some dramatic liberties with the movie. One of the most dramatic being the exclusion of Phillip Devine, who was also murdered that Friday morning in 1993.
That being said, Pierce admitted she did her best to stick as close as she could to the real events but had to change some things to fit into the time frame better.
Sarah Nissen, Tom’s cousin, thinks otherwise: “There’s none of it that’s right,” she noted, “It was just weird.”
The One Thing the Film Forgot to Mention
The one thing, and probably the most crucial one that the film left out, was Brandon’s traumatic childhood. As a little girl, Teena Brandon and her sister were molested by a man. A man close to them – their uncle. For years, they suffered in silence.
Brandon’s mom believes that the traumatic assaults were what led her to dress in men’s clothing and date women. “It was a defense mechanism,” she explained, “She pretended she was a man so no other man could touch her.”