Downtown: Brandon Teena's Tragic Story

Brandon Teena lived and loved as a man. For that, she paid with her life.

Brandon was born female, but felt male inside. Her story outraged many and captured headlines, and it has been powerfully re-told in the film Boys Don’t Cry and in the award-winning documentary The Brandon Teena Story. But to a few people in Nebraska, it is simply the sad tale of the child, sibling and friend they loved and lost.

Brandon Teena was born Teena Brandon in Lincoln, Neb., on December 12, 1972. Her mother, Joann, remembers she was handful at an early age. “As she was growing up, she was ornery and full of life,” she says. “She was a prankster, and she was a tomboy.”

But as Brandon became a teenager, her tomboyishness evolved into something more complicated. Feeling like a boy but living in a girl’s body, Brandon began stuffing a sock in her pants, something that triggered a transformation in her. She switched her name, calling herself Brandon Teena, and started to date local girls, using her bulge to convince them that she was a boy.

Although Brandon carried out life publicly as a boy, her mother says she refused to acknowledge her daughter’s new persona at home. Brandon’s growing frustration as she tried to date other women, coupled with the humiliation and name-calling she faced in town, led her to attempt suicide. Her best friend, Sarah Lyons, says she took Brandon to a crisis center.

Identity Crisis Brandon Teena’s identity crisis stemmed from the clash between her feelings about who she was and the reality of her biological condition. Individuals like her are described as transgendered. According to the Gender Identity Project, a program sponsored by the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, transgender is “an umbrella term encompassing the diversity of gender expression.”

People who consider themselves transgender find their gender identity at odds with their anatomy. The criticism and rejection that transgender people face often result in feelings of shame, depression, secrecy and fear, and could lead to compulsive behavior.

Brandon struggled with all those feelings and more. When girlfriends asked questions about gender, she made up complicated explanations. Her compulsive behavior consisted of forging checks and using them to buy gifts for girlfriends. By 1993, Brandon faced multiple counts of theft and forgery. But what was perhaps more devastating to her was that most people in Lincoln knew the truth about who Brandon really was.

A Second Start Seeking a fresh start, Brandon moved to the remote town of Falls City. She met and started dating Lana Tisdel, and befriended two ex-convicts in Tisdel’s crowd, John Lotter and Tom Nissen. “We went out drinking together,” Nissen says. “We talked about women.”

Although it seemed Brandon Teena finally had everything, money was still a factor. So once again, Brandon started stealing, and a few days after her 21st birthday she was arrested and charged with forgery. Police, and the rest of Falls City, discovered she was not biologically male.

Upset over what they perceived to be an unforgivable deception, Lotter and Nissen reacted to the news of Brandon’s female identity with violent fury. On Christmas Eve, they physically assaulted Teena. Later, she described the attack to law enforcement officials. “We walked into the bathroom and Tom hit me. He kicked me in the ribs. He stepped on my back. Then he picked me up by my coat, carried me out to the car.” A few hours later, Brandon told police, Nissen and Lotter brutally raped her.

Sheriff Charles Laux, to whom Brandon reported the rape, was less than sympathetic. In a audiotaped interview he conducted with Brandon, he seemed less interested in the crime than in the oddness of the victim sitting before him. His department questioned Nissen and Lotter but did not charge either man. But the fact that Brandon even reported them on the tape enraged Lotter and Nissen. They plotted their revenge.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve, 1993, Nissen and Lotter raided Lisa Lambert’s house where Brandon had been hiding out since reporting the rape. Lambert, the single mother of an 8-month-old baby, had opened her home to Teena and Philip Divine, a friend visiting from Iowa. In videotaped testimony, Nissen would later describe how he forced Teena to stand, then how Lotter fired a shot at point-blank range. Nissen then insured her death by stabbing her. They also shot and killed Lambert and Divine, sparing only Lambert’s baby

Arrested and charged with murder, Nissen and Lotter were tried separately in 1995. After cutting a deal and testifying against Lotter, Nissen escaped the death penalty. Lotter is sitting on death row.

Seeking Justice But for Joann Brandon, justice was not yet complete. She says her daughter’s suffering came not only at the hands of her attackers, but also at the hands of the Falls City sheriff. Joann filed a $1 million wrongful death suit against Sheriff Laux and Richardson County — the judge in the case found them liable but said the responsibility amounted to only $17,000. Joann is appealing.

In the years since her death, Brandon Teena found the support and acceptance she never knew in life. But while the attention focuses on the sad tale of Brandon Teena, a charming young man, Joann Brandon simply remains a mother, mourning the loss of her child. “The way I knew her all my life was Teena Brandon. Whichever way they want to remember her, I don’t care, just as long as someone remembers her.”

ABCNEWS’ Gabriella Messina produced the 20/20 report.

PRODUCER’S NOTE: In producing this story, we struggled over how to best refer to Brandon, with the understanding that Brandon felt like a man. Ultimately, we use the name Brandon but use female pronouns because of the complicated nature of the story and the violence Brandon suffered because she was biologically female.