Brandon Teena had his life tragically cut short after he was brutally murdered by two of his friends in Falls City, Nebraska, in 1993. Then, six years later, the movie Boys Don’t Cry sent the trans man’s story to the silver screen. But the Oscar-winning flick only tells part of the horrific tale of Teena’s life and the terrible way in which it ended.
Kimberly Peirce spent five years researching and writing the screenplay for the movie Boys Don’t Cry, but she almost didn’t make it into a full-length film. That’s because the director struggled to find the right actress to play the leading role in the story – that of Teena himself.
But Peirce eventually found the right person to star in her film. Hilary Swank – at the time, a largely unknown actress – nabbed the role of Teena after she remarkably convinced the doorman at her audition that she was a man. Then, immediately afterwards, Peirce took Swank to chop off her hair and dye it brown to match that of the trans youth whom she was set to portray.
With that, Swank had physically transformed into the movie’s main character and was ready to tell his story. In the film, Teena – a trans man born as Teena Renae Brandon – relocates to Falls City, Nebraska, where he hopes to start a new life. And he quickly makes friends with a group of locals, including two former felons, John Lotter and Tom Nissen, as well as a pair of sisters named Candace and Lana Tisdel.
As the narrative unfolds, Teena and Lana Tisdel fall for each other, and she has no qualms with her boyfriend being trans. For instance, when Teena is arrested for a crime that he committed before he moved to Nebraska, he’s sent to a women’s prison. And he attempts to lie to Lana, claiming to be a hermaphrodite awaiting gender reassignment surgery. But Teena’s girlfriend won’t hear it – and instead tells him that she loves him no matter his gender.
Unfortunately, not everyone in Falls City feels the same way as Lana. So while Teena sits in the women’s jail, Lana’s sister, Candace, uncovers a slew of files that reveal his birth identity. Next, she and her friends raid Teena’s room to find more evidence – and after discovering that he has stocked up on transgender books, they are angered and horrified.
This is where the story takes a devastatingly dark turn. John Lotter and Tom Nissen – the criminals with which Teena makes friends at the start of the film – confront him. And when they find out the truth about the young man’s biological gender, they batter and rape him. Teena subsequently brings allegations of the assault to the police, but they dismiss the claims because he appears to be in a sexual identity crisis, they say.
Lotter and Nissen’s initial brutal act does not satisfy them, though, and after getting drunk, the pair decide to murder Teena. So, the ex-cons head to Candace’s house, where they find the trans man hiding. Horrifically, they shoot him in the neck, and he dies immediately. The duo also kill Candace, although they spare her sister, Lana, from the same terrible fate.
Upon release, the heart-wrenching story touched viewers and critics alike, with many praising in particular the acting in the movie. Peter Stack, for instance, a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote in 2000, “It may be the best-acted film of the year. In an Oscar-winning performance, Hilary Swank, the bony actress who plays [the protagonist], passes herself off as a swaggering boy named Brandon Teena.”
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Stack and other reviewers who had immediately thrown Swank into the awards race were correct in their notion that she would win big for Boys Don’t Cry. In fact, she and her co-star Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lana, earned several awards and nominations. But it was Swank who took home most of the accolades, including her first Oscar for Best Actress.
At the Academy Awards, Swank concluded her acceptance speech by thanking the man whom had she portrayed in the film. She said, “I want to thank Brandon Teena for being such an inspiration to us all. His legacy lives on through our movie to remind us to always be ourselves, to follow our hearts, to not conform. I pray for the day when we not only accept our differences, but we actually celebrate our diversity.”
Swank’s moving message reached many – as did her performance in the movie that won her the golden statuette. Still, for the majority of Boys Don’t Cry’s viewers, their only knowledge of the hateful crime comes from the film. And so, let’s take a look at Teena’s actual life story, which was horrifically cut short on New Year’s Eve of 1993.
Teena entered the world in September 1972 as Teena Renae Brandon – a name that his mother had chosen in homage to their German Shepherd, Tina Marie. And tragically, Teena’s father, Patrick, had passed away in a car crash before his birth. So, his mother, JoAnn, had been left to raise him and his sister, Tammy, all on her own.
As a young child, Teena lived with his mom and sister in Lincoln, Nebraska’s Pine Acre Mobile Home Park. But the children’s home life was reportedly marred by prolonged sexual abuse at the hands of their uncle. And in 1991 Teena enrolled in counseling to try and overcome the trauma, which had apparently gone on for several years.
Meanwhile, Teena exhibited tomboy tendencies throughout his childhood. He liked dressing in boyish clothes, for instance, and partook in traditionally male activities, despite having been born biologically female. And by the time he became a teenager, he had begun to identify as a male. But Teena’s family did not accept this declaration. Instead, his mother insisted on calling him her daughter.
Nevertheless, Teena continued to stand up for his true self – both at school and at home. And while he attended Pius X High School, he rejected the Christian religion that was taught to him because of the church’s view on homosexuality. Then, the teen began wearing men’s clothes to class and thus breaking the dress code.
Then, a beacon arrived on campus in the form of a U.S. Army recruiter, who came to persuade high schoolers to enroll. Teena eagerly signed up to join the military and hoped that he’d make it in time to serve in Operation Desert Shield, the 1991 war against Iraq. But said dream would soon be crushed.
Sadly, Teena wouldn’t make it overseas, nor would he make it into the army at all. He didn’t get past the entrance exam, in fact, having marked his gender as male instead of female. So, Teena remained in Nebraska, where he began binding his chest to look more masculine. And he started dating girls, too, including his first serious girlfriend, Heather.
According to a 1999 article in The Washington Post, “Women who dated [Teena] say he was kind, considerate and knew how to treat a lady.” But not everyone was pleased by his choice to date women, especially not his mother. And so, with mounting struggles at home and some legal and financial issues, Teena decided to leave Lincoln and start over in Falls City.
Yes, Teena relocated to Falls City in real life just as Boys Don’t Cry portrays. But what the film doesn’t reveal is that he did so because he didn’t have money nor a relationship with his mother. In Teena’s new town, he stayed with a friend named Lisa Lambert. And in reality, it was she who introduced him to his group of friends – including Tom Nissen and John Lotter. Both men are ex-convicts – as in the movie – and at first they saw Teena as just another guy friend. In fact, no one there initially knew that he was trans.
It was also through Lambert that Teena met Lana Tisdel in real life, and the pair started dating. But not everything was perfect in his adopted hometown, and in December of 1993 police arrested the young man for forging checks. And just as the movie shows, Teena was locked up in the female area of the jail, and his girlfriend bailed him out.
Afterwards, Lana confronted her new boyfriend, but Teena had an explanation for his location at the ready. And as the film suggests, he did apparently tell her that he was born a hermaphrodite and that he was going to have a sex change. However, it has been disputed whether or not the pair actually kept dating after this revelation. Lana’s promise in the movie to love Teena no matter what is thus presumably a product of artistic license.
Unfortunately, Teena’s stint in jail had a devastating side effect that is not portrayed in the movie: the details of his arrest appeared in the local newspaper. But the story featured more than just the information about Teena’s crime; the article also contained his birth name. And this is how all of Teena’s new friends found out that he was born female – not as a result of rifling through his room.
According to a 2013 article in The Atlantic, Teena’s new friends, ex-felons Lotter and Nissen, “became obsessed with proving his anatomy to Lana.” So, when the group gathered for a Christmas Eve party, the men corralled both Teena and his girlfriend into a bathroom. And they forced him to undress in front of her.
But sadly, as we know, Teena’s torment didn’t end there. That’s because Lotter and Nissen assaulted the young man later that night before forcing him into a car and kidnapping him. The ex-convicts took him to a meat-packing factory nearby, where they proceeded to gang-rape and assault him. Finally, Lotter and Nissen took Teena back to Nissen’s house, where they forced him to shower.
Luckily, Teena managed to escape at this point by slipping through Nissen’s bathroom window and fleeing the scene. And after he arrived at girlfriend Lana’s house, she talked him into filing a police report. And the young man did – despite Lotter and Nissen’s threats to kill him if he did so.
However, the police provided little solace to Teena. The young man spoke to Richardson County’s then-sheriff, Charles Laux, about the rape, but Laux allegedly had little interest in finding out the details of the crime that had been committed. And the sheriff instead reportedly posed hurtful and often humiliating questions about the victim’s sexuality. Astonishingly, in fact, the harrowing scene in Boys Don’t Cry is apparently taken directly from Teena’s real-life interview transcript.
What’s more, Teena even had a rape kit put together after the attack, but it later went missing. Police did, eventually, speak with Nissen and Lotter – three days after Teena had reported their crime, that is. But the pair didn’t go to jail, and Laux cited insufficient evidence when he refused to apprehend them.
Yes, the two culprits went free. And, presumably incensed that Teena had defied their order not to speak about the rape, Nissen and Lotter set out to find their victim. They drove to where he had been staying with his friend Lisa Lambert and broke into her house. Unfortunately, they did indeed find the young man there, hiding beneath the bed.
After locating Teena, Nissen and Lotter asked Lambert if anyone else was home – a clue as to their horrible intentions. She said that Lana’s sister’s boyfriend, Phillip DeVine, had also been lodging with her. And so, the pair fatally shot all three adults in the house: Lambert, DeVine and Teena. They spared Lambert’s small child, however, who witnessed the horrific crimes.
Even after Teena had been shot, he continued shaking, according to Nissen’s later testimony. And so, as the murderer would describe in court, he told Lotter to hand him a knife so that he could stab Teena and make sure that he had died. Although the killers have since appealed their convictions multiple times, they both received guilty verdicts. Nissen, for his part, was handed a life sentence, while Lotter continues to sit on death row in Nebraska.
Afterward, Teena’s mom, JoAnn, sued both the Richardson County Sheriff’s office and Laux specifically for their failure to stop her son’s brutal slaying. The grieving mother also cited both entities as indirect causes of her child’s death. JoAnn won the hearing in September 1999 and earned $80,000 in damages.
Of course, Teena’s untimely death did more than open the local police to scrutiny. The murders also ignited trans communities across the country. And in the decades following the young man’s horrific death, LGBT activism and support has made bounds across the U.S. Even churches and government leaders have stepped in to support the cause, in fact.
Meredith Bacon, who is a trans woman and political science professor at the University of Nebraska, told BuzzFeed that Teena’s murder “created anger” in the community. Following the heinous crime, an activist organization called The Transsexual Menace formed, picketing outside Teena’s trial in Falls City – and the group continues to fight for trans rights today.
On top of that, many members of the trans community cite Teena as an LGBT icon who influenced their lives and helped them find the bravery to come out. Take Nebraskan author Ryan Sallans, for instance, who is also a transgender man. He spent his youth in a town with 4,400 people – a similar population to that of Falls City.
In 2012 Sallans penned an autobiography called Second Son about his experience. And in it, he described Teena’s impact on him and other trans men and women. He explained, “After [Teena’s] murder in 1993, people in the transgender community decided they didn’t want to be in hiding anymore.”
Omaha resident Lynne Mytty, meanwhile, has a similar sentiment as a transgender woman. In fact, she committed to transitioning just after Teena’s murder made waves nationwide. She felt for the young man who had died in Falls City in 1993, telling BuzzFeed, “When you first realize that you’re different, you can’t just change overnight, and sometimes you have to go out and try something.”
In fact, Mytty had tried once in the 1970s to transition from male to female. But, she revealed to the publication, most people thought she was just gay and, she said, that “wasn’t a good place to be in Nebraska.” She subsequently got married and fathered her children, but the thought of transitioning always lingered. And she completed the process in 1994 – just after Teena’s murder.
Mytty’s personal experience allowed her to speak on the amount of support – or lack thereof – that Teena may have possibly received from his community before he met his tragic fate. She recalled to BuzzFeed, “There was only one gay organization in Nebraska. There were smaller ones around the country, but most of them were in the larger metropolitan areas.”
Plus, of course, the majority of said organizations focused solely on the gay and lesbian communities. In fact, it would be a few more years after Teena’s death before the movement would bring transgender men and women into the fold, too. And it would take until 1999 for the “T” representing “transgender” to be added to the LGB community label.
It’s fair to say, then, that without the kind of visibility for the transgender community that exists today, Teena never had access to the support or resources that he needed – and that could have even saved his life. But though it was too late for Teena, the story of the young man’s tragic death has meant that many other trans youth have received the help that they deserve. And Teena’s bravery has allowed them to live the way in which he had always tried himself.