The Inconvenient Truth about Teena Brandon
Teena Brandon is remembered today as the female-to-male, transgender victim of a brutal murder motivated by transphobia. When she was eighteen years old, three years before her death, she had been admitted to a crisis center as a result of a drug overdose, which may have been intentional. At the time, she was seriously underweight from an eating disorder and taking seven showers a day, with seven complete changes of clothing. Drinking heavily, she faced twelve pending charges of forgery and a possible charge of sexual assault on a minor, was suffering from a recent, unreported and untreated rape, and was involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old girl, in which she was passing as male. She reported to therapists that, as a child, she had been a victim of years of sexual abuse perpetrated by a male member of her family. According to her biographer, she was diagnosed with "mild gender identity dysphoria," reporting to her friends that a sex-change operation had been suggested.
I want to talk about an inconvenient truth. I want to talk about the fact the person who was named Teena Brandon was a survivor of incest. You won't hear this mentioned in Boys Don't Cry, and you won't hear it mentioned in the documentary "The Brandon Teena Story." You won't read about it in the current Wikipedia entry. It is, like I said, inconvenient.
"Inconvenient" means "causing trouble or difficulties." The inconvenient truth of Brandon's incest history causes trouble because incorporating information about child sexual abuse into the narrative of Brandon's life pathologizes the transgendered identity adopted by Brandon and for which she has become an icon. This is perceived as disrespectful and transphobic—as an attack on Brandon's identity and a posthumous attempt to appropriate a victim's identity.
But the omission of Brandon's incest history is disrespectful and phobic to survivors of child sexual abuse. It also constitutes a posthumous attempt to appropriate a victim's identity. As a survivor, I am disturbed by the revisionist histories of Brandon that omit Brandon's status as a victim of child sexual abuse—and all of the subsequent inconvenient truths accompanying that status.
Inconvenient truths have a way of remaining unarticulated, because they exist outside the frame of reference that has been established. The first difficulty one encounters in telling this inconvenient truth about Teena Brandon is the issue of pronouns. Brandon was sexually abused as a female child, born biologically female, by an adult male perpetrator who was a family member. The gender of victim and perpetrator are clinical details that are critical to the understanding of the perpetration and the impact it had on Brandon. Because of this, I will be using a female pronoun to refer to Brandon as a child, even though, in adulthood, Brandon would identify as male. This places my narrative outside the accepted protocol of respectful dialogue about trans identity.
In this essay, I will refer to her as "Brandon," because, as an adult, she chose to adopt her given surname as her personal name. In titling the essay, I have used her legal, given name "Teena Brandon." It is another inconvenient truth that Brandon never used the name "Brandon Teena." This name was posthumously ascribed, and then picked up by the media. It was a convenient untruth, because it constituted a clever reversal of Brandon's birth name, flipping the name to correspond with flipping gender. "Brandon Teena" is a PR-savvy metaphor… and a fiction.
In Aphrodite Jones' biography, All She Wanted, the first narration of the sexual abuse shows up in an interview with Sara Gapp, Brandon's best friend when Brandon was twelve. "She [Brandon] told me that one of her relatives was doing something to her that she didn't like. She just kinda said that, you know, he would kinda whip this thing out and kinda play with it a little bit… and she said occasionally he'd have her touch him and then he would play with her and tell her, 'oh, you like it. You know this feels good… You know you don't want me to stop.'" (Jones, 43) According to Sara, "At that point in time, she didn't want anyone to know about what happened. She didn't want the guy mad at her… She was embarrassed. No matter what he did to her, she still loved him." (Jones, 43)
Brandon's therapist later confirmed the story of the abuse, adding that, according to Brandon, the sessions of abuse would last for hours and that the molestation continued for a period of years, from childhood into adolescence. In one counseling session, Brandon confronted her mother JoAnn about it, but requested that she not confront the perpetrator, who may have been one of JoAnn's relatives. Brandon's sister Tammy, also a victim, confirmed Brandon's account. It is possible that this abuse was a factor in Brandon's decision to leave home at sixteen, get a job, and move in with her then-girlfriend, Traci Beels, an older classmate.
Victim Responses to Incest
In her book Victimized Daughters: Incest and the Development of the Female Self, Janet Liebman Jacobs states that incest represents "the most extreme form of the sexual objectification of the female child in patriarchal culture." (Jacobs, 11) She makes a compelling case for the fact that incest has a major impact on female personality development, including gender identity.
Jacobs' book highlights significant developmental issues that influence the personality formation of sexually abused daughters, and among these is identification with the perpetrator. Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud and the founder of child psychoanalysis, elaborates on this process:
A child introjects some characteristic of an anxiety-object and so assimilates an anxiety-experience which he [she] has just undergone… By impersonating the aggressor, assuming his attributes or imitating his aggression, the child transforms himself [herself] from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat. (Freud, 121)
Turning away from her mother, whom she perceives as an untrustworthy betrayer-of-her-own-kind, the victimized daughter looks toward the male perpetrator, who, because he is her abuser, is perceived as powerful, and who, because he is male, still hold the potential for objective idealization. "Female," for the daughter, has become identified as the subjective gender for victims and betrayers. According to trauma researcher Judith Herman, "In her desperate attempts to preserve her faith in her parents, the child victim develops highly idealized images of at least one parent… More commonly, the child idealizes the abusive parent and displaces all her rage onto the nonoffending parent." (Herman, 106) Describing her research with survivors of father-daughter incest, Herman notes, "With the exception of those who had become conscious feminists, most of the incest victims seemed to regard all women, including themselves, with contempt." (Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 103)
Rejecting the mother and her own female identity, the victimized daughter begins to imitate the aggressor. E. Sue Blume, author of Secret Survivors, describes how the daughter reinvents herself through identification with the perpetrator.
...child victims often recreate themselves, developing alter egos who offer a positive live alternative to their own. Most commonly, this is a male persona: female survivor clients may either substitute alternative male personalities, or attach to a male fantasy companion. This is simple to understand: as a victim, and a female, she associates her vulnerable state with defenselessness; males, however, are seen as physically stronger, and not easily targeted for victimization. (Blume, 85)
Brandon's Gender Expression
Brandon didn't like wearing dresses to school. When her mother asked the reason for this, Brandon told her that dresses were cold (this was Nebraska) and that the boys could look up them when the girls climbed the stairs. Because she attended a school that required uniforms, she wore the pants and ties that were standard for the boys, but that girls were also allowed to wear. According to her best friend Sara Gapp, "People kept saying she dressed like a guy. She didn't… She dressed in clothes that she felt comfortable in. She didn't go to the guys' section to buy those clothes. Those were women's clothes she was wearing. She just liked baggy clothes. She wore short hair. Does that make her a guy?" (Jones, 55)
The choice to wear baggy clothes is consistent with the choices of many survivors of sexual abuse. Brandon's "passing" as a man began later as a practical joke on a teenaged girl who dialed Brandon's number by accident and mistook her for a boy on the phone. According to Sarah, "Up until Liz Delano [the mistaken caller], if you had called her a boy, Teena would be offended. She didn't want to be recognized as a guy. She didn't feel like a guy." (Jones, 54)
Brandon has also been described as indulging in male role-playing. According to her sister Tammy,
The church was really significant to her. We went to Catholic school, and I think they kind of brainwash you in kindergarten on being priests and nuns. They always bring in priests and nuns to talk about how they got the calling and how you'll know if you have the calling… Teena never wanted to be a nun; she always wanted to be a priest, and I thought it was funny because I had to participate in her masses, and I'd get really bored half the time, 'cause she'd read from the Bible and make us sing. I thought it was just a game she played; then every once in a while she'd say, 'Oh, I want to be a priest someday.' (Jones, 34)
Was Brandon identifying with the power to officiate or with the gender? In light of the Church's ban against women priests, which denies women the prestige, ceremonial office, and opportunity for leadership associated with the priesthood, it would be irresponsible to attribute Brandon's desire to be a priest to "gender dysphoria"—a term that, when applied to females, could as well be defined as "sex-caste resistance." Identification with gender roles in a male dominant culture cannot be separated from identification with the privileges that accompany those roles. As pioneer psychoanalyst Karen Horney notes, "We live… in a male culture, i.e. state, economy, art and science are creations of man and thus filled with his spirit." (Horney, 152)
Brandon's discomfort with her developing body has been documented. In her book, Aphrodite Jones reports that Brandon hated the pain caused by her developing breasts, and that she also complained of the pain of menstrual cramps and the inconvenience of having to deal with a monthly flow of blood. Were these the objections of a "male trapped in a female body," or of a particularly self-assertive and articulate girlchild appalled by the inconvenience, embarrassment, and pain of the adult female body?
Brandon's discomfort ran deeper than annoyance. She reported that it would "make her feel sick" (Jones, 47) to have anyone stare at her chest. Again, a girl need not be an incest survivor to register disgust at the sexual objectification of her developing body at puberty, but the female incest survivor who has internalized a masculine ideal faces a different set of obstacles:
While puberty represents a painful time for many adolescent girls, for daughters in incest families this transition into female adulthood may be especially difficult and confusing as her body signals not only the passage into female adulthood but the recognition that the internalized masculine ideal is truly a fantasy of other and can never be the real self. (Jacobs, 86)
The rejection of the female self can offer an explanation for the prevalence of eating disorders at puberty among incest survivors. Brandon, at the time of her attempted suicide, was reported as manifesting serious eating disorders.
For the incest survivor, her body becomes the symbol of her victimization and thus the focus of her desire for control. Further, the obsession with a thin, boyish body, rather than an expression of femininity, may represent an unconscious rejection of the female self through which the daughter attempts to integrate the internalized male ego ideal with an external image of a masculinized child's body. (Jacobs, 88)
Brandon reported that in October 1990, she was raped. That same fall, when she was almost eighteen, Brandon tried to join the army. According to her friends, she was eager to be a part of Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately, she did not pass the written exams. This appears to have been a turning point for her. According to her mother, "She was really upset… She started to change." (Jones, 47)
One of the biggest questions about Brandon's choices is "Why didn't she identify herself as lesbian?" She may well have been trying to do that when she attempted to enlist. Why would a transman want to enlist in a strictly segregated, all-female environment? The military, in spite of its homophobic policies and witch hunts, has always appealed to lesbians, because it has historically provided a same-sex living and work environment for four years.
Although rape and sexual harassment occur in the military, a survivor who associates her violation with isolation and ongoing exposure to access by males might feel there was safety in an all-female environment, and especially if she had just been raped. Also, army regulation uniforms provide protective covering that de-emphasize sexual characteristics and discourage sexual objectification. It would be naive to assume that Brandon, who had, by high school, identified her sexual attraction to women and who had already moved in with one girlfriend, was unaware of the association of lesbians with the military. She may well have been looking for the lesbians, and this may explain in part her extreme reaction to failing the entrance exam.
If this is the case, then why didn't she go looking for the communities of lesbians in her hometown? Because "don't ask, don't tell" was not a policy that applied to working-class gays and lesbians in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1990. The homophobia there was overt and potentially life-threatening. Harassment could take the form of anonymous, obscene phone calls, drive-by threats and insults, and physical assault. Because rape is viewed by homophobes as a "cure" for lesbianism, harassment can take the form of threats of rape, or the act itself.
For a young woman who had a horror of male sexuality and who had told friends that rape was one of her biggest fears, and who had just been raped, the prospect of this kind of harassment must have been terrifying. The October rape may, in fact, have been a homophobic assault directed against her, as a woman who didn't date men and who had a history of cohabitation with a girlfriend.
But there was another reason why Brandon wasn't identifying herself as lesbian: Lesbianism had become a power issue between Brandon and her mother.
In March of 1991, shortly after Brandon's rejection by the army, a teenaged girl named Liz Delano dialed a wrong number and reached Brandon by mistake. Liz mistook Brandon for a teenaged boy, and Brandon played along, calling herself "Billy." For a joke, she put a sock in her underwear and met Liz at a skating rink as Billy. Liz continued to call the Brandon home and ask for "Billy," and JoAnn began to understand that her daughter was posing as a boy. She was not happy.
A few weeks later, Brandon began a relationship with Heather, a fourteen-year-old friend of Liz. She moved in with Heather, posing as a male and calling herself "Ten-a." JoAnn Brandon understood that this relationship was a sexual one, and she began telephoning both Heather and Heather's mother, insisting that the young man they had taken into their home was her daughter. Heather, like Brandon, was an incest survivor. According to the account in Jones' biography, the focus of Brandon's relationship was intense, romantic role-playing, not genital sex, and Heather responded initially with gratitude for the thoughtful behaviors and absence of sexual pressure. Brandon deeply resented JoAnn's attempt to sabotage the relationship, and she especially resented her mother's attempt to cast her in the role of a sexual (lesbian) predator.
To explain away her mother's persistent calls, Brandon told Heather that she had been born a hermaphrodite, but that JoAnn had chosen to raise her as a female in order to "keep her for herself." (Jones, 89) According to Heather, "He [Brandon] had a legitimate answer for everything. He'd tell me his mother couldn't accept the fact that he was male, that she wanted two little girls, that she was just playing a joke." (Jones, 67) Brandon's knowledge of hermaphroditism had come from an episode of the Phil Donahue show.
JoAnn herself tells a different story: "I knew that all of a sudden there were beer parties going on and I have an eighteen-year-old daughter over there that's not supposed to be drinking or doing anything."(Jones, 67) She understood that any sexual activity between Brandon and the fourteen-year-old Heather was statutory rape. JoAnn was outraged by Brandon's claim of hermaphroditism. "I gave birth to her; I know what sex she is. There were no attachments anywhere that had to be removed." (Jones, 68)
JoAnn stepped up her campaign to "out" her daughter. She sent two lesbian co-workers to visit Heather's mother. They had photographs of Brandon as a little girl and a copy of her birth certificate. In response, Brandon tore up every picture of herself she could find. Perceiving lesbianism as her mother's attempt to break up her relationship, Brandon began binding her breasts, lowering her voice, and using men's rooms in public.
In June 1991, Brandon filed a complaint against her mother for harassment. She and Heather took the tape from their answering machine to the police. On it was a message from JoAnn calling them lesbians and threatening to expose them. Her mother's insistence on Brandon's lesbianism had become a serious enough power issue to involve the police.
Lesbianism was a family issue in another sense. The winter following Brandon's attempt to enlist, her sister Tammy had given up a baby for adoption—to a lesbian couple from San Francisco. Brandon had urged her sister to keep the baby. She had wanted desperately to be an aunt. Later, one of Brandon's gay male friends would report how "He [Brandon] hated lesbians; he was totally against lesbians," (Jones, 93) citing the adoption as the reason for this hatred.
That same summer, Brandon began forging checks in order to buy groceries and gifts for Heather. She had obtained a fake identification card and was getting jobs as a man. She began telling friends that she had gotten a sex-change operation in Omaha. By October, she had been cited on two counts of second-degree forgery. Brandon's illegal activities began to accelerate, as did her drinking, compulsive behaviors, and eating disorders. Finally, Sarah, her best friend, decided to take matters into her own hands. She met with Heather and explained to her that Brandon was a female. Heather terminated the relationship and Brandon attempted to kill herself by taking a bottle of antibiotics. This landed her in a crisis center, and here, finally, she was able to receive professional counseling.
The Gender Identity Disorder Diagnosis
Brandon spent seven days at the crisis center. Dr. Klaus Hartman wrote up the initial report. Brandon's history would have included twelve pending charges of forgery, a possible charge of sexual assault on a minor, an untreated rape in October 1990, eating disorders, binge drinking, and an ongoing sexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old girl. The diagnosis? A mild case of identity disorder. After just a few days of counseling, Brandon told her mother that a sex change operation had been suggested by her therapist.
Was transsexualism Brandon's idea or the therapists'? Mental health clinician Deb Brodtke took over Brandon's case at the crisis center and continued to treat her for almost a year on an outpatient basis. Brandon is reported telling Brodtke she wanted to be a male, "to not have to deal with the negative connotations of being a lesbian and because she felt less intimidated by men when she presented herself as male." (Jones, 83) If this is true, what Brandon told her therapist was not that she felt like a man trapped in a woman's body, but a woman trapped in a world where it was dangerous to be female, and especially dangerous to be lesbian.
Jones' book does not record any attempt on Brodtke's part to challenge Brandon's internalized lesbophobia. There is no record in her narrative of efforts to supply Brandon with information about lesbian culture or lesbian history, information about lesbian coming-out groups or groups for young lesbians. There is no record of her attempting to connect Brandon with an adult lesbian who could counsel or mentor her. The "gender identity disorder" (GID) diagnosis reflects the historical heterosexism of the mental health field, which has traditionally understood gay and lesbian desire as evidence of the desire to become a member of the other sex.
Brandon's diagnosis appears not to have included alcoholism. It's interesting to note how prevalent the use and abuse of alcohol is in the documentary, the biography, and the feature film—and yet how absent it appears to have been from the treatment plan. If alcohol abuse had been identified as even a contributing factor to the chaos and torment of Brandon's young life, it seems logical that there would have been some attempt to incorporate a recovery program into the treatment plan.
And finally, Brandon's GID diagnosis, so replete with homophobia and gender bias, also appears to have ignored the "elephant in the living room"—the incest. The account of Brandon's treatment and diagnosis does not appear to include Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome commonly associated with survivors of child abuse, and especially survivors of incest. This is remarkable given the fact that, at the clinic, Brandon presented with a record of years of untreated child sexual abuse, a report of a recent rape, an escalation of criminal activity, a history of multiple identities, sexual predation toward under-aged girls, extreme risk-taking behaviors, avoidance of medical care from fear of routine examinations, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, terror of being in a female body, expressed fear of men, preference for protective clothing, and compulsive bathing—six or seven showers a day with changes of clothing. (Brandon's obsession with cleanliness would continue throughout her life, and, according to friends, even in her last years, she was still taking three or four showers a day.)
Instead of a diagnosis related to trauma, the therapist apparently sent Brandon home with information about "gender reassignment" surgeries, which would include such procedures as suturing the vagina, removing the breasts, ovaries, and uterus, transplanting the nipples, constructing an appendage using skin grafts from the thighs, and administering steroids. Brandon's friends reported that Brandon expressed a marked ambivalence about these recommendations.
Her sister Tammy remembers the family's reaction:
Basically, we were getting worried about Teena. And we couldn't get any help for her… you know, not help to deal with her being gay or anything like that, but help to deal with her trying to figure out herself. Maybe she needed some counseling. And she had mentioned to us about committing suicide, so we kind of used that as a reason of getting her to there [Lincoln General Hospital], and the psychologist there said that Teena needed long-term help… which I don't know if that was really the case, but they did send her out to the Crisis Center, and… I wish I really knew what Teena had told them or what those doctors had told Teena, but basically, she came out of there saying, 'I want a sex change,' and… 'They told me I need to do this and that.' And they might have told her that, but I don't know if that's really what she wanted to do." (Muska)
In advocating for the surgery that would facilitate Brandon's transition, the therapist advised her of the professionally-mandated, year-long probationary period, a period in which the patient would be required to live as a man. Had Brandon described her current strategies for passing as a man in relationships—strategies involving the deception and statutory rape of naive and inexperienced minors who were unlikely to be assertive or educated enough to confront Brandon's sexual subterfuges? If the therapist did address the legal, ethical, or safety issues of these strategies, Brandon never saw any reason to revise them. In fact, armed with the official diagnosis of "Axis I: transsexualism," Brandon escalated her deceptions and seductions.
After this counseling, her repertory of lies expanded to include tales of her grandmother's plans to send her to Europe to have the surgery done, and of scheduled dates in June 1993 for a bilateral mastectomy. She told her various girlfriends at various times that her vagina had been sewn up, that "something" had been implanted that would eventually grow into a penis, and that she had begun hormone therapy. Like the stories of hermaphroditism that preceded the transsexual diagnosis, all were untrue.
Misogyny, Dissociation, and GID
According to the studies of Jacobs and Herman, the victimized daughter's repudiation of a female identity and her internalization of an idealized male represent responses to childhood sexual abuse.
If gender is considered an aggregate of sex-caste markers in a system of dominance based on biological sex, then it is simplistic and misleading to characterize it as "performative." Viewed in the context of a patriarchal culture, gender is emblematic of a system of dominance in which women are universally oppressed as a caste.
The victimized daughter who adopts a male persona is not "fucking with gender." Gender has fucked with her, and, in attempting to identify with the power that has hurt her, she is adopting the strategy of a desperate child whose only option has been to alter her perception of herself.
What the transgender movement calls gender-fucking is simply an exercise in moving markers rather than any fundamental change in gender. Gender still exists. It is still an organizing structure for society. What's different is that you just 'do' it differently: it is 'allowed' to be attached to different bodies. The aim of transgender politics is to allow you to be 'be' the gender that you 'are.' However, being your gender still means what you wear, what you do, how you express yourself and is still attached to fundamental notions of what it means to be men and women… And it's no surprise that what is female and what is male in this view exactly tracks what is already defined as male and female. (Corson, 3)
Transgender politics does not disrupt the positions of men and women in the gender hierarchy, but what it does do is "render women's choices to oppose this hierarchy as women and on behalf of women incomprehensible."(Corson, 3)
In addition to its participation in the larger political system of male dominance, the GID diagnosis also acts on a more personal front to protect the perpetrators. If the victimized daughter's "gender dysphoria" is a post-traumatic response to sexual violence, it reflects an attempt to dissociate, or split off, the trauma.
A trauma that cannot adequately be represented or narrated remains estranged. It is an alienated chunk of experience that resists any assimilation into the personhood of the host on whom it feeds. Dissociation can also be understood as a narrative act. It narrates fragmentation, breakage, rupture, disjunction, and incommensurability. (Epstein and Lefkovitz, 193)
Dissociation is a survival strategy.
It provides a way out of the intolerable and psychologically incongruous situation (double-bind), it erects memory barriers (amnesia) to keep painful events and memories out of awareness, it functions as an analgesic to prevent feeling pain, it allows escape from experiencing the event and from responsibility/guilt, and it may serve as a hypnotic negation of the sense of self. The child may begin by using the dissociative mechanism spontaneously and sporadically. With repeated victimization and double-bind injunctions, it becomes chronic. It may further become an autonomous process as the individual ages. (Courtois, 155)
Dissociation is a way of altering consciousness. As millions of survivors can testify, these dissociated memories have not really gone away. Whether or not they ever surface to the conscious mind, they continue to exert their influence through somatic disorders, flashbacks, sleep disturbances, intrusive dreams, and dissociative disorders. Repressed memories do not go away because one wishes them away. The survivor takes control of her life by understanding and assimilating repressed trauma, not reinforcing the split. And this is precisely why the GID diagnosis is so potentially pernicious when applied to the victimized daughter.
When the GID diagnosis is substituted for identification and treatment of PTSD, it reinforces the splitting that was a result of childhood trauma. However "queer" the diagnosis, it does not deviate from a model of normativity based on traditional sex-caste roles. The GID diagnosis that recommends transsexualism as a "cure" seriously compromises the victimized daughter's potential for recovery from the effects of her trauma. Instead of offering techniques to aid her retrieval of memory and reintegration of dissociated material, the GID diagnosis enables and encourages an even deeper investment in the disorder, by offering a false promise of legitimizing this ahistorical dissociative identity through "reassignment" of gender. It exploits, rather than deconstructs, the syndrome.
Finally, when the transgender identity is an extension and amplification of the victimized daughter's identification with the perpetrator, a divided consciousness continues to inform the survivor's psyche, playing itself out in scenarios of revictimization.
In both the play and imagination of the survivors, a tenuous relationship exists between the internalized male abuser and the violated female child… While the introjection of the perpetrator may at times mask the daughter's identity as victim and thus contribute to the construction of a false persona, patterns of revictimization reveal the extent to which the unprotected and violated female self also inform the personality of the victimized daughter. (Jacobs, 99)
Revictimization was the story of Brandon's short adult life, as she played out serial fraudulent identities that resulted in arrest and incarceration, seduction of under-aged girls who rejected her when they discovered her secret, and increasingly dangerous alliances with violent and homophobic males. Brandon's sexual deceptions, deceptions that escalated after her official diagnosis as transsexual, put her girlfriends at risk in very real ways. Her girlfriends in Lincoln had been teased and harassed by their friends, but when Brandon moved to the more provincial Richardson County, the stakes became even higher. Both of Brandon's Humboldt friends, Lisa Lambert and Lana Tisdel, were being harassed at their workplaces and at social events. One of Lisa's friends described Lisa's dilemma: "Everyone in Humboldt knew about Brandon. Lisa didn't try to hide it. Lisa couldn't believe something like this happened to her. She made it clear that she was too caring to shut Brandon out. She was mad and hurt about it, but she didn't want to hurt him [Brandon], didn't want to turn him out on the streets." (Jones, 205) Her compassion would cost her her life.
Lana's situation was complicated by her friendship with ex-convicts Tom Nissen and John Lotter. When Brandon was arrested for forging checks on December 15, 1993, she had phoned Lana to bail her out, but Lana was horrified to discover that her "boyfriend" was being held in the women's section of the jail. Instead of going herself, Lana sent Tom, her former boyfriend, to bail Brandon out. The arrest was reported that week in the Falls City Journal, making public Brandon's biological identity as female, and, consequently, Lana's participation in what would be perceived as a lesbian relationship. Friends of Brandon believe that the bailing-out was the beginning of a set-up for the subsequent rape. Nissen and Lotter appear to have felt deceived and humiliated by Brandon's gender presentation. In the words of one friend, "He [Brandon] played a player and [the player] got even for it." (private email, December 20, 2004)
According to Jones, however, Lana had attempted to protect Brandon, even after she realized she had been deceived. She told her family and Tom Nissen and John Lotter that she had seen Brandon's penis. But Tom and John were not convinced, and they performed their own investigation—strip-searching her. These were both men with histories of violence, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. It may have been that Lana's safety was seriously compromised once it was known by these men that she had participated in a sexual relationship with a biological female and had lied to protect the fact.
Three days after Brandon had, at Lana's urging, gone to the police to report the rape, the police questioned John and Tom, but did not arrest them. John denied the rape, but said that Lana had asked him to find a way to determine Brandon's sex. On December 30, the two men went to Lana's house looking for Brandon, but Brandon, who was no longer welcome there, had taken shelter at Lisa's farmhouse. Lana reported that John said he "felt like killing someone" and told her she, Lana, was next. This may have been why Lana's mother told them where Brandon was hiding. After they left, no phone calls were made to warn Brandon or Lisa that the men were on their way. Conflicting testimony suggests that Lana may have actually been in the car, or even at the house, on the night of the murders.
Many aspects of Brandon's life would have been easier in a culture that was not transphobic, but recovery from incest trauma would not have been one of them.
Recovery from traumatic sexualization… begins with the process of reintegration whereby the original trauma is brought to consciousness. Only then can the idealization of the perpetrator give way to the reality of his sexual violence. With the deconstruction of the idealized father, the daughter can begin to reclaim and redefine the female self, diminishing the impact of the internalized aggressor. (Jacobs, 165)
When the internalization of this ideal has become incorporated into the gender identity of the victimized daughter, specifically as a response to the trauma, this kind of deconstruction is impeded. These may have been so damaged by the incest that it might appear more expedient and more therapeutic to adopt a differently-gendered identity that is not so apparently freighted with traumatic associations. This identity, however, cannot—by definition—offer the integration that characterizes recovery.
So, how does the victimized daughter heal? In Victimized Daughters, Janet Liebman Jacobs elaborates some of the stages associated with recovery, noting that not every survivor will experience these changes: (Jacobs, 136)
- Deconstruction of the idealized father.
- Recognition of the sense of self constructed around the ideal of maleness embodied in the perpetrator.
- Separation from the perpetrator.
- Identification of the self as victim (which may include identification with other powerless members of society, and which allows her to deconstruct the "bad self" at the core of her development).
- Recognition of past victimization integrated in the context of original sexual trauma (which may result in establishing and maintaining better boundaries in potentially victimizing relationships).
- Reclaiming the sexual self (a result of deconstruction of the idealized perpetrator and development of a separate sense of self, which may involve controlling dissociative responses and intrusive flashbacks, and the restructuring or elimination of sexual fantasies that signifies disengagement from the perpetrator).
- Self-validation and reconnection to the female persona (through therapeutic transference that models respectful caretaking, or reconnection or empathy with the mother, or identification with female spiritual power).
- Reintegration through creative imagination.
As an adult, Brandon exhibited behaviors consistent with a diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome associated with incest survivors. Gender dysphoria has been clinically identified as a response to child sexual abuse and incest, and it is logical to question whether or not it was therapeutic in the case of Teena Brandon to diagnose transsexualism and recommend surgical reassignment in lieu of focusing on diagnosis and treatment of Complex PTSD. If healing from child sexual abuse and incest requires retrieval and assimilation of dissociated material, a strong case can be made that Brandon's transsexualism diagnosis served to enhance her dissociation, impeding recovery from the incest and enabling an escalation of high-risk behaviors based on a dissociated identity.
As a final footnote, one of Brandon's friends has shared this story about the week between the rape and the murder:
On Christmas day of 1993, when Lisa brought Brandon back… from Falls City, [a friend] met him[Brandon] at the door and said "Hi Brandon" In reply [the friend] was told by Brandon that there was no Brandon, Brandon was gone. Her name is Teena. That didn't change at any point in that last week. (private email, December 20, 2004).
Blume, E. Sue. Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women. New York: Ballantine, 1990.
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"The Inconvenient Truth About Tina Brandon" is an inconvenient essay. It has a history of publication rejections. It has been construed as transphobic, and it has been challenged for disrupting tenets of Queer Theory. This is to be expected, because it is about trauma, and trauma is trauma specifically because it resists being accepted or assimilated. If this paper fit comfortably into existing categories of identity there would have been no need to write it and Teena Brandon might be living today.
Does this essay belong in a journal issue with the title "Are Lesbians Going Extinct?" The answer is "no," if that means it should insist that Teena Brandon was really a lesbian with a case of mistaken identity. This paper does not make that claim. What it does claim is her status as an unrecovered survivor of incest with Complex PTSD who appeared to be in active syndrome up to the time of her death.
I believe this paper does belong in this issue of Trivia, which is why I submitted it. Many lesbians are survivors of child sexual abuse. The last decade has seen increasing numbers of biological women who formerly identified as lesbians (like Brandon) transitioning to claim male identities. Positions in the lesbian and trans communities have become polarized, opening deep divisions between us. Accusations of "essentialism," "pathologizing," "misogyny," and "patriarchal privilege" are hurled back and forth across the battle lines.
In my experience, protracted conflict can be an indication of inadequately and/or inaccurately conceived contexts. Trauma research offers radical perspectives on identity, both lesbian and trans, and opens up new space for dialogue, space with a possibility of common ground. Trauma literacy can inform radical feminism, and I wrote the paper with that intention.
Is this a lesbian paper that belongs in lesbian space? That question can be hotly debated, and what better qualifier for inclusion?
About the Author
Carolyn Gage is a lesbian feminist playwright, performer, author, and activist. The author of nine books and more than fifty-five plays, she is the 2009 winner of the Lambda Literary Award in drama. Her website is www.carolyngage.com
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