Joann Brandon was a young Catholic woman from Lincoln, Nebraska who became a wife and mother at the age of fourteen. Her first child, a daughter named Tammy, would not be an only child for long. Joann welcomed another daughter at age sixteen and named the child Teena Brandon. Just a year later, Teena’s father passed away and Joann became a widowed mother to two young children. She moved back in with her mother and raised her girls. She sent them to Catholic schools and tried her best to raise them despite having limited financial means.
Joann and Tammy describe Teena as a “tom boy” growing up. She liked to wear baggy clothing and play football. It seemed as if from a very early age, Teena questioned her gender identity. Some, however, claim that an incident of molestation in her childhood led Teena to be confused about her sexuality and gender. Once Teena hit puberty, she began to bind her breasts with an elastic bandage and dress as a male.
As Teena grew into a teenager, she began to rebel from her mother and move in with friends, bouncing from house to house. She lived with Tammy for a while, but Tammy became convinced Teena was stealing and asked her to leave. That being said, when Tammy became pregnant, Teena was thrilled. She loved the idea of becoming an aunt. However, Tammy chose to give the baby up for adoption. When a friend became pregnant, Teena offered to help raise the child and possibly adopt the child later. Due to her unstable living situation and lack of motivation, Teena failed to complete high school.
In 1990, a thirteen-year-old girl called the wrong number, reaching Teena by mistake. Teena told the girl that her name was Billy Brandon and portrayed herself as a male. One night, the two went out on a date. Teena now as Billy, dressed as a male with a pair of socks in the crotch area of his jeans to give the appearance of being male. Teena finally realized what was missing and from that point forward chose to be known as a male. For this reason, I will use he/him pronouns for the remainder of this story.
Several other young girls followed as Billy’s girlfriends. While still living in Lincoln, Billy dated several young girls. He would eventually replace the socks with a dildo and was sexually active with multiple girls. The girls, often younger and inexperienced, were told that he was a hermaphrodite, a person who has both female and male body parts. He also told others that he was a man trapped in a body of a woman. His mother claims that he picked this up from watching “The Montel Williams Show” (Dunne, 1997). Joann refused to accept her child as a male, continuing to use feminine pronouns and the name Teena.
Billy was known as a lady’s man, often proposing to his girlfriends early on. He was known to buy them teddy bears and treat them to meals out. Girls he dated described him as being sweet and knowing what girls want and how to treat them. One girl even believed that she was pregnant by Billy at one point (Dunne, 1997). Eventually, Billy moved in with one girlfriend and her mother, infuriating his own mother.
Joanne’s reaction to her child living as a male enraged her. She called the mother of his girlfriend shouting that the two were lesbians and yelling in a tone that seemed threatening. She was eventually cited for disturbing the peace in relation to her outbursts (Dunne, 1997). It is unclear if the mother of the girl knew that Billy was a biological female at the time.
All of the dating and displays of affection were costing Billy a ton of money. Money was something Billy didn’t have. He would eventually use fake IDs to gain employment or temp jobs but would leave when his true biological identity was revealed. To continue paying for everything he had to pay for, he began to steal. Often, he would forge checks of family members and friends or use ATM cards belonging to other people (Dunne, 1997). This led to multiple arrests.
On March 13th, 1991, “Teena Brandon” as he was legally known was arrested for possession of stolen property. This charge led to three days in jail and a $500 fine. Several other complaints of theft and forgery did not lead to any charges for him. In October of 1991, there was a forgery charge however that led to a breakup between him and a girlfriend, who finally realized his biological gender. This caused him to attempt suicide by overdose. The subsequent hospitalization following the attempt was the first time he received mental health care and a diagnosis of “transexual with a personality disorder” (Dunne, 1997) was assigned.
In March of 1992, Teena Brandon was sentenced to eighteen months of probation following a conviction for second degree forgery. He was ordered to receive therapy, but he failed to attend regularly or complete required educational sessions that would help in obtaining a GED. The therapist that saw him at that time documented “Teena does what is needed to get by. No changes noted in taking responsibility, personal growth, or attitude” (Dunne, 1997). She was eventually terminated from the therapy program. Many who knew him personally called him a pathological liar.
Billy Brandon was a name of the past as he now chose to be known as Brandon Teena. After several violations of probation, there was now an arrest warrant out for Teena Brandon. Brandon knew he couldn’t get picked up again or he would be forced to go to jail. This was troubling for more than just the obvious misery of being locked up, he would be locked up in a female jail and his secret would be out. Brandon decided to go stay with a friend in Humboldt, Nebraska.
In the fall of 1993, Brandon relocated himself to a small farmhouse outside of Humboldt, Nebraska. Lisa Lambert, the tenant renting the home, was a young single mother of an infant son. She was known as a sweet girl who often “took in strays”, meaning people down on their luck who needed a place to stay. Lisa worked as a nurse’s aide at a local nursing home and as a bartender to make ends meet.
Once in Humboldt, near Fall City Nebraska, Brandon began working his charms on the local young women and living completely as a male. No one knew him here, so it made it easier to live as the man he felt like on the inside. He eventually began a romance with a young lady named Lana Tisdel in November of 1993. Lana was unaware of Brandon’s biological identity until Brandon was once again arrested for forging a check.
“They found out. I didn’t believe it. I thought they were just saying it because of all the trouble Brandon had been in” Lana told reporters later. The “they” she is referring to is her friends Lisa Lambert, John Lotter, and Thomas Nissen. The group had been hanging out almost daily since Brandon arrived in the area. John, 22, and Tom, 21, both had spent time in prison. John had also previously dated Lana.
The news that Brandon was a biological female stunned the group of friends and enraged the men. John and Tom attended a party with Brandon and Lana on Christmas Eve of 1993. They used this opportunity to forcibly remove Brandon’s pants and expose his genitals, confirming to everyone in the group his biological gender. Humiliated and traumatized, Brandon tried to explain the situation to Lana, and she agreed to remain loyal to him. “I about lost my friends and family doing it, but I stuck right beside him” (Duggan, 1994) Lana said.
In the early morning hours of Christmas Day, Brandon showed up bloody and bruised to Lana’a house. He told Lana that Lotter and Nissen had kidnapped him and raped him violently. Despite reluctance, Lana and her mother convinced him to press charges. Lana’s mother, however, was not exactly an ally of Brandon’s. Lana says in the documentary “Hatred and Homophobia in the Heartland of America” that her mother was disgusted and said she shouldn’t hang out with Brandon because “those kinds of people have aids” (Hatred and Homophobia, 2018).
When Brandon reported the rape, Sherriff Charles Laux asked more questions about Brandon’s sexual preferences and gender identity than he did about the rape. Below is a transcript of the interview:
Laux: “Tom held your arms, which way was he standing beside you, behind you, or what?
Brandon: “Behind me”
Laux: “And how did he hold you?”
Brandon: “My arms up”
Laux: “And then he took and Tom, or, ah, John undone your pants, right? And pulled your pants down how far?”
Brandon “Past my knees”
Laux: “Past your knees. How far did he pull your underpants?”
Brandon: “Past my knees”
Laux: “And what did you have in your underpants? Nothing in your underpants”
Brandon: “Are you talking about earlier when I had a sock but not when he pulled my pants down I didn’t”
Laux: “You didn’t have a sock? Do you run around once in a while with a sock in your pants to make you look like a boy?”
Laux: “Alright. So after he pulled your pants down and seen that you were a girl, what did he do? Did he fondle you any?”
Laux: “He didn’t fondle you any, huh. Didn’t that kind of amaze you? After he pulled your pants down and had wanted to take you to bed and you told him no that you was a boy, and you couldn’t do that? Doesn’t that kind of get your attention somehow, that he would put his hands in your pants and play with you a little bit? Huh?
Brandon: “I don’t know what he did”
Laux: “Huh? I can’t believe that he pulled your pants down and you are a female, that he didn’t stick his hand in you or his finger in you.”
Brandon: “Well he didn’t”
Laux: “Can’t believe he didn’t”
Later in the interview:
Brandon: “Tom looked at me and he said, ‘John and I need to talk to you’. I said ‘Okay’, and we walked into the bathroom and John turned around and held the door and Tom hit me once, and I fell in the tub, he stood back and hit me again. This time I fell on the floor, he kicked me in the ribs I don’t know how many times, he stepped on my back, then picked me up by my coat and carried me out to the car by my coat… I got in the back seat that is when I knew something was going to happen. I asked them why. I did beg with them I did plead. Tom told me, are you going to make this easy or are you going to make this hard, and then he goes, in fact he said that, he said that either you can have the shit beat out of you and then have it happen anyway.”
Laux: “Have what happen?”
Brandon: “When he raped me”
Laux: “So when they got ready to poke you, how was you positioned in the back seat?”
Brandon: “On my back”
Laux: “You was on your back? Where did they try to pop it in first at?”
Brandon: “My vagina”
Laux: “They tried sticking it in your vagina and you say you never had sex before, is that correct?”
Laux: “And which one tried doing this first?
Laux: “And Tom couldn’t get it in you? Huh?”
Brandon: “He said he couldn’t but it still hurt”
Laux: “He said he couldn’t get you?”
Brandon: “He said he couldn’t get it in, but all I know is it hurt so I couldn’t tell the difference. Whatever he was doing it hurt.”
Laux: “The first one was Tom, is that correct?”
Brandon: “Yes sir”
Laux: “Then Tom got out and what did he do?”
Brandon: “He got in the passenger seat in the front”
Laux: “Then what happened?”
Brandon: “Then John got out of the driver’s seat and walked around to the passenger side and got in the back seat”.
Laux: “And then when John got in the back seat, what did he do?”
Brandon: “And did everything that Tom did”
Laux: “Alright. After he got his pants down, he got a spread of you, or had you spread out and he got a spread of you then, then what happened?”
Brandon: “When he finished he got out of the car and got back in the driver’s door”
Laux: “Well, how did, ah let’s back up here a second. First of all you didn’t say anything about him getting up. Did he have a hard on when he got back there or what?”
Brandon: “I don’t know. I didn’t look”.
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: “You didn’t work it up for him?”
Laux: “Do you think he had it worked up on his own or what?”
Brandon: “I guess so, I don’t know”
Laux: “And you have never had any sex before?”
Laux: “How old are you?”
Laux: “And if you’re 21, you think, you have any trouble getting it in?”
Brandon: “Tom said, ‘Nobody will hear about this, alright?” I said, ‘yeah”. Tom said, ‘Get out of the car’. Walked to the back, that’s when he badly attacked me again. He never hit me in the face this time or in the head. He just hit me either in the gut or the back. I think he hit me about three times and the rest of the time he used his knee in my gut. Tom goes ‘We’re done, get in the car’. So I had to sit back in the front seat with them. He goes ‘We’re still friends?’”
Laux: “Then you said what?’
Brandon” I said ‘yeah’. Then we went back to Falls City and went to Tom’s house.”
Laux: “Did they do it one time to you and then the other guy do it one time and then quit, or did one guy do it and then the other guy do it and the other guy come back and do it and then the other guy come back and do it again?”
Brandon: “They each did it once”
Laux: “Do you want to file charges against these guys?”
Laux: “Do you wanna sign a complaint against them?”
Laux: “Will you testify in court against them?”
Brandon: “Yes, sir”
Laux: “Why do you run around with girls instead of guys being you are a girl yourself? Why do you make girls think you’re a guy?”
Brandon: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Laux: “You haven’t the slightest idea? You go around kissing other girls?”
Brandon: “The ones that I know that know about me”
Laux: “The ones—the girls that don’t know about you thinks you’re a guy. Do you kiss them?”
Brandon: “What does that have to do with what happened last night?”
Laux: “Because I’m trying to get some answers so I know exactly what’s going on. Now do you want to answer that question for me or not?”
Brandon: “Do I have to?”
Laux: “The only thing is if it goes to court, that answer--- that question is going to come up in court and I’m going to want an answer for it before it goes to court. See what I’m saying?”
Brandon: “I have a sexual identity crisis.”
Laux: “You what?”
Brandon: “I have a sexual identity crisis”.
The last part of the tape containing the interview has been erased, so no one is certain what else was discussed. Police seemed to have no urgency and failed to immediately act upon the complaint. Lana’s mother warned John Lotter and Tom Nissen that a complaint was filed against them and admits to seeing them destroy evidence from the rape. In the documentary “Hatred and Homophobia in the Heartland of America”, Tom declines to discuss the rape. John, however, admits to attempting to have sex with Brandon, implying he believed it was consensual despite her saying “ouch”. He goes on to say he ejaculated despite not being able to achieve an erection because he was thinking of his fiancé too much.
John Lotter and Tom Nissen were eventually interviewed about the complaint. Police brought them in for questioning in late December. The two admitted to Sherriff Laux that they sexually assaulted and beat him. However, the police allowed them to leave and did not arrest them. Lotter and Nissen were released the same day with no charges filed against them.
On December 31st, 1993, John Lotter and Tom Nissen went to the farmhouse in Humboldt to confront Brandon. Also staying at the house was of course Lisa Lambert and a man named Phillip DeVine. Phillip was a twenty-two-year-old man from Iowa who was visiting Lana’s sister and stayed with Lisa after a fight with his girlfriend. He was disabled with an artificial limb. Lisa’s infant son was also in the home.
The next morning, Lisa’s mother arrived to check on her daughter after she didn’t answer the phone. She could hear her grandson crying, so she decided to enter the house. She immediately saw Phillip DeVine lying on the floor. She walked in and got the baby and began caring for her grandson. She then found Lisa, lying dead on the waterbed. The waterbed had been penetrated and the carpet was soaked. She finally found the body of Brandon Teena. The baby was unharmed. Lisa was twenty-three, Phillip twenty-two, and Brandon twenty-one.
Most media outlets used Teena Brandon and she/her pronouns to describe Brandon due to ignorance, intolerance, and his mother’s insistence. All three victims were killed by being shot. Brandon was also stabbed. John Lotter and Tom Nissen were immediately identified as the prime suspects and arrested for the murders. Nissen admitted to driving with Lotter to the farm and was present when John kicked in the door and shot and killed Brandon. He also killed Lisa and Phillip so there would be no witnesses to identify him.
Media accounts also focused on the fact that Brandon was a biological female and did their own share of victim blaming in this case. This was in the early 1990’s and our society was not as accepting of those in the transgender community at that time. There was intense media scrutiny over Brandon, specifically that he pulled a “scheme” and that he was somehow then partially responsible for his death.
According to court reports from John Lotter’s case, Nissen and Lotter decided on December 26th that they would have to kill Brandon in order to ensure his silence on the rape. They allegedly bought nylon rope, extra clothing, and a hatchet. The plan was to chop off Brandon’s head and hands so that he could not be identified (Lotter V. Houston, 2011). On December 30th, Lotter stole a gun. Lotter and Nissen were both convicted felons.
The two then drove to Lana’s mother’s house. She told the two where they could find Brandon. Brandon had been staying with Lisa Lambert in Humboldt. They then drove out to the rural farmhouse. According to Nissen, they both wore gloves. After pounding on the door without a response, John kicked the door in. Nissen asked Lisa Lambert where Brandon was and noticed there was a person under a blanket on the floor. It was Brandon.
Lotter shot Brandon and he fell but was still showing signs of life such as twitching. For this reason, Lotter instructed Nissen to stab Brandon. Nissen stabbed Brandon in the abdomen, ensuring his death. Nissen then picked the baby up, handing him to his mother. Lotter then shot Lisa in the stomach. Nissen put the child back in the crib. Lotter then shot her again, this time in the eye. Phillip DeVine was told to sit on the couch. He complied and was shot by Lotter twice. All three victims were dead.
In 1994, Nissen agreed to testify against Lotter in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table. He was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison. In 1995, John Lotter was also convicted based on the evidence as well as Nissen’s plea. John Lotter was given the death penalty for his role in the crimes.
On December 20th, 1994, Brandon’s mother Joann filed a wrongful death suit against Richardson County and Sheriff Charles Laux. She eventually won this lawsuit as the court found the county was negligent in not arresting Lotter and Nissen for the sexual assault. If they had, Brandon, Lisa, and Phillip may very well be alive today.
Lotter and Nissen both continue to appeal their cases, but so far have not been successful despite Nissen recanting his testimony against Lotter in 2007. He now claims responsibility for pulling the trigger during the murders (Duggan, 2007). When asked about why he chose to recant his testimony he said “Well, I think the death penalty is used arbitrarily. Obviously it’s unfairly used. There’s somebody sitting on death row not who doesn’t deserve to be” (Duggan, 2007). That being said, he continues to implicate Lotter in the crime and pre-meditation of the crime, just clarifying that he is the one who actually shot the gun.
In 1999, “Boys Don’t Cry” was released and the movie starred Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena. The movie earned Hilary Swank an Oscar in 2000 for the role along with many other awards and nominations. Brandon’s story should serve as a wake-up call to those who do not understand or respect the gender identity of others. It seems to me that it would be much easier to accept a person for who they choose to be regardless of the fact that we may or may not understand their feelings than to allow hatred and fear lead to another brutal crime like this one.
Peirce, K. & Bienen, A. (1999) Boys Don’t Cry; Major motion picture
Hatred and Homophobia in the Heartland America (2018) Hatred and Homophobia in the Heartland of America- True Story; Retrieved at: Hatred and Homophobia in the Heartland of America - True Story - YouTube
Dunne, J. (1997) The Humboldt Murders; A Reporter at Large; January 13, 1997 issue.
Fruhling, L. (1994) Charade revealed prior to killings; The Des Moines Register
Peirce, L. (1994) Rape report tied to killings; The Lincoln Star
Duggan, J. (1994) Woman remained Brandon’s friend; The Lincoln Star
Boone, M. (1999) A chilling tale of rural ignorance; The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
Lotter V. Houston (2011) John L. Lotter Write of Habeas Corpus
Mabin, B. (2001) Court finds sherriff, county negligent; Lincoln Journal Star
Duggar, J (2007) Nissen: I killed Teena Brandon; Fremont Tribune