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Boys Don't Cry (2)

(Fortsetzung des OUT-Artikels über Brandon Teena und den Film BOYS DON'T CRY)

Who is she praying for exactly? Teena Renae Brandon - also known as Brandon, Billy Brinson, Billy Brandon, Charles Brayman, Brandon Yale, and, posthumously, as Brandon Teena - was born biologically female but, from the age of 18 until being raped and murdered at 21, lived and passed as male. (Language itself immediately forces certain choices. I choose to go by what I see as Brandon's desire to be a man and will refer to him as such.) The first child of a financially struggling 16-year-old single mother, Jo Ann Brandon, Teena attended Catholic school in his hometown of Lincoln but never graduated. At 18, Teena became - to certain girls, at certain times - Billy Brinson. Billy was very popular, very kissable, very devoted to the many girls he wooed. He said he was a hermaphrodite; he said he'd had a sexchange operation; he tore up all the pictures of himself as a girl in the family photo albums. He left his mother's house and began living in Lincoln as a man full time. He took the name of Brandon. He remained quite popular despite his bad habit of forging checks and running up his girlfriends' credit card bills and despite an unease that shadowed his masculinity. Girls would sometimes discover his feminine body and trouble would ensue; he was harassed; his mother frequently took it upon herself to let his girlfriends know which sex he had been born, waving birth certificates and baby pictures in their startled faces.

At 19 he tried to kill himself. After reluctantly submitting to a few weeks of therapy at a crisis center, he went back out into the world on his own. In late November 1993, he wound up in the small Nebraska town of Falls City on probation for a forgery conviction and on the rebound from a broken engagement. Within a week of arriving, he won the heart of Lana Tisdel, a fast and beautiful 19 year old from the wrong side of the Falls City tracks. He settled in. But by mid December, another forged check charge landed him in jail, as Teena Renae Brandon. Word began going around Falls City that Brandon was really a girl. Two old friends and ex- boyfriends of Lana's, John Letter and Tom Nissen - both violent, disturbed ex-cons - first became suspicious of their new friend Brandon, then enraged. They exposed his sex by pulling down his pants and forcing Lana to look on, and then, on Christmas Eve, brutally beat and raped him, vaginally and anally. Brandon reported the rape, but Sheriff Charles Laux, who referred to Brandon as "it" and asked him where his rapists "poked" him, did not arrest the two men Brandon named. Frightened and battered, Brandon took refuge in a farmhouse in Humboldt, an even smaller town nearby, with a friend who was also a sometime lover and her baby. The black boyfriend of Lana's sister was also staying there. On New Year's Eve, 1993, Letter and Nissen broke into the house and murdered all three adults. They shot Brandon to death, then stabbed him. Letter is currently on death row; Nissen, having turned state's evidence on his accomplice, is serving a life sentence.


Brandon's story is broad and deep and dense. It caught the imagination of media from Playboy to The New Yorker to newspapers around the country; at least three feature movies have raced one another into development; and a sober feminist documentary, "The Brandon Teena Story", by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, ran theatrically and aired last summer on Cinemax. In 1996 true-crime writer Aphrodite Jones came out with a nonfiction account titled "All She Wanted"; thick with details and exclamation points, it became very popular with women in prison. On the basis of Jones' 30-page book proposal, actress Diane Keaton and coproducer Bill Robinson quickly snapped up the movie rights and the "exclusive life rights" of the Brandons and the Tisdels. Drew Barrymore, who was set to star, helpfully posed nude in the same Playboy issue that contained an article about Brandon's murder. Transgender activism caught fire. The Brandons and the Tisdels went on TV talk shows. Dinitia Smith published a grittily mournful 1997 novel, "The Illusionist", based on the case. Brandon became famous as "Brandon Teena," though it wasn't a name he ever used in life, and entered the pantheon af popular myth. Grieving girls left flowers and notes on his grave.

This boy killed on the brink of manhood was a martyr, to be sure, but depending on who was talking about him, he became, in turn, the very emblem of a stone butch, a self-hating lesbian, a budding female-to-male transsexual, a shadowy "deceiver," or simply, as many of his former girlfriends sighed, the best boyfriend they'd ever had. What Brandon "was" became a tense question. Jo Ann Brandon adamantly refused to meet with transgender groups and screamed into TV cameras, "Her name is Teena, not Brandon!" Transgender activists, outraged by an article Donna Minkowitz wrote for The Village Voice in which she essentially read Brandon as a stone butch, picketed the joumalist.

"The thing that's been most remarkable to me," says philosophy professor and female-to-male transsexual Jacob Hale, "is that after Brandon's death, folks seemed to feel a need to fix this kind of solid identity for him. In fact, I think the truth is much blurrier."

But the same blurriness that causes political battles is wonderful for making certain kinds of myths. The ability to inspire ambiguous mass projection and longing is the very definition of a star; Brandon, after death, became a kind of true-crime teen idol. Transgender people, says Hale, often become "containers for everybody else's gender anxieties." Brandon's handsome gender-blur and sex appeal, ended by his violent death, just so happen to follow the classic narrative arc of Hollywood crime movies in which, as we remember, crime must never be shown to pay - much less crime against the gender system. The myth of Brandon is of Romeo as gender outlaw. Any anxieties raised by his sexy and sexually multiple presence are washed away by the sickening violence of his story. Tears replace desire.

Independent filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, aided by producer Christine Vachon, has beat Hollywood and Keaton to the finish line with this month's "Boys Don't Cry", a movie based on the Brandon Teena case starring Hilary Swank (perhaps best known as the Next Karate Kid). Swank is uncanny in the film as Brandon or as what I imagine Brandon to have been: utterly masculine in a small-boned way, a mix of joy and confusion, charm and desperation. Peirce gracefully conveys the kinship of everyone involved - how they lived and drank and worked together, all the characters calling Lana's mother "Mom," whether she birthed them or not. Brandon's attackers are also his friends, one an ex-suitor of his girlfriend, wild brothers. Peirce leaves out Brandon's mother, the murdered black friend, Lana's six siblings, and the wider culture in general, choosing instead to focus on what is essentially an erotic, fatal family romance - kin beating and murdering kin. After Brandon is killed, Lana (played by a smoldering Chloe Sevigny) hurls henelf onto the body like Juliet onto the tomb.

Because the characters are named "Brandon Teena," "Lana," and the killers "John" and "Tom," the sense of this film's being the "real story" is strong, although - since it is a feature film, not a documentary - it is clearly a fantasy. This blurry mix of fiction and reality is also, of course, the essence of stardom and legends. Asked how Peirce can use the names of real people if the rival Keaton team has sewn up their life rights, Fox publicist Michelle Robertson answers, "Brandon's life was in the public domain. What is the word for a person who becomes a star against his will?


In person, Hilary Swank seems like a sister of Brandon's: She has his features and something of his voice, but tuned to a feminine key. Wearing flip-flops and shorts and a little top, eating Twizzlers out of a stash of candy she's brought for the road, she is not passing for a man but for a sensitive, intelligent, 24-year-old heterosexual woman with fashionably short hair. Like Brandon, she was born in Lincoln. It was her idea to meet here and drive to Falls City, where the action in the movie takes place. We get into the shiny rented car and check the map. It's a long road to Falls City, but we're united in a search for a closeness to Brandon we can't define.

"Did I tell you what that man in the funeral parlor said when I asked him where Brandon's grave was?" says Swank, sipping hazelnut coffee. "I asked him if a lot of people came by here looking for it, and he said, 'Fewer than you'd think.' "

You'd think there would be crowds, all shouting. If you speak to almost anyone involved in the business of representing Brandon either fictionally or nonfictionally, you will notice a heated intracollegial enmity. Aphrodite Jones says angrily that any movie about Brandon should end with Jo Ann's refusal to have anything to do with the transgender community. "Even after she lost a child," says Jones, "she refused to see the effects of narrow-mindedness." Asked what she thought of the documentary, Jones declines to comment, except to say, "There were a few too many afghans on the backs of couches." The documentary makers, for their part, say they couldn't get through Jones' "confusing" and badly written book. Bill Robinson confides that he and the Keaton film team almost sued Fox Searchlight for bailing on their movie in favor of developing Peirce's. "I saw that script," he says of the rival project. "It was so poorly written it made me sad." After Brandon's funeral service, the Brandons and the Tisdels were so violently at one another's throats that, as Jones writes, they pursued each other down to the restroom of a local Taco Bell where "idle threats were made from both sides." As Swank tells me, "When you get involved in a role that deep and everyone in the film is deep into it, everyone has a very strong feeling of how it should be portrayed." On the film set, she says, if a difference of opinion arose, the gay production team generally prevailed over the straight actors, citing its deeper gay knowiedge. (This despite the fact that Brandon apparently saw himself as a straight man.]

The graveyard, as we drive away from it, is nevertheless quite quiet.


At dinner the night before, at Lincoln's Cornhusker Hotel, Swank told me that to prepare for the role she spent a month passing on and off as a boy in Los Angeles, where she lives. "I felt a big fear of being disrespectful to Teena Brandon," she explained. "I thought, If I do not do this right, I'm going to ruin the whole story and it's going to become a joke." She lost weight to make her face more angular, lifted weights, cut her hair, bound her breasts. "I wore all my husband's clothes," she said. Then, delicately grabbing her crotch, "I packed." She was successful, although once when she revealed herself as a woman to a group of straight men, she said, "Most of them got very pissed off. They were like, 'I knew! I knew that!' " She imitated their angry faces. "But you could just see that they didn't know that."

She left off picking at a somewhat cheesy quesadiila to turn her head and show her boyish profile. Then she faced me, and the pretty young woman reappeared. We talked a lot about Brandon, wondering why he did this, how he might have felt when he did that. "When he hung out with those guys in Falls City, who, yes, were trouble, he did it because he didn't have a role model," Swank said. "They became his role model of what guys look like, what guys act like. All of a sudden he was accepted as this boy - his family had never accepted him for who he wanted to be. So once he was accepted, he was staying."

Swank's face lit up with Brandon's enthusiasm at having successfully crossed over. But when passing herself, Swank found that she was often simply ignored in a world that prefen pretty girls and powerful men. "So you were invisible," I said. She nodded. "Gone."


When we get to Falls City, Swank and I walk around, past Katy's Ready Wear and Memory Lane Antiques, past the tractorpull announcement at the local church, past the Richardson County Courthouse where Brandon was jailed on the women's side following the forgery charge and where his murderers were convicted. Oddly, the courthouse lawn is ornamented with a miniature Statue of Liberty commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Boy Scouts. We walk past the video store, which has a large poster of Gods and Monsters in the window. Today the town is quiet and hot and dull, and though it's a long way from any large city and ringed for miles by cornfields, it's not unpleasant. If you were having a hard time managing women and checks and things in Lincoln, Falls City might feel like a more manageable place to be. Smaller. Safer. No one, of course, looks twice at Swank, the celluloid ghost of Brandon passing by.

We wander around in a mixed state of curiosity, sadness, and expectation of - what? Lana's around somewhere; John Letter's mother quit her job at the Hinky Dinky supermarket just last year; there's a small item in the Falls City Journal noting that the hearing in Jo Ann Brandon's civil case against Richardson County and Sheriff Charles Laux has been postponed. A woman behind the counter at Memory Lane Antiques gets off the Web to tell us that, yes, she remembers the case, though not very well. "People went to the courthouse during the trial because they're nosy," the woman says. We remind her who Brandon was. "Didn't she do that same thing up in Lincoln?" she asks.

I tried to find Lana before coming to Nebraska, but there was no listing, and her mother's line was disconnected. When I reached another close Tisdel relative, she said disdainfully that she wouldn't have anything to do with Lana or her mother and then cried, "lt didn't even happen here! It happened in Humboldt! Oh, why don't you go run down Humboldt?"

In the A&G Steakhouse, Swank and I eat grilled cheese sandwiches and chips. A thin blond with a dreamy expression sitting behind us says she's Lana's cousin, but she hasn't seen Lana in a while. "I saw her maybe three months ago, paying her bill down at the gas company."

Swank, her teeth seeming almost supernaturally white in the dim interior, chats up the lank-haired blond. "What's fun to do here?" she asks. "Over at Yesterday's Closet, they have jeans for $3," offers the blond.

We pay the check and go over to the courthouse, where military paraphernalia, including a small Nazi banner, are displayed in a glass case. I show Swank Lana's mother's address in the phone book as if this is some feat of sleuthing, and we drive the few blocks past the Hinky Dinky. The house is green, somewhat battered, and empty. Whoever was in it has clearly moved out, though the front door is open. Through the screen, we see a paper bag and a roll of tape lying on a kitchen chair. There is nothing else in the room.


Violence destroys context, destroys history, makes memory go blank. It enforces solitude. Violence against transgender people is by no means rare; Gwendolyn Ann Smith's "Remembering Our Dead" website lists more than 120 recently murdered transgender people. When I speak to Jacob Hale, he tells me of an assault on a group of transwomen in a West Hollywood parking lot. They were set upon by a group of men with baseball bats. Matt Rice, a female-to-male transsexual living in San Francisco, speaks to Brandon's isolation, Brandon didn't identify as gay, wouldn't have been able to tap into local resources, even ill-fitting ones. "You're not going to approach resources geared for lesbians if you see yourself as a straight guy." Rice pauses on his end of the phone to let his dogs in; there is the small, domestic sound of dog tags clinking. I think about what an uncinematic thing dailiness is: not the dark poetry of crime but the prose of unmonitored human existence. "A whole sea of uncertainty surrounds Brandon," Rice continues. "lf he hadn't died, would there have been any help for him?"


When Swank and I drive away from Falls City, we feel that we have been somewhere together. We talk about Brandon for a while, then fall silent. Kiri Te Kanawa plays on National Public Radio. The shadow of a cloud passes over a field of corn, and away.