Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Brandon Teena Story

Teena or Brandon?

It wasn't quite right to call Teena a lesbian. That's not at all how she felt. She was attracted to women, but she liked them the way a man does. And so she stuffed a pair of rolled socks in her pants, bound up her breasts with Ace bandages, and passed herself off as a man.

In fact, before long, she planned to become a man. She was saving up for a sex change operation, she told people, but until that time, she wanted to have some fun as a guy, just hang out. Calling herself masculine sounding names like Ten-a Ray, Billy, and Brandon, she cut her brown hair short and adopted male garb. Sometimes she revealed her gender struggles and for this, she experienced plenty of prejudice and misunderstanding. Yet never could she have anticipated the murderous rage that her boldness to defy rigid gender codes would soon ignite.

Teena Renae Brandon was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on December 12, 1972. By the time she was in high school she was calling herself Billy and dating girls from other schools. Many of them thought she was the perfect boyfriend, and all Teena wanted was to make others feel good. She even got engaged twice to different girls, but the more people she confided in, the more people she alienated. Although she had some counseling with her mother, it was difficult even for her family to adjust. Few people believed her, and with good reason, because she lied quite often.

Sometimes she called herself a hermaphrodite, or a person born with two sets of sexual organs, and she aimed to turn herself fully into a man. Her greatest fear, according to acquaintances, was to be touched sexually by a man, and she was especially afraid of being raped. In fact, one male relative had exposed her to repeated sexual abuse, so her male appearance was as much a disguise as a guise.

She also forged checks to get money, stole from people, and got herself into some trouble, so late in 1993, she left Lincoln and set out for a place where people wouldn't know her. Keeping her secret from others, she could start a new life strictly as a man.

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"Brandon" came into Humboldt, about eighty miles south of Lincoln, and stayed with a girl named Lisa Lambert. Lisa fell in love with him, but he soon had his eye on someone else. That's what got him into more trouble than he'd bargained for.

The small towns in that area were primarily white, lower middle-class communities with a high rate of domestic violence. They didn't much care for strangers with quirks, and homosexuality was kept in the closet. No one even knew what a transsexual was.

Brandon Teena with girlfriend Lana Tisdel
Brandon Teena with girlfriend
Lana Tisdel

At five-foot, five-inches and 112 pounds, Brandon was considered a pleasant if skinny young man. He hung out with the guys, played cards, made remarks about women, talked about cars, and even shaved. He knew how to treat a girl, though, and by early December in 1993, he was dating Lana Tisdel, 19. In every way, she knew Brandon as a young man, and when she told a girlfriend that his penis was rather small, the friend told her, never mind, he was a great guy in every other way.

Among his new acquaintances were Tom Nissen, an ex-con who was married and had two kids. They sometimes hung out together with another ex-con, John Lotter, a former boyfriend of Lana's. During that holiday season, a young black man named Phillip DeVine joined them because he was dating Lana's sister.

The problem was, Brandon had no money, so he soon turned to his old habit of forging checks. Three days after his 21st birthday, on December 15, he was in jail, placed in the women's section. Lana was confused and horrified, and by December 22, she got Tom to bail him out. Two days later, they were all at Tom's house for a Christmas Eve party. That's when the trouble really began. Who started it depends on who you ask, but once begun, there was no turning back.

 

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