Telling Brandon Teena's Story Accurately

When Brandon Teena was murdered on December 31, 1993, very few images of transgender people had been seen in the mainstream media.  Brandon’s story helped to change that.  The GLAAD Media Award-nominated documentary “The Brandon Teena Story” as well as the Oscar and GLAAD Media Award-winning film “Boys Don’t Cry” not only told Brandon’s story, but also helped to introduce transgender people, their struggles and lives to people everywhere.

In the first days after Brandon’s murder, it might have been expected that local media might fail to recognize Brandon’s gender identity and expression.  However, it’s been over 17 years, and the world has changed.  It’s time that the Omaha World-Herald catches up.

As we detailed on this blog in August, covering stories about transgender people – particularly when the transgender person is the victim of a horrible crime – can be tricky.  The way a person lived his or her life might differ from what appears on official police and medical examiner reports.  However, that doesn’t excuse responsible journalists from respecting the transgender person’s gender identity and expression.

Brandon Teena was killed by two men who were enraged because Brandon had reported them to the police for a violent sexual assault.  That sexual assault occurred, by the accounts portrayed in “The Brandon Teena Story” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” because the soon-to-be-murderers were enraged over Brandon’s gender identity.  Everyone who knew Brandon knew he identified as male.

On April 26, when the World- Herald covered the federal appeal and subsequent denial of that appeal by the convicted murderer John Lotter, though it’s been over 17 years since Brandon was killed, they initially used the wrong pronouns to describe Brandon.  They even, initially, reference him as, “a woman.”

The reporter and his editors heard from local transgender advocates as well as GLAAD, and determined that they should “compromise” on the article.  The paper updated the online version to remove all pronouns, refusing to replace female pronouns with male.  Instead, the paper replaced “she” with “Brandon” used as a surname.

At GLAAD, we feel this is insufficient.  It isn’t a “compromise” to neuter the story from any reference of gender.  The editor argued that using male pronouns would be “confusing” for a reader.  Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold – because many responsible journalists use appropriate pronouns and names for transgender people, in an effort to accurately represent the person, and their readers/viewers/listeners aren’t confused.

The paper wouldn’t budge on this decision, and at GLAAD we believe strongly that their “compromise” confuses readers.  Accurately portraying Brandon Teena’s life the way he lived it would not be confusing.

In response to the paper’s decision, both GLAAD as well as a local advocate wrote letters to the editor that have been published in the World-Herald to help hold the paper accountable to its readers.

From the “Public Pulse” section of the World- Herald April 30:

Proper transgender pronouns

An April 26 news story covering the ongoing legal issues around the tragic murder of three people was originally headlined, “No Review in Teena Brandon Case.” The story originally used female pronouns to refer to one of the victims, more popularly known by his alias, Brandon Teena.

The headline was later changed to “No Review in ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Case” and all gendered pronouns were removed. Referring to any person by the wrong pronoun is disrespectful and incorrect. Referring to a transgender person by the wrong pronoun is no different.

The World-Herald’s removal of the incorrect pronoun was a good start. Using the male pronoun would be better. It is impossible, of course, to verify which pronoun and name would be entirely correct, because the only person who can truly make that call was brutally murdered when he was only 21 years old.

John Lotter is on death row. Thomas M. Nissen is serving a life sentence in prison. (Both were convicted for the murders of Brandon Teena and two others — editor.) Does that mean that young transgender people are safe and respected in Nebraska now? I don’t think so. The World-Herald can’t even bring itself to write the word “he.”

Diane Amdor, Omaha

President, Allies and Advocates

for GLBT Equality, UNL College of Law

And May 2:

Right terms matter in his story

When Brandon Teena was brutally murdered in 1993, transgender people were largely invisible in the media. A lot has changed, yet nearly two decades later, The World-Herald still fails to recognize Brandon for whom he was. An April 26 news story misrepresented him by not properly reflecting his gender identity and his name.

Brandon’s story was re-told in a documentary film, “The Brandon Teena Story,” and in the Oscar-winning“Boys Don’t Cry.” These films help people understand the man whose life was violently cut short at 21-years-old.

Our organization wants to stress that sensitivity to gender identification is necessary for responsible and accurate reporting on transgender people. In Brandon’s story, both his name and male pronouns are absolutely essential. To a large degree, the fact that Brandon was a transgender man is one of the reasons his story has reached and impacted so many of us.

Being Brandon was the identity he embraced. He was killed because others could not accept and understand that about him.

It’s time The World-Herald accurately represent Brandon’s life. “Brandon Teena,” “he” and “him.” These words matter.

Adam Bass, Senior media field strategist

Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)

Los Angeles