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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT: Brandon Teena's Life on Film
by Lawrence Ferber

This article shared 3423 times since Wed Mar 3, 1999
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Appeared in Outlines*

Does the name Brandon Teena sound familiar? If not, it will, thanks to recent books, performance art, upcoming feature films, and most notably, a definitive documentary entitled The Brandon Teena Story, by filmmaking couple Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir. The film screens for one week at the Music Box, starting Friday, March 5; ( 773 ) 871- 6604.

And now, the story:

On Dec. 30, 1993, 24- year- old Lisa Lambert opened her rural Nebraska home to Brandon Teena, 21, and Philip Devine, 22. Mere hours later, Falls City¬'s Thomas Nissen, 21, and John Lotter, 22, barged in and left only Lambert¬'s infant breathing. From there, one of the most sensational, attention- getting cases in queer history was borne.

Brandon Teena was born Teena Brandon, a female, in Lincoln, Ne. By his teens, Teena lived as a male, wooing numerous young women, and occasionally indulging in petty stealing-notably checkbooks. By mid- November 1993, Teena relocated to Falls City, after his birth gender became known at home. When the news got out in his new stomping ground ( "Brandon had been in court as a guy for a minor infraction so in the local paper they printed his name and sex, and that¬'s how Brandon was outed in the town-I think the sheriff really wanted to get back at Brandon," says Olafsdottir ) , Lotter and Nissen raped Teena, and shortly thereafter, enacted the massacre. All this thanks to lax police, and most of all, a hatred for whatever it was Teena "did." Play "gender juggle?" Pilfer from others? Or simply just "get one over" on them?

New York filmmakers Susan Muska, 39, and Greta Olafsdottir, 41, were fascinated by the story of Teena with its scads of nooks and crannies. "The lies," enthuses Muska. "You would ask people why they were mad, and what about Brandon made them mad. They would say ¬'nothing about Brandon made me mad except he shouldn¬'t have lied. Lying, stealing ... . When you sifted though these lies-petty theft and saying he was male or female-it would turn out it was the classic homophobia coming from the outside of people. Saying, ¬'oh, he¬'s really a girl and you¬'re bumping pussy!√Ę" Olafsdottir adds, "All these elements attracted us. We thought it was an amazing tragedy."

The couple initially ventured to Nebraska in 1994 ( thanks to The Village Voice, whose reporter needed an escort ) , making additional trips into 1997. During this time they gained their subjects¬' trust... and underwent typical indie filmmaker struggles. Olafsdottir, 41, recalls, "When the ( Lotter/Nissen ) trials started we didn¬'t have a penny, so we called friends in California ( "Who have a lot of pennies," adds Susan ) and they were like, ¬'OK, we¬'ll pay for your ticket.¬' After our first trip, there was no turning back. That¬'s when the credit cards came in handy."

Even renting an apartment to set up shop ( regarding their status as "town lesbians," Muska volunteers: "I think if anything we were a bit of a novelty. Some people went out of their way, like waitresses and stuff, to want to hang out or be friendly to us. There was one woman whose friend said ¬'oh, some people said you¬'re hanging out with those gay people!¬' and she snapped ¬'They¬'re great! They¬'re a lot more fun than you are!√Ę" ) , they interviewed Teena¬'s girlfriends, family members, friends, and many officials involved. Speaking of officials, they unearthed odiously sloppy justice which allowed Teena¬'s rapists to have another shot at him. Literally. "I think every police officer in the state should watch this and learn from it," opines Olafsdottir.

While Teena opted to identify as male, during one of the film¬'s most affecting moments, he admits to confusion during a taped interview. "Teena considered himself a man," recalls Lincoln¬'s JoAnn Fleming, 51, pronouncing the name ¬'Ten- ah.¬' Fleming took in Teena for some while-her son, Shaun, 20, was a close friend of his. "Teena felt he was a male and didn¬'t want a female/male relationship of any kind-kissing, holding, the whole ball of wax." Indeed, when an opportunity to visit a lesbian bar arose, Teena expressed that he wanted to love specifically straight-not lesbian-females. And as a male. "When Teena found she could go through some surgeries, but would never have a working penis, that devastated her."

The filmmakers, however, refrain from editorializing on the transgender issue, focusing on Teena¬'s murder and its motivation instead. Says Olfasdottir, "The fact is that Brandon is dead, so we¬'re never going to know what Brandon would have ended up being. So what we tried really hard to do was touch base on all these issues-questions that Brandon was having about himself-so I hope that after people watch this film they understand there are young people with all these questions. We never actually label Brandon and I won¬'t do it."

Regardless of whether confused Teena claimed to be hermaphrodite, in the process of female- to- male surgeries, or just plain old male, he impacted numerous lives forever. Of an excised interview with Gina, an ex- girlfriend, Muska recalls her saying "¬'You know, when I think about this and Brandon, and my relationship with Brandon, I can¬'t believe this happened to me. I¬'m nothing. Who am I? And this incredible thing happened to me.¬' It sort of gave her life this whole new dimension and also herself as a person this whole other side. Instead of just this little girl who goes out with a guy who works at the deli, gets pregnant and that¬'s the end of her."

The Brandon Teena Story thoroughly documents the brief life of a figure who, regardless of snuffed destiny, has made waves in the world of sexuality and gender. Says Olafsdottir, as Muska nods in agreement, "Hopefully when people leave the theater they have a lot of questions. It¬'s a human tragedy that I think anyone can learn from and make sure never happens again."

This review also ran in conjunction with the film¬'s screening at the Chicago International Film Fest last fall.

* Lambda Publications, The Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community,1115 W. Belmont 2D, Chicago, IL 60657; PH ( 773 ) 871-7610; FAX ( 773 ) 871-7609. See Outlines, Nightlines, Out Resource Guide, Clout! Business Report, Blacklines and En La Vida on the web at

This article shared 3423 times since Wed Mar 3, 1999
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