World-Herald misrepresents Brandon Teena’s gender identity

Credit where credit is due: I found this story thanks to a Facebook note posted by Aarron Schurevich.

Edit: The World-Herald has modified the article (changing the article URL in the process; I’ve updated my links). The piece now uses the phrase “biological woman” and now refers to “Brandon” (i.e. Brandon Teena’s legal last name) where it had used female pronouns. It’s significant that the OWH has responded this quickly, but disappointing that they continue to insist on the legal name. One doesn’t tend to see articles phrased like this:  “the musician Gordon Summer, who has been living under the name Sting.” I think this is still worth writing in to the World-Herald about.


There was an article today in the Omaha World-Herald, my newspaper, about John Lotter’s ongoing appeal of his death sentence for the 1993 murder of Brandon Teena, a young transman. (The case inspired the movie Boys Don’t Cry). The article, unfortunately, consistently uses female pronouns, refers to Teena as Teena Brandon (his birth name), and is phrased such that it ignores and invalidates Teena’s publicly-expressed gender identity:

Lotter was convicted in the 1993 slayings of Teena Brandon and two others in a farmhouse near Humboldt.

Brandon, a woman, lived as a Richardson County man by the names Brandon Teena and Charles Brayman. Mutual friends introduced her to Lotter and Thomas Nissen. Both men eventually discovered Brandon was a woman. In their rage, they drove her to a rural area and raped her on Christmas Day 1993.

Nissen eventually testified that he and Lotter decided to kill Brandon after they discovered she reported the assault to police.

(Emphases mine.)

It probably goes without saying on a queer blog that perpetuating the idea of transfolk as “deceivers” will only perpetuate the idea, in some people’s heads, that violence is an acceptable response to being “deceived.” Brandon Teena was murdered because he was trans — the article phrases it as if he was murdered because he was a woman pretending to be a man. The World-Herald faces a fundamental issue of accuracy by ignoring how closely trans and gender identity issues are linked with this case.

Much of what I want to say has already been written to Mike Reilly, the World-Herald’s executive editor, so I’ll just give you the majority of my letter to him:

There are ways to write about this case and what happened to Brandon Teena that both accurately report the details (that Teena was transgender and Lotter and Nissen murdered him in reaction to this), and respect how Teena presented himself and preferred to be referred to. I’m not aware (though I would like to be) of the World-Herald’s internal policy, if any, for referring to transgender individuals — I’m writing to you instead of to Mr. Perez because reporters and copyeditors necessarily hew to the organization’s consistent style, and I don’t presume to know if Mr. Perez would have phrased his article any differently. However, the Associated Press stylebook has standardized how to refer to subjects who have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS):

“Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.”

Of course, Brandon Teena never underwent SRS — the procedures are universally expensive, and due to female body anatomy the results are limited compared to the surgeries available to male-bodied transgender people. Regardless of biological sex, many are unable to or elect not to have SRS, yet they present themselves in accordance with their gender identities; despite the threat this poses to their personal relationships, employability, and even lives, it’s often the only way they can live. (The transgender suicide attempt rate is frighteningly higher than the general population’s. Transgender individuals cannot be counseled into gender identities that match their biological sexes, so living as they identify is the only route proven to let them live happily.)

We know that Brandon Teena bound his breasts, and for years presented as a man using a traditionally masculine first name — and particularly because the rejection of his gender identity was the reason he was murdered, I find it staggering that the article today continues to perpetuate the idea that he was a woman who was “found out.” It not only conflicts with Teena’s public identity; the concept of transgender people as deceivers is what leads to disproportionate violence against them. Teena’s misrepresentation deserves an acknowledgement in the World-Herald, and a correction of the online publication to accurately report his gender. Additionally, the World-Herald should include in its internal style manual guidelines for referring to transgender individuals accurately and according to the gender identities they present to the public. (GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide includes a useful overview of transgender-specific terminology and pronoun usage: http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender)

In writing this letter I represent only myself, but I write with others in mind. … I, my friends, and the students I have the pleasure of working for, would like to see the transgender people in our community represented for who they are — especially by journalists and the World-Herald, which for the most part I’m happy to read daily. I’m sure you’ll hear the same from other Omahans who read Mr. Perez’s article today.

I encourage you to send an e-mail or phone call, even a short one, to the World-Herald to drive this message home:

  •  The reporter who wrote this article: Juan Perez Jr., johnny.perez@owh.com, (402) 444-1068
  • The executive editor: Mike Reilly, mike.reilly@owh.com, (402) 444-1277
  • The public relations director: Joel Long, (402) 444-1493

Thanks again to Aarron Schurevich for writing his original post, and for finding the names, e-mails, and phone numbers above. Spread this story (and our reaction to it) as far as you can — the World-Herald needs to know its readership cares about accurate queer-issues reporting!

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