Archive for Sunday, December 28, 2003

Transgendered community cites progress 10 years after tragedy

Teena murder helped mold civil rights issue

December 28, 2003


— Ten years ago, a handsome, brown-haired 21-year-old named Brandon Teena was raped and later murdered by two men after they discovered Teena wasn't born a man.

The tragedy in rural southeastern Nebraska inspired the award-winning 1999 film, "Boys Don't Cry." It also led to a documentary, a play, lengthy articles in national magazines and numerous homespun tribute sites on the Internet.

Teena's death also touched off a movement.

In the days after he was killed, a new generation of activists banded together to demand civil rights protection for the transgendered community.

Now -- a decade after the murder on New Year's Eve 1993 -- hate crime laws in states and municipalities that specifically include transgendered people have increased from nine to 65, according to the Transgender Law Policy Institute. This year, California became the fourth state to adopt a law.

Big corporations, such as Hewlett-Packard and Nike, have adopted similar rules. And 145 members of Congress have banned such discrimination from their offices, said Riki Wilchins, executive director of the Washington-based Gender Public Advocacy Coalition.

"How many times do you get to see a giant sea change like this in people's perceptions? But you look at Congress, corporate America, and cities and states ... and you see this enormous change in how people are looking at gender as a civil rights issue," Wilchins said.

Uneasy allies

But those triumphs have been a long time coming, advocates say. One problem for the community -- which encompasses a range of identities, including cross-dressers and transsexuals -- is that allies have been hard to come by.

Though transgendered people were at the forefront of New York City's Stonewall Riots, which in 1969 led to the gay rights movement, the relationship between the transgendered and gay communities hasn't always been easy.

John Lotter, center, is escorted from the Richardson County
Courthouse in Falls City, Neb., in this Feb. 21, 1996, file photo,
after being sentenced to death for the December 1993 murders of
Brandon Teena, Philip DeVine and Lisa Lambert.

John Lotter, center, is escorted from the Richardson County Courthouse in Falls City, Neb., in this Feb. 21, 1996, file photo, after being sentenced to death for the December 1993 murders of Brandon Teena, Philip DeVine and Lisa Lambert.

"For a long time the gay movement was like, 'Well, that's an interesting problem, but it's not our problem. You folks are too weird. We don't want to talk to you,"' said Paisley Currah, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Brooklyn College in New York.

But both groups experience discrimination for transgressing perceived gender norms. Teena's story helped reveal that common ground, Currah said. And over time, many gay and lesbian rights organizations altered their mission statements to include transgendered people.

The national attention given to Teena's murder also helped introduce the idea of being transgendered to mainstream America, said Shannon Minter, a board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute in New York.

"People are just much less freaked out about the concept, and see us more as human beings with partners, families, children," said Minter, who is himself transgendered.

Police failure

Many activists say Teena's murder attracted so much attention because of its brutality and the failure of law enforcement to protect Teena.

John Lotter and Marvin Nissen were convicted of murdering Teena, who dated a female friend of the men. They also killed Lisa Lambert, 24, and Philip DeVine, 22, who had witnessed Teena's death in a rural farmhouse.

In a scathing 20-page opinion issued in 2001, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice John Hendry said former Richardson County Sheriff Charles Laux showed indifference by referring to Teena as "it" and not immediately arresting the suspects. Lotter and Nissen had threatened to kill Teena if he reported the rape that happened just a week before his death.



Laux lost a bid in 2002 to become sheriff in neighboring Johnson County. Reached by telephone at his home, Laux would not comment on the murder's anniversary.

A district judge initially awarded Teena's mother, Joann Brandon, $17,360 in total damages, ruling that Teena was partly responsible for her own death because of her lifestyle. The judge later awarded Brandon $98,223 after the state Supreme Court ordered him to award her at least $80,000.

Brandon could not be located for comment. Her lawyer, Herb Friedman, said she no longer wanted to talk about case.

Lotter is now on Nebraska's death row. Nissen was sentenced to life in prison.

Unfinished business

Though much has improved for the transgendered community in the past 10 years, there is still a long way to go, Minter said.

In the past year, Remembering Our Dead, an online memorial that tracks bias deaths of transgendered people throughout the world, has recorded 17 deaths in the United States.

One goal of the transgendered community is a federal hate crimes law that explicitly includes transgendered people, Minter said.

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