Teena Brandon: The Unmaking of a Lesbian
by Carolyn Gage
"The subject of lesbianism is very ordinary; it's the question of male domination that makes everybody angry." -Judy Grahn
A lot of people talked about Brandon. A lot of people are still talking about Brandon. In watching the documentary (The Brandon Teena Story) and the feature film (Boys Don't Cry), and in reading the book (What She Wanted), I was struck by the fact that, for all the talking, very few people actually listened to Brandon.
I want to write about listening to Brandon. But in order to do this,
I have to confront two serious obstacles: what name and what gender pronoun
to use. The name "Brandon Teena" has been assigned to Brandon
by transgender and transsexual activists, even though this is not a name
that any of Brandon's friends, family, or lovers ever reported hearing
or using. The source of the name is a rumor that a bartender in Humboldt,
Nebraska, reported having seen Brandon write this name on a bar tab on
one occasion. Possibly, the rumor is true. But Brandon also used the following
And then there were the names mistakenly assigned by the media:
Teena Renée Brandon (Humboldt newspaper account of forgery arrest)
Brandon also used a variety of other names when dealing with merchants and banks:
Brad J. Tullis
These were the names on the various checks, ATM cards, and credit cards that Brandon stole.
I am choosing to use the name "Brandon" for this article, because this is the nickname that was most consistently preferred by Brandon. I can see no reason to use the name "Brandon Teena," because, of all the names, it is the one with the least historical validation- being based only on the rumor of hearsay. The name "Brandon Teena" has been adopted by media-savvy activists for its value as a catchy sound byte, because the reversal of Brandon's legal name is suggestive of a reversal of gender. Brandon's legal name was and is "Teena Renae Brandon."
Now . . . the question of pronouns. Brandon was born a biological female. Brandon was raised as a female and identified as female for eighteen of the twenty-one years of Brandon's life. Brandon's therapist reports that Brandon described "hours of sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence." (Jones, 83) This was sexual abuse perpetrated by an adult male relative against a female child.
It is my contention in this article that Brandon must be listened to as a survivor of child sexual abuse, that this is the listening that has not been done by those who claim Brandon as a transsexual/transgender icon, and that this is the listening that was objected to and censored during the murder trials when Brandon's mother attempted to introduce the subject. The abuse is not mentioned in the documentary or the feature film. In the book, the perpetrator is never named.
Because I want to listen to Brandon as a survivor of child sexual abuse perpetrated against Brandon as a girl child, I will be using the female pronoun to refer to Brandon. This particular story of child sexual abuse, a girl's story, cannot be heard or evaluated accurately when the male pronoun is applied to Brandon, which is precisely why she chose to use it, and precisely why it was ineffective as an identity and as a survival strategy.
In Aphrodite Jones' biography, All She Wanted, the first narration of the sexual abuse shows up in an interview with Sara Gapp, Brandon's best friend when Brandon was twelve. The girls met at a school basketball game, and Sara, who had been battered at home that same day, began to tell Brandon the story of her abusive mother. According to Sara, "There was constant abuse. I mean, from the time I was about seven years old, I was being called a slut. I didn't even know what a slut was." (Jones, 42)
Sara's sharing of confidences led Brandon to tell about her own abuse: "She [Brandon] told me that one of her relatives was doing something to her that she didn't like. She just kinda said that, you know, he would kinda whip this thing out and kinda play with it a little bit . . . and she said occasionally he'd have her touch him and then he would play with her and tell her, 'oh, you like it. You know this feels good . . . You know you don't want me to stop.'" (Jones, 43) According to Sara, "At that point in time, she didn't want anyone to know about what happened. She didn't want the guy mad at her . . . She was embarrassed. No matter what he did to her, she still loved him."(Jones, 43)
Brandon's therapist later confirmed the story of the abuse, adding that, according to Brandon, the sessions of abuse would last for hours and that the molestation continued for a period of years, from childhood into adolescence. In one counseling session, Brandon confronted her mother JoAnn, but requested that she not confront the perpetrator, who may have been one of JoAnn's relatives. Brandon's sister Tammy, also a victim, confirmed Brandon's account. It is possible that this abuse was a factor in Brandon's decision to leave home at sixteen, get a job, and move in with an older classmate named Traci Beels.
Brandon the Tomboy
Was Brandon a tomboy, or a butch lesbian, or a female-to-male transsexual? Or did she experience all three identities at different phases of her life? Were "tomboy" and "lesbian" stages of emerging consciousness on the way to an authentic identity as transsexual? Or are these just context-driven labels for the same phenomenon- and what is that phenomenon? Does "tomboy" reflect a heterosexist hope that one will "grow out of it"-whatever "it" is? Does "butch lesbian" reflect a conviction that sexual orientation is a matter of personal preference, that lesbianism exists separate from, but equal to heterosexuality? Does "female-to-male transsexual" attempt to disguise systems of male dominance and their impact on the formation of gender identity?
The arguments about Brandon's identity remind one of the fable about the three blind men, each attempting to describe an elephant from his own limited vantage point. In the fable, the men's descriptions were so contradictory, it appeared they were each describing a different beast- either that, or two of them were badly mistaken in their perceptions. If Brandon's identity was a response to the trauma of child sexual abuse, the fable is particularly apt, because incest has been described by therapists as the "elephant in the living room". . . that is, the entity so overwhelming that the family can neither name or identify it, even as they rearrange their entire lives to accommodate it.
In her book Victimized Daughters: Incest and the Development of the Female Self, Janet Liebman Jacobs states that incest represents "the most extreme form of the sexual objectification of the female child in patriarchal culture." (Jacobs, 11) She makes a compelling case for the fact that incest has a major impact on female personality development, including gender identity, but she is careful to acknowledge similarities between her analysis and descriptions of personality development among women who have not experienced traumatic sexualization in childhood, but who have grown up in a cultural framework of male entitlement in a patriarchal family.
Brandon's perpetrator, described only as a "male relative" by her biographers, could not have been her father, as he was already dead at the time of the abuse. In the absence of a father, however, this male relative may have assumed a parental role in his relationship to Brandon and to her sister, who was also his victim. Brandon's description of the frequency and duration of the abuse indicates a recurrent presence of the perpetrator in the home and his ongoing access to the girls. Possibly, Brandon's single, working mother relied on this man for childcare while she was at work. "Though technically Brandon was not a victim of paternal incest, her experience replicates the dynamics of daughters sexually abused by their fathers and her personality mirrors that of the victimized daughters documented in Jacobs' study. For this reason, a consideration of Jacobs' analysis is relevant to any serious attempt to resolve the contradictions and political controversies surrounding Brandon's identity.
Jacobs' book highlights significant developmental issues that influence
the personality formation of sexually abused daughters, and among these
is identification with the perpetrator. But why would a victim identify
with the person who harms her? Sandor Ferenczi, a Hungarian-born psychoanalyst,
who was a pioneer researcher and advocate for survivors, offers an answer:
Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud and the founder of child psychoanalysis,
elaborates on this process:
Not only does this victimized daughter identify with the perpetrator, but she is also likely to displace her rage onto her non-offending mother. This makes sense when one considers the perspective of the child, for whom the mother represents the most significant source of power within the family, because, in most cases, it is the mother who provides primary care for the child's physical and emotional needs. This perception of the mother's goddess-like power will prevail even if the mother is economically dependent on or physically subordinate to other members of the family. In the words of Chodorow and Contratto: "If mothers have exclusive responsibility for infants who are totally dependent, then to the infant they are the source of all good and evil." (Chodorow and Contratto, 65)
It is not surprising, then, that the victimized daughter will confuse her idealized expectations of her mother with the true role this mother plays in the family, and her rage is proportionate to this disillusionment. Incest traumatically severs the bonding between the mother and the daughter that is assumed to exist at least into the daughter's adolescence in theories about gender identification.
"The incest victim therefore experiences the powerlessness of women in the most personal and painful way, first through her own victimization and then through the knowledge of her mother's ineffectuality. The rage that comes to dominate her relationship with her mother is the anger of betrayal as well as the anger of deception, as the illusion of maternal omnipotence is destroyed in the face of the real power relations of paternal control and dominance." (Jacobs, 25)
Turning away from her mother, whom she perceives as an untrustworthy betrayer-of-her-own-kind, the victimized daughter looks toward the male perpetrator, who, because he is her abuser, is perceived as powerful, and who, because he is male, still hold the potential for objective idealization. "Female," for the daughter, has become identified as the subjective gender for victims and betrayers. According to trauma researcher Judith Herman, "In her desperate attempts to preserve her faith in her parents, the child victim develops highly idealized images of at least one parent . . . More commonly, the child idealizes the abusive parent and displaces all her rage onto the nonoffending parent." (Herman, 106) Describing her research with survivors of father-daughter incest, Herman notes, "With the exception of those who had become conscious feminists, most of the incest victims seemed to regard all women, including themselves, with contempt." (Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 103)
Rejecting the mother and her own female identity, the victimized daughter
begins to imitate the aggressor. E. Sue Blume, author of Secret Survivors,
describes how the daughter reinvents herself through identification with
Was Brandon's childhood tomboy persona a response to sexual trauma, an act of resistance to the sexism of the culture, or a symptom of some innate "gender identity disorder?" Is it possible, or even desirable, to distinguish between these? Listening to what Brandon and her peers had to say about her choices provides some clues.
Brandon didn't like wearing dresses to school. When her mother asked the reason for this, Brandon told her that dresses were cold (this was Nebraska) and that the boys could look up them when the girls climbed the stairs. Because she attended a school that required uniforms, she wore the pants and ties that were standard for the boys, but that girls were also allowed to wear. According to her best friend Sara Gapp, "People kept saying she dressed like a guy. She didn't . . . She dressed in clothes that she felt comfortable in. She didn't go to the guys' section to buy those clothes. Those were women's clothes she was wearing. She just liked baggy clothes. She wore short hair. Does that make her a guy?" (Jones, 55)
The choice to wear baggy clothes is consistent with the choices of many survivors of sexual abuse. Brandon's "passing" as a man began as a practical joke on a teenaged girl who dialed Brandon's number by accident and mistook her for a boy on the phone. According to Sarah, "Up until Liz Delano [the mistaken caller], if you had called her a boy, Teena would be offended. She didn't want to be recognized as a guy. She didn't feel like a guy." (Jones, 54)
Brandon has also been described as indulging in male role-playing. According
to her sister Tammy,
Was Brandon identifying with the power to officiate or with the gender? In light of the Church's ban against women priests, which denies women the prestige, ceremonial office, and opportunity for leadership associated with the priesthood, it would be irresponsible to attribute Brandon's desire to be a priest to "gender dysphoria"-a term that, when applied to females, could as well be defined as "sex-caste resistance." Identification with gender roles in a male dominant culture cannot be separated from identification with the privileges that accompany those roles. As pioneer psychoanalyst Karen Horney notes, "We live . . . in a male culture, i.e. state, economy, art and science are creations of man and thus filled with his spirit." (Horney, 152)
If Brandon was ambiguous in her orientation toward gender, that ambiguity
is mirrored in the lives of many survivors. Here are the words of another
young, white, working-class survivor:
Brandon's discomfort with her developing body has also been taken as "proof" of her alleged "gender identity disorder." Again, it is important to listen to what she had to say about this discomfort. In her book, Aphrodite Jones reports that Brandon hated the pain caused by her developing breasts, and that she also complained of the pain of menstrual cramps and the inconvenience of having to deal with a monthly flow of blood. Were these the objections of a "male trapped in a female body," or those of a particularly self-assertive and articulate girlchild appalled by the inconvenience, embarrassment, and pain of the adult female body?
But Brandon's discomfort ran deeper than annoyance. She reported that
it would "make her feel sick" (Jones, 47) to have anyone stare
at her chest. Again, a girl need not be an incest survivor to register
disgust at the sexual objectification of her developing body at puberty,
but the survivor, because of her internalized masculine ideal, faces a
different set of obstacles:
The rejection of the female self can offer an explanation for the prevalence of eating disorders at puberty among incest survivors. Brandon, at the time of her attempted suicide, had been reported as having serious eating disorders.
"For the incest survivor, her body becomes the symbol of her victimization
and thus the focus of her desire for control. Further, the obsession with
a thin, boyish body, rather than an expression of femininity, may represent
an unconscious rejection of the female self through which the daughter
attempts to integrate the internalized male ego ideal with an external
image of a masculinized child's body." (Jacobs, 88)
Brandon the Lesbian
Brandon reported that in October 1990, she was raped. That same fall, when she was almost eighteen, Brandon tried to join the army. According to her friends, she was eager to be a part of Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately, she did not pass the written exams. This appears to have been a turning point for her. According to her mother, "She was really upset . . . She started to change." (Jones, 47)
One of the biggest questions about Brandon's choices is "Why didn't
she identify herself as lesbian?" She may well have been trying to
do that when she attempted to enlist. Why would an female-to-male (FTM)
transsexual want to enlist in a strictly segregated, all-female environment?
Do male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals line up to enlist in the male branches
of the armed forces? On the other hand, the military, in spite of its
homophobic policies and occasional witch hunts, has always appealed to
lesbians, because it provides a same-sex living and work environment for
four years, where working-class women can gain temporary amnesty from
the social and economic pressures to move in with boyfriends and start
families. Although rape and sexual harassment occur in the military, the
fact that women live and work in a collective environment might provide
assurances to the survivor who associates her violation with isolation
and ongoing access by males- and especially to a survivor who had just
been raped. Also, army regulation uniforms provide protective covering
that de-emphasize sexual characteristics and discourage sexual objectification.
It would be naive to assume that Brandon, who had, by high school, identified
her sexual attraction to women and who had already moved in with one girlfriend,
was unaware of the association of lesbians with the military. She may
well have been looking for the lesbians, and this may explain her extreme
reaction to failing the entrance exams.
For a young woman who had a horror of male sexuality and who had told friends that rape was one of her biggest fears, and who had just been raped, the prospect of this kind of harassment must have been terrifying. The October rape may, in fact, have been a form of terrorism directed against her, as a woman who cohabited with other women and who didn't date men.
But there was another reason why Brandon wasn't identifying herself as lesbian: Lesbianism had become a power issue between Brandon and her mother.
Brandon's relationship to her mother had obviously been complicated by the years of sexual abuse that Brandon felt compelled to hide from her mother. The abuse had been perpetrated by a male relative, possibly someone in her mother's family, and her mother, as sole legal guardian, was responsible for the perpetrator having such free access to both Brandon and her sister. Brandon's attitude toward her mother was consistent with the findings of Jacobs and Herman, that victimized daughters displace their rage onto non-offending mothers. JoAnn, ignorant of the cause of her daughter's anger, must have had her own conflicted emotions when Brandon left home at sixteen to live with the family of a classmate.
In March of 1991, shortly after Brandon's rejection by the army, a teenaged girl named Liz Delano dialed a wrong number and reached Brandon by mistake. Liz mistook Brandon for a teenaged boy, and Brandon played along, calling herself "Billy." For a joke, she put a sock in her underwear and met Liz at a skating rink as Billy. Sara Gapp and her boyfriend had gone along to enjoy the joke. Liz continued to call the Brandon home and ask for "Billy," and JoAnn began to understand that her daughter was posing as a boy. She was not happy.
A few weeks later, Brandon began a relationship with Heather, a fourteen-year-old friend of Liz. She moved in with Heather, posing as a male and calling herself "Ten-a." JoAnn Brandon, who may have been in denial about her daughter's earlier relationship to her high-school classmate Traci Beels, understood that this relationship was a sexual one, and she began telephoning both Heather and Heather's mother, insisting that the young man they had taken into their home was her daughter. Heather, like Brandon, was an incest survivor. According to the account in Jones' biography, the focus of Brandon's relationship was intense, romantic role-playing, not genital sex, and Heather responded initially with gratitude to the thoughtful behaviors and absence of sexual pressure. Brandon deeply resented JoAnn's attempt to sabotage the relationship, and she especially resented her mother's attempt to cast her in the role of a sexual (lesbian) predator. (It's interesting to note that, in addition to the compulsion to repeat, one of the motives of the victimized daughter, in identifying with the perpetrator, is the delusive wish to make the bad parent good: "I'll be the father and do it, and this time it will be good." (Shengold, 29) Brandon's emphasis on romance and her gallant generosity toward her underaged partners may have been attempts to "get it right.")
To explain away her mother's persistent calls, Brandon told Heather that she had been born a hermaphrodite, but that JoAnn had chosen to raise her as a female in order to "keep her for herself." (Jones, 89) According to Heather, "He [sic] had a legitimate answer for everything. He'd [sic] tell me his [sic] mother couldn't accept the fact that he [sic] was male, that she wanted two little girls, that she was just playing a joke." (Jones, 67) Brandon's knowledge of hermaphroditism had come from an episode of the Phil Donahue show.
JoAnn herself tells a different story: "I knew that all of a sudden there were beer parties going on and I have an eighteen-year-old daughter over there that's not supposed to be drinking or doing anything."(Jones, 67) She understood that any sexual activity between Brandon and the fourteen-year-old Heather was statutory rape. JoAnn was outraged by Brandon's claim of hermaphroditism. "I gave birth to her; I know what sex she is. There were no attachments anywhere that had to be removed." (Jones, 68)
JoAnn stepped up her campaign to "out" her daughter. She sent two lesbian co-workers to visit Heather's mother. They had photographs of Brandon as a little girl and a copy of her birth certificate. In response, Brandon tore up every picture of herself she could find. Was this action prompted by "gender dysphoria," or was it an attempt to dissociate herself from the girl on whose body so many years of sexual abuse were enacted? Perceiving lesbianism as her mother's attempt to impose a despised identity on her, Brandon began binding her breasts, lowering her voice, and using men's rooms in public.
In June 1991, Brandon filed a complaint against her mother for harassment. She and Heather took the tape from their answering machine to the police. On it was a message from JoAnn calling them lesbians and threatening to expose them. Her mother's insistence on Brandon's lesbianism had become a serious enough power issue to involve the police.
Lesbianism was a family issue in another sense. The winter following Brandon's attempt to enlist, her sister Tammy had given up a baby for adoption- to a lesbian couple from San Francisco. Brandon had urged her sister to keep the baby. She had wanted desperately to be an aunt. Later, one of Brandon's gay male friends would report how "He [sic] hated lesbians; he [sic] was totally against lesbians," (Jones, 93) citing the adoption as the reason for this hatred.
That same summer, Brandon began forging checks in order to buy groceries and gifts for Heather. She had obtained a fake identification card and was getting jobs as a man. She began telling friends that she had gotten a sex-change operation in Omaha. By October, she had been cited on two counts of second-degree forgery. Brandon's illegal activities began to accelerate, as did her compulsive behaviors and eating disorders. Finally, Sarah, her best friend, decided to take matters into her own hands. She met with Heather and explained to her that Brandon was a female. Heather terminated the relationship and Brandon attempted to kill herself by taking a bottle of antibiotics. This landed her in a crisis center, and here, finally, she was able to receive professional counseling. But did the therapists listen to Brandon?
Brandon spent seven days at the crisis center. Dr. Klaus Hartman wrote up the initial report. He listened to her story of twelve pending charges of forgery, a possible charge of sexual assault on a minor, an untreated rape in October 1990, and an ongoing sexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old girl. He listened when Brandon said she had been introducing herself to underage girls as "Billy Brandon." He listened and then he diagnosed: a mild case of identity disorder. After just a few days of counseling, Brandon told her mother that a sex change operation had been suggested by her therapist.
Was transsexualism Brandon's idea or the therapists'? Let's listen, really listen, to what Brandon told Deb Brodtke, the mental health clinician who took over her case at the crisis center and who continued to treat her for almost a year on an outpatient basis. Brandon is reported telling Brodtke she wanted to be a male, "to not have to deal with the negative connotations of being a lesbian and because she felt less intimidated by men when she presented herself as male." (Jones, 83) If this is true, what Brandon told her therapist was not that she felt like a man trapped in a woman's body, but a woman trapped in a world where it was dangerous to be female, and especially dangerous to be lesbian.
Did the therapist listen to Brandon? Let's look at how she responded to Brandon's disclosures: Apparently, Brodtke did not feel any need to challenge Brandon's internalized homophobia- which expressed itself in both a sense of disgust about lesbians and also in a fear of the harassment they experience. (Significantly, Brandon did not find lesbian sex disgusting, and, in fact, enjoyed lesbian erotic videos. Also, significantly, she did not find gay men disgusting. Several of her drinking buddies were gay men.) Brandon's therapist appears not to have identified or addressed the overt misogyny in her client's selective homophobia. Jones' book does not record any attempt on Brodtke's part to supply Brandon with information about lesbian culture or lesbian history, information about lesbian coming-out groups or groups for young lesbians. There is no record of her attempting to connect Brandon with an adult lesbian who could counsel or mentor her.
Brandon's discomfort with her female body, her identification with male roles, and her discomfort with being the recipient of her lovers' sexual attentions were consistent with the profile of a "stone butch," a type of lesbian. The stone butch identifies as female, but she rejects so-called traditional female roles, with their associations with heterosexual subordination and codes of femininity. The inability to be a recipient of sexual intimacy may be a result of sexual trauma, especially incest. Feminist consciousness-raising and counseling for sexual abuse have provided stone butches with tools for understanding their oppression and for formulating effective strategies in reclaiming an empowering sexual identity that allows for mutuality. The stone butch is a prominent archetype in lesbian literature, and butch lesbians comprise some of the most powerful and creative artists and leaders in lesbian history. To take Brandon's fear of lesbianism and her "gender dysphoria" at face value, without exploring the possibility that she might be a stone butch indicates a profound ignorance of lesbian culture and social history, an ignorance that appears to be almost intentional in its privileging of diagnoses and treatments evolved by and tailored to meet the needs of male patients.
The MTF transsexual identifies with women, the subordinate sex-class in a male-dominant society. Many MTF transsexuals have experienced male aggression as oppressive, and some are themselves survivors of male-perpetrated sexual abuse. In "transitioning," they experience themselves assimilating into the gender caste that has been traditionally victimized by men. Here, they can expect to find sanctuary from male sexual violence. This kind of sanctuary does not exist for the FTM, who is repudiating a female identity to transition into the culture of the aggressors and sexual predators. Obviously, the FTM faces transitioning problems very different from the MTF. The FTM survivor of male violence, whose experiences have resulted in a fear of men, is, in essence, making the choice to live behind enemy lines for the rest of her life.
The "gender identity disorder" (GID) diagnosis also reflects
the historical heterosexism of the mental health field, which has traditionally
equated gay and lesbian desire with a desire to become a member of the
And finally, Brandon's GID diagnosis, so replete with homophobia and gender bias, also appears to have ignored the "elephant in the living room"- the incest. Brandon does not appear to have been diagnosed as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome commonly associated with survivors of child abuse, and especially survivors of incest. This is remarkable given the fact that, at the clinic, Brandon presented with a record of years of untreated, still-secret sexual abuse, a report of a recent rape, an escalation of criminal activity, a history of multiple identities, sexual predation toward underaged girls, extreme risk-taking behaviors, avoidance of medical care from fear of routine examinations, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, terror of being in a female body, expressed fear of men, preference for protective clothing, and compulsive bathing (six or seven showers a day).
Instead of a diagnosis related to trauma, the therapist sent Brandon home with information about "gender reassignment" surgeries, which would include such procedures as suturing the vagina, removing the breasts, ovaries, and uterus, transplanting the nipples, constructing a useless appendage using skin grafts from the thighs, and taking steroids in order to grow facial hair and lower the voice. We can't know whether or not the therapist advised Brandon about the expense, risk, or complications involved with these operations, or whether she advised her about the decreased sensitivity of the nipples and the almost assured loss of capacity to experience orgasm, but Brandon's friends tell us that Brandon expressed a marked ambivalence about these recommendations.
Her sister Tammy remembers the family's reaction:
Why was Brandon's therapist in such a rush to recommend an identity for Brandon that Brandon herself had not chosen and about which she showed such marked ambivalence? Why was the therapist so eager to load onto this young woman, whose body had already been the site of invasive trauma, information about surgeries that were traumatic, mutilating, dangerous, expensive, and ineffectual? In advocating for the surgery that was supposed to turn Brandon into a man, the therapist advised her of the professionally-mandated, year-long probationary period, a period in which the patient would be required to live as a man. How carefully had the therapist been listening when Brandon described her current strategies for passing as a man in relationships- strategies involving the deception and statutory rape of naive and inexperienced minors who would not be assertive or educated enough to confront Brandon's sexual subterfuges? If the therapist did address the legal, ethical, or safety issues of these passing strategies, Brandon never saw any reason to revise them. In fact, armed with the official diagnosis of "Axis I: transsexualism," Brandon escalated her deceptions and seductions.
After this counseling, her repertory of lies expanded to include tales of her grandmother's plans to send her to Europe to have the surgery done, and of scheduled dates in June 1993 for a bilateral mastectomy. She told her various girlfriends at various times that her vagina had been sewn up, that "something" had been implanted that would eventually grow into a penis, and that she had begun hormone therapy. Like the stories of hermaphroditism that preceded the transsexual diagnosis, all were untrue.
According to the studies of Jacobs and Herman, the victimized daughter's repudiation of a female identity and her internalization of an idealized male represent responses to childhood sexual abuse. Does this fact invalidate or support a diagnosis of GID? If identification with the other gender has been a survival strategy developed in childhood, wouldn't that argue for the deep-rootedness and authenticity of that identity?
There are several things wrong with this argument. First, it does nothing to expose or confront the violence against women and girls that results in post-traumatic disorders. Encouraging victimized daughters to assume masculine identities reinforces a sex-caste system that designates females as victims. Gender can be considered an aggregate of caste-markers in a system of dominance based on biological sex. In that sense, gender is more than "performative;" it is emblematic. And what it is emblematic of, is a system of dominance that universally preys on women.
The victimized daughter who adopts a male persona is not "fucking with gender." Gender has fucked with her, and, in attempting to identify with the power that has hurt her, she is adopting the strategy of a desperate child whose only option was to change her perception of herself.
"What the transgender movement calls gender-fucking is simply an exercise in moving markers rather than any fundamental change in gender. Gender still exists. It is still an organizing structure for society. What's different is that you just "do" it differently: it is "allowed" to be attached to different bodies. The aim of transgender politics is to allow you to be "be" the gender that you "are." However, being your gender still means what you wear, what you do, how you express yourself and is still attached to fundamental notions of what it means to be men and women . . . And it's no surprise that what is female and what is male in this view exactly tracks what is already defined as male and female." (Croson, 3)
However fluid the performance of gender may be, the very real relations between "male" and "female" are not: "Manhood is attractive because it represents higher social status and an individual escape from the oppression of lesbians and women without any social change. But manhood is a social construction which requires the continued creation of femininity and the oppression of the vast majority of women to have any meaning." (Jeffreys, p. 10)
Transgender politics does not disrupt the positions of men and women in the gender hierarchy, but what it does do is "render women's choices to oppose this hierarchy as women and on behalf of women incomprehensible. It is telling that in the push to deconstruct woman, there is no imperative to deconstruct the powerlessness of the class . . . the idea and practice of transgender identity participates in keeping the lines of masculine and male power clear. And in this way, the transgender movement participates in the subordination of women. Male power does not care who the real women are; it only cares who the real men are. (Croson, 3-4)
This is a critical point to understand in analyzing Brandon's experience,
and in unmasking the misogyny inherent in the application of MTF theory
to the FTM transsexual.
If the FTM is self-deceived in believing she can acquire immunity from her status as a woman, she is also likely to be deceived in her expectations of the surgeries that purport to offer this indemnity. "The operations required over six months for full FTM transition cost US$77,000. They entail terrible pain and possible complications. If the "masculinity" is not to disappear then powerful drugs with worrying side effects must be taken for a lifetime. The depression which underlies the desire to transition is not necessarily alleviated by all this. It can increase with that realisation and lead to suicide." (Jeffreys, 10)
In addition to its participation in the larger political system of male
dominance, the GID diagnosis also acts on a more personal front to protect
the perpetrators. The victimized daughter's "gender dysphoria"
is a post-traumatic response to sexual violence, and, as such, reflects
an attempt to dissociate, or split off, the trauma.
Dissociation is a survival strategy. It provides a way out of the intolerable and psychologically incongruous situation (double-bind), it erects memory barriers (amnesia) to keep painful events and memories out of awareness, it functions as an analgesic to prevent feeling pain, it allows escape from experiencing the event and from responsibility/guilt, and it may serve as a hypnotic negation of the sense of self. The child may begin by using the dissociative mechanism spontaneously and sporadically. With repeated victimization and double-bind injunctions, it becomes chronic. It may further become an autonomous process as the individual ages. (Courtois, 155)
Dissociation is a way of altering consciousness. As millions of survivors can testify, these dissociated memories have not really gone away. Whether or not they ever surface to the conscious mind, they continue to exert their influence through somatic disorders, flashbacks, sleep disturbances, intrusive dreams, and dissociative disorders. Repressed memories do not go away because one wishes them away. The survivor takes control of her life by understanding and incorporating repressed trauma, not reinforcing the split. And this is precisely why the GID diagnosis is so pernicious when applied to the victimized daughter.
Until the recent breakthroughs in trauma research, psychotherapeutic models were inadequate to deal with dissociative identity disorders. "The existence of dissociation as a psychic mechanism at all . . . challenges the possibility of a unified subject as well as challenging a theory of subjectivity. Memory constructs the subject, yet memory is itself constructed as well as evanescent, imperfect, metamorphic, and unusually prone to distortion . . . The psychotherapeutic model cannot contain the fissuring of dissociative narration because it posits a notion of normativity that dissociation radically calls into question. (Epstein and Lefkovitz, 193)
The transsexual diagnosis, when it is substituted for identification and treatment of PTSD, reinforces the splitting that was a result of childhood trauma. However "queer" the diagnosis, it does not deviate from a model of normativity based on traditional sex-caste roles. The GID diagnosis that recommends transsexualism as a "cure," seriously compromises the victimized daughter's potential for recovery from the effects of her trauma. Instead of offering techniques to aid her retrieval of memory and reintegration of dissociated material, the GID enables and encourages an even deeper investment in the disorder, by offering a false promise of legitimizing this ahistorical dissociative identity through "reassignment" of gender. It exploits, rather than deconstructs, the syndrome.
The FTM transsexual who undertakes a journey to heal from incest trauma now faces the formidable obstacles of reclaiming the female body that she has had voluntarily- and at great expense and suffering - mutilated, and reconstructing a positive female identity after substantial investment in a male dissociated identity that originated as a child's post-traumatic attempt to reject victim status, but which has now received endorsement and validation from misogynist and lesbo-phobic medical and educational institutions.
The victimized daughter cannot integrate the trauma as long as she identifies as male in a 'gender-reassigned' body- which is exactly why these exorbitant and dangerous surgical procedures were resorted to in the first place.
And finally, the transsexual persona that is an extension and amplification of the victimized daughter's identification with the perpetrator, can never be entirely successful. The divided consciousness of a survivor continues to inform her psyche, playing itself out in scenarios of revictimization. "In both the play and imagination of the survivors, a tenuous relationship exists between the internalized male abuser and the violated female child . . . While the introjection of the perpetrator may at times mask the daughter's identity as victim and thus contribute to the construction of a false persona, patterns of revictimization reveal the extent to which the unprotected and violated female self also informs the personality of the victimized daughter." (Jacobs, 99)
Revictimization was the story of Brandon's short life, as she played out serial fraudulent identities that resulted in arrest and incarceration, seduction of underaged girls who rejected her when they discovered her secret, and increasingly dangerous alliances with violent and homophobic males. Brandon's sexual deceptions, deceptions that escalated after her official diagnosis as transsexual, put her girlfriends at risk in very real ways. Her girlfriends in Lincoln had been teased and harassed by their friends, but when Brandon moved to the more provincial Richardson County, the stakes became even higher. Both of Brandon's Humboldt girlfriends, Lisa Lambert and Lana Tisdel, were being harassed at their workplaces and at social events. One of Lisa's friends described Lisa's dilemma: "Everyone in Humboldt knew about Brandon. Lisa didn't try to hide it. Lisa couldn't believe something like this happened to her. She made it clear that she was too caring to shut Brandon out. She was mad and hurt about it, but she didn't want to hurt him [sic], didn't want to turn him [sic] out on the streets." (Jones, 205) Her compassion would cost her her life.
Lana also attempted to protect Brandon, even after she realized she had been deceived. She told her family and her "friends," ex-convicts Tom Nissen and John Lotter, that she had seen Brandon's penis. But Tom and John were not convinced, and they performed their own investigation--a strip search of Brandon. These were both men with histories of violence, and they, along with Lana's father, decided to take matters into their own hands. Lana's safety was seriously compromised once it was known by these men that she had participated in a sexual relationship with a woman and had lied to protect the fact. Responding to intense pressure, she turned against Brandon, and conflicting testimony even suggests that she may have been in the car at the scene of the murders, having directed the killers to Brandon's hideout.
Even aside from the risk of violence from outside the relationships, Brandon's behaviors toward her sexual partners invited revictimization. Dominance and control were evident in the fact that she preyed on minors, seducing them under false pretenses and seriously compromising their status and safety among their peers. Brandon's male-identified, role-playing behaviors, as described by her peers, were romantically and sexually compulsive, predatory, possessive, and monopolizing. Friends of Gina Bartu, one of Brandon's girlfriends, noted how Gina "lost her identity, lost all outside interests ... wasn't fun anymore . . . had no time for anyone else." (Jones, 100) Brandon controlled her relationships with the ongoing high drama of her compulsive infidelities and criminal activities.
Obviously Brandon had been making an attempt to recover a sexuality in which she would not be defined as a victim, or even as a subject. In her romantic, gift-giving behaviors, she was trying to establish a dynamic far-removed from the coercion and humiliation of her incest experiences. And yet, specifically because the GID diagnosis does not challenge gender hierarchy, neither Brandon nor her therapist, apparently, saw any reason to interrogate the conflation of dominance with "masculinity." Because of this, Brandon, attempting to play out her chivalrous, rescuing fantasies, found herself repeatedly retraumatized by scenarios of sexual perpetration, betrayal of trust, abandonment, and-finally-rape, battering, and murder. Without a feminist analysis of how gender roles reinscribe systems of male dominance, how is it possible to even arrive at a diagnosis of "gender identity disorder?" When Brandon stuffed the sock in her underwear, was it really "penis envy?" "Her desire for a penis cannot be understood apart from the reality of sexual victimization, as the male genital signifies dominance and control over the victimized self. Here penis envy is not only a metaphor for the social power of males, but a symbolic reconstruction of traumatic sexualization in which the penis represents violence, violation, and power over another." (Jacobs, 98)
And, finally, there is the issue of classism inherent in the diagnosis. Maybe Klaus Hartman and Deb Brodtke were up on all the latest politically-correct, post-modern "queer theory" regarding transsexualism, but Brandon's teenaged girlfriends from the heartlands of Nebraska were not. Faced with the confused and conflicting lies Brandon told about her supposed hermaphroditism and her fictitious surgeries, they drew their own conclusions about the status of their sexual relationship- conclusions based on the harsh realities of surviving in their working-class, mid-western, rural, non-academic environments- realities that Brandon's therapist, apparently, had not found convenient or relevant to her support for the "Axis I" diagnosis.
Hear the words of Gina Bartu, Brandon's third girlfriend:
"He'd [sic] come up with stories- you know, more sex-change stories, and it got to the point where almost nothing's been done. We'd go from everything, to half of it, to now where it's just barely starting. And I'd say, 'No, you just need to be honest with me, and so he [sic] . . . showed me. And he [sic] says, 'Well, this is the start of the operation.' The start of what? And he's [sic], like, 'Well, they've sewn me up and they've . . . started . . . uh, started me on steroids' and saying how they've implanted something that's going to eventually grow . . . He [sic] would scream at me, saying, 'Gina, this isn't a gay relationship! I don't know what you're thinking!' And I'd say, 'Well, what am I supposed to think? I mean, what you want to be is male, but unfortunately, we have to deal with what we have now, and, I said, 'You are female.' And I said, 'We have to deal with that.'" (Muska)
Like the words of the child in the fairy tale who cried out, "The emperor has no clothes," Gina's words ring out with a clarity that, itself, deconstructs the sophistries of post-modern therapism. Perhaps one of the reasons why Brandon resorted to telling so many lies about her body was because her therapist, so endorsing of a transsexual identity, had failed to coach her adequately on the technical jargon and convoluted theories of "gender performativity," and on strategies for presenting these in the trailer courts and fast-food work environments that constituted Brandon's world. Perhaps, the therapist had not felt a need to, because in her world of elite professionals, these theories had become dogma, and it was an academic and clinical survival strategy to accept them without question. In Gina's teenaged, working-class world, however, the rationale for FTM transsexualism was as invisible as the emperor's new clothes- or penis.
Transgender and transsexual activists staged the first national transgender demonstration at Falls City, Nebraska, in conjunction with the trials of Brandon's killers. It was transgender activists who assigned the name "Brandon Teena," taking such an aggressive stance that Brandon's mother expressed a fear that she would not be allowed to raise money for a headstone with her daughter's name on it.
The transsexual/transgender activists guilty of "reassigning" a name to Brandon for their own purposes, have, with their highly selective versions of her history, endorsed and even valorized Brandon's fear and hatred of lesbians. These transgender and transsexual activists have been strangely silent about the ways in which Brandon's diagnosis is complicitous with misogynist homophobia. Their silence gives the lie to their claims of advocating diversity and tolerance, as well as to their expressed agenda of deconstructing gender polarities. Discrimination against women reaches its apotheosis in hatred of lesbians and of the lesbian body. Failure to incorporate Brandon's identity as a female survivor of child sexual abuse- especially when so many of her choices were consistent with post-traumatic responses and when she herself was so articulate about the abuse and the impact it had on her in terms of her fear of men- raises serious questions about the transsexual/transgender appropriation of women's experience and the privileging of men's interests in their discourse of gender.
The Issue of Recovery
Was the tragedy of Brandon's short life solely attributable to "transphobia"
in the culture? Would her relationship history have been improved had
she not felt a need to lie about her identity? This is impossible to know.
Certainly, many aspects of her life would have been easier, but recovery
from incest trauma would not have been one of them.
When the internalization of this ideal has become incorporated into the gender identity of the victimized daughter, specifically as a response to the trauma, this kind of deconstruction is impeded. Because this deconstruction is necessary for the reconstruction of the core identity of the survivor, the transsexual identity becomes a substantial obstacle to healing.
The survivor reconstructs her identity by reclaiming the right to her body and her sexuality. These may have been so damaged by the incest, that it would appear more expedient and more therapeutic to adopt a differently-gendered identity that is not freighted with traumatic associations, but, as has been documented, this identity is a dissociated one which cannot, by definition, offer the integration that characterizes recovery.
There is no question that the survivor who undertakes to heal from the effects of incest faces a difficult journey. ". . . this transformation is a difficult and tenuous process, one that involves relinquishing psychological defenses and personality adaptations which facilitated survival under the most untenable of circumstances; and . . . some survivors never achieve . . . the kind of resolution that is described here." (Jacobs, 165) But the alternative is a forever-fragmented identity, and the perpetual revictimization that results from the unrecovered survivor's dual consciousness.
So, how does the victimized daughter heal? The process is developmental and unique for every survivor. As Christine Dinsmore writes in From Surviving to Thriving, "Some survivors confront their perpetrators, others do not. Some survivors have bonded with their mothers, others have not. Some survivors remain in the same towns as their families, others move clear across the continent to get away from their families . . . Regardless of the specific steps, the recovery pattern is a developmental process that includes introspection, such as acknowledging the abuse and working through intense emotions, followed by an action, such as renegotiating family patterns or involvement in a survivor's mission." (Jacobs, 136)
In Victimized Daughters, Janet Liebman Jacobs elaborates some of the stages associated with recovery, noting that not every survivor will experience these changes:
· Deconstruction of the idealized father
Brandon's identity as an incest survivor informed the choices she made that led to her rape and murder. It is this identity that should have been the focus for diagnosis and treatment by the psychologists and therapists who encountered Brandon on suicide watch at a crisis center. These mental health professionals should have given this very young, very scared, and very self-destructive woman some real tools for understanding her situation and her behaviors, some real strategies for navigating as a woman-loving-woman through a woman-hating world. But it takes more than that for the healing from trauma. It takes entire communities of feminists who have made it our business to become "trauma literate"- to educate ourselves in the ways in which trauma affects our development and our relationships, and to understand strategies that lead to healing, and ones, like transsexualism, that impede integration. The survivor needs feminist communities with an analysis of the misogyny of the culture, who can offer alternative cultural and spiritual institutions for reconstructing and reconnecting with a female self. We need the tools of the recovery movement for reclaiming our sexuality, instead of further dissociating it. We cannot look to a male-dominated queer movement or to a patriarchal mental health system to heal us. We need to do it for ourselves.
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Carolyn Gage is a lesbian-feminist author, activist, playwright, and touring performer. Her catalog of work is online at www.carolyngage.com.