The Trans Victim/Criminal in True Crime Stories
by Evelyn Deshane — Waterloo University
February 14, 2017 – 18:08
If there is a transgender person involved in a true crime story, they are usually the victim. The 2007 film Trained in the Ways of Men documents the murder of trans woman Gwen Araujo and her trial, where her killers attempted to use the “gay panic defense” when her trans status was revealed. Paris is Burning, a documentary about Ball Culture, ends up detailing the murder of Venus Xtravaganza during the course of the film. Trans people—particularly trans women—in true crime stories often become the victims because it mirrors real life statistics.
Yet, one of the most prevalent images we have in crime/horror cinema is the transgender serial killer—typified by Buffalo Bill, Norman Bates, and Leatherface. As K.E. Sullivan notes, these slasher killers were all drawn from the real life source of Ed Gein. A Wisconsin farmer, Gein entered the public’s fascination after his house was discovered to be filled with items made from human skin and bones. Gein didn’t answer many questions during interrogation and never wrote a tell-all book, so he became a cipher for most true crime writers; for each generation, he could become the most heinous thing people could image.
Trans people consistently float between these two categories of victim and criminal. This in-between stance is even more obvious with the case of Brandon Teena. Subject of the film Boys Don’t Cry, and the true crime novel All He Ever Wanted by Aphrodite Jones, Brandon Teena also had another documentary film made about him called The Brandon Teena Story, which is where my sample clip is from. The clip opens with a voice-over stating the victims: Teena Brandon, Philip Devine, and Lisa Lambert—but then doubles back over to Brandon to reveal that he “posed as a man”; from here the image becomes a snapshot of Brandon with a gun, dressed like a gangster.
The connotation is clear: Brandon is a victim, but he’s also responsible for these crimes.
Because the West tends to view transgender people as artificial (“not real women/men”) already, when they become victims of crimes, police and other professionals have a hard time letting go of blame. Though Brandon’s killers are behind bars, and his image lives on, I worry about how future trans people will be framed against this dichotomy of victim/killer and what kind of justice they’ll receive.