This week, Donna Minkowitz, a cisgender lesbian journalist, apologized for her story about the murder of a transgender man in 1993.
At the time, she was a journalist for The Village Voice, and helped make Brandon Teena’s murder a national tragedy. It was a landmark case that brought badly needed attention to the injustices facing the trans community at the time, but Minkowitz, as she carefully and thoroughly explains in a follow-up apology, approached the story with a bias that tainted the article’s good intentions.
In her explosive 1994 piece about Teena’s murder, Minkowitz says she made a series of misjudgements about Teena’s past and why he wanted to be seen as a man. She connected his sexual abuse to his trans identity and used the wrong pronoun to refer to him. She explains in great detail that the cis queer folks in the community did not see their trans neighbors as queer, some even thought they were switching genders to avoid being identified as queer. These kinds of misunderstandings led to the haphazardly told story.
“I’ve wanted to apologize for the piece for awhile,” Minkowitz says. Ahead of the 25th anniversary of Brandon Teena’s murder, she was approached by an editor at the Voice for follow-up. “It seemed like a good time to do it.”
She spent time interviewing her friend, documentarian Susan Muska, for her recollection of their reporting trip to Nebraska and to look through her old notes. Muska is also working on a follow up documentary to her film, “The Brandon Teena Story,” with her partner, Greta Olafsdottir.
“I was thrilled I still had my notes,” Minkowitz says. “I had kept a carton of my notes for years.” She also asked for interviews with those who took issue with her reporting, “I interviewed trans scholars and activists. Over the years, they’ve been tremendously critical of my piece.”
Through these different perspectives, she began to deconstruct the problems with her piece. “There’s the conscious, cultural context, what queer activists like myself at the time might have thought of trans issues, which we had barely become aware of,” Minkowitz explains. “Then there were the kinds of things that were operating from me personally that caused me to see myself in Brandon’s story in ways that were not hopeful.”
Minkowitz used her own experience of sexual abuse to theorize that Brandon Teena’s history of sexual abuse had caused him to be trans. “It feels strange to say I got something very wrong about an important story, but it also feels strange to be so open publicly in a story about sexual abuse and how my history with it may have colored certain experiences of Brandon Teena’s,” she says.
“There was a reason lots of butch lesbians like me were interested in Brandon Teena’s story and what happened to him,” Minkowitz says.
In light of how much the discussion of gender has changed over the past 25 years, Minkowitz says she thinks there’s more change to come.
“I considered myself a radical queer advocate at the time,” she says. Still she didn’t know it all, she admits.
“We thought on some level that trans activism was trying to be gay but look straight. It was reactionary, and it was really wrong.”