‘Boys Don’t Cry’ 20 Years Later: For Trans Men, a Divisive Legacy

When it was released in October 1999, “Boys Don’t Cry” was the first mainstream film to focus on a transgender man. Twenty years later, it’s still the rare feature to center on such a life. But as the culture has evolved, the film has proved to be very much of its time, with a contradictory legacy that trans viewers have grappled with.

The movie was based on the tragic true story of Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old Nebraska trans man who was raped and murdered in 1993. His death was the subject of salacious headlines, and it galvanized a small group of trans people to witness the trial and claim him as one of their own.

The director Kimberly Peirce, then a graduate student at Columbia University, was there, too, traveling with the Transexual Menace activist group as research for the film about Teena she was desperate to make. A self-described butch who, she told me, was questioning her identity at the time, she felt an instant connection with Teena.

“I loved that Brandon shaped himself into his fantasy of himself as a boy and lived as a man and loved women,” Peirce said, “so I always understood that about him — the courage, the audacity, the invention, the humor, the naïveté to live so authentically and boldly as he wanted.”

Peirce met with Lana Tisdel, the woman Brandon Teena fell for, and eventually secured her life rights. Hilary Swank was cast as Brandon and Chloë Sevigny as Lana, and the final result won over critics. “This could have been a clinical movie of the week," Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “but instead it’s a sad song about a free spirit who tried to fly a little too close to the flame.”

Grossing $11.5 million at the domestic box office, the film drew a supporting actress Oscar nomination for Sevigny and the best actress statuette for Swank, who thanked Brandon Teena in her acceptance speech: “His legacy lives on through our movie.”

The film’s success catapulted Teena’s story into the mainstream. For many Americans, it was their first introduction to a trans man (though there’s never any version of “trans” in the dialogue). And the fact that the movie was told largely from Teena’s point of view, presenting him as someone audiences could empathize with, was celebrated in some L.G.B.T. circles.

At the time, the cultural conversation around transgender lives was virtually nonexistent. They were asked to take a back seat to other L.G.B.T. activists so progress could be made on issues deemed more palatable to the mainstream, like ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Trans people (largely trans women) were depicted in the movies and tabloids as deceitful cross dressers, more often than not. Transgender men were absent from any media, and several reviews of the film incorrectly described Teena as a woman posing as a man, not living his true identity. News coverage of Teena’s story portrayed him as “a Yentl for the new millennium, rather than a victim of anti-transgender bigotry,” Noelle Howey noted then in Mother Jones.

Looking back, one of the film’s producers, Christine Vachon, told me, “There was definitely this fascination with the notion of that kind of deception, the stranger, the masquerade, the person who comes in and turns the town upside down.”

Sevigny echoed her view. “It had all those juicy components,” the actress said, “not to diminish the story in any way, but as far as I think what people grabbed onto then.”

(The Village Voice article that inspired the film took a different tack, positioning Teena as a self-hating lesbian. The author, Donna Minkowitz, has since publicly apologized for misgendering Teena, among other regrets.)

For trans people, “Boys Don’t Cry” was simultaneously an opportunity for much-needed representation and an unavoidable illumination of a societal blind spot. Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD, which tracks L.G.B.T. representation in the media, describes the movie as “a vital and high-profile correction to that biased news coverage.”

“As grass roots transgender advocates were fighting for Brandon’s trans identity to be recognized,” he said, “it was significant that Hilary Swank affirmed Brandon as the man he was and used he/him pronouns to refer to him, including when accepting the Academy Award.”

Acknowledging that the film changed her career forever, Swank said, “That we’re still 20 years from then talking about how it started an important conversation says a lot.”

But as perhaps the most well-known piece of popular culture about a transgender man, “Boys Don’t Cry” bears the burden of representation for a highly underrepresented group of people, and it has become polarizing for some trans viewers. After a screening in 2016, protesters at Reed College in Portland, Ore., disrupted a Q&A with Peirce, arguing that the film was transphobic and exploitive for its casting of a cisgender actress and depiction of a brutal rape.

Were the film being made today, activists would insist on a trans actor in a trans role. Scarlett Johansson withdrew from the film “Rub & Tug” last year after just such an outcry. At the time, there wasn’t any organized objection to Swank’s casting. Peirce said she had auditioned several “masculine-of-center” people (butch women, drag kings and some trans men) before finding Swank in her search for a performer who “could walk into an everyday environment and be perceived as a man.”

But for trans men like the actor JJ Hawkins (CBS’s “The Red Line”), the optics of Swank appearing highly feminine on red carpets were confusing and had real-world consequences.

“Of course it’s a step in the right direction — one single story about us — but also, she played a boy and she won best actress,” Hawkins said. “That was the first time I realized that people who see me see me as a girl dressed up as a boy because when they’re watching ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ they’re watching a girl dressed up as a boy.” (Similar issues have arisen with recent trans women portrayals by Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club” and Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.”)

There are other reasons the mainstream success of “Boys Don’t Cry” was as validating as it was frustrating for trans viewers. Some, depending on where they were in their journey, found it crucial to their learning that trans men existed. Others recoiled from the dehumanizing brutality Teena endured.

“It’s incredibly hard to see, even if it’s a dramatization, to know that that was his final moment,” said the trans actor Leo Sheng (whose film credits include “Adam”).

While transgender women have seen more positive portrayals in recent years, trans men have yet to see the same.“I can empathize with young trans men who don’t want to see it,” Kate Bornstein, a transgender activist and author who attended the murder trial with Peirce, said, explaining, “You’re seeing a movie about yourself and then yourself is murdered, why would you want to go see that? Why?”

Peirce argued that “Boys Don’t Cry” helped the culture become “more responsible.” If cisgender, straight American audiences can empathize with Teena, then maybe “Boys” could create change.

“Aren’t they glad that it exists?” Peirce asked, then added, “I feel bad that the experience is painful. And at the same time I still think it’s important that we have a super-committed queer director trying to tell the story authentically.”

Swank said that while a brutal rape is “not anything anyone wants to see,” the peril that trans and gender-nonconforming people face shouldn’t be ignored. “It’s still happening and it’s our job to all work together to make change and make the world a safe place for people no matter how they identify,” she said.

Peirce said she believes that her story of Teena’s life and death is necessary, though she doesn’t specify for whom.

“I understand a positive image,” Peirce said, “but sometimes you need a story.”

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