“Boys Don’t Cry” Has Always Been Violently Transphobic

logan ashley

A general warning — in discussing “Boys Don’t Cry”, this article will have to discuss violent transphobia, rape, murder, and a lot of generally fucking awful things in regards to both the Brandon Teena case and the film’s depiction of events. Take care of yourself and don’t read any further if any of these will upset you.

Back in March of this year, I watched 31 movies that in some way dealt with transmasc individuals. I can count on one hand how many films on that list were of decent quality, and they were far outweighed by the garbage I had to get through. Though many of the films on that list I had straight up never heard of before, a small handful were familiar to me, albeit in infamy.

“Boys Don’t Cry” is among one of the most well known movies about transgender people. Released to a wide audience in October of 1999, the film would go on to gross over 10x its budget, as well as winning Oscars, Golden Globes, and over 30 other accolades. For most people, it is perhaps their first or only exposure to transgender men. And as media concerning trans men has yet to see any significant uptick in quantity, it remains one of the largest pillars of representation for people like me.

And as something that represents a true story as well as an entire community, it kind of fucking sucks at doing either.

(For those unfamiliar, the film is based on a true story — that of the murder of a real life trans man, Brandon Teena. In 1993, he was raped and later killed by two men, John Lotter and Tom Nissen, who had learned about him being transgender. The film specifically depicts the last few weeks of Brandon’s life, his relationship with his girlfriend and the men who would ultimately murder him.)

So on the list of “things absolutely certain to make Logan upset”, the untimely death of trans people are pretty high up there. I have vivid memories of being in high school and needing to cite the death of Leelah Alcorn in my senior year’s essays, and sitting in the computer lab trying really hard not to start crying my eyes out in front of everybody. Brandon Teena was a transgender man and was murdered for it, and that will never not pull an emotional response from me.

For that reason, its hard to talk about “Boys Don’t Cry” at all, let along examine it in the vacuum of time that was the 90’s, a time in which I wasn’t even alive. But for the sake of fairness, I need to rip the film apart in the context of present day as well as the time period that created it. As the film nears its 20th anniversary- just one year shy of the oldest Brandon will ever be- I decided it was now or never, if I was ever going to sit down and pick the “Boys Don’t Cry” phenomena apart.

I suppose the best place to start is the beginning — conception.

A Great Love Story

According to everything I’ve read, director Kimberly Peirce first became interested in the story of Brandon after reading an article about it in April 1994, published mere months after the horrific murder (which took place in December of ‘93). Specifically, she read an article where the journalist behind it, Donna Minkowitz, has since come out and apologized for that article as “the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written”.

(It’s important to note that almost every article or thinkpiece about both Brandon Teena and “Boys Don’t Cry” from the time refers to Brandon as a woman. In discussing and citing these pieces, I’ll be editing them with the correct pronouns, but keep in mind if you check any out for yourselves that the original publications are littered with misgendering, victim blaming, and transphobia in more ways than you could count.)

So, Kimberly Peirce gets inspired by an article that the journalist behind it now deeply regrets for what it implied and said about Brandon. Because of this or simply on her own, Kimberly’s sense of Brandon never once seemed to extend to actually seeing him as a man. She describes him as having this “desire” to “turn himself into a boy”, says that she was completely overwhelmed by “the leap of imagination that this person took”. And so, from the very beginning, Kimberly only ever saw Brandon as a delusional woman, someone she could project this bizarre love story onto.

As the project grew, it was initially meant to be based on a book, All She Wanted, by Aphrodite Jones, and follow the last weeks of Brandon’s life as well as incorporate some of his family background. However, Peirce eventually modified the script to better focus on what she called “a great love story”. This is significant in that no other source at the time gave particular focus to the relationship between Brandon and his at-the-time girlfriend, Lana Tisdel. They had only been dating for around two months at the time of the crimes, and according to Tisdel, she ended the relationship upon learning about his status as transgender. Whether true or not, it was something undeniably brief and cut short.

The strange projection of a lesbian Romeo and Juliet continued on into the casting. Even today, uproar occurs every time a cis woman is cast in the role of a trans man (films like “3 Generations”), when cis men are cast in the role of trans women (films like “The Danish Girl”). This trend’s survival is indicative of the general public still seeing trans people as just cis people playing dress up; it shows that we’re primarily seen as liars, deviants, whatever term may fit.

According to what is available online, the casting process for “Boys Don’t Cry” took almost four years to complete. Through this process, Peirce once again focuses on Brandon not as a man but as a woman, a masculine lesbian (important to note that this was a label that Brandon hated having put on him). While saying that she worked to cast from the LGBT community- on a DVD commentary that I could not find online to check for myself- there’s really no evidence she looked anywhere but masculine women.

The only mention of looking at trans people (not specifically men, I’ll note) is in this interview around the five minute mark, where she states that she looked at “transsexuals who, in real life, could pass, but onscreen, couldn’t pass”. I wonder if those people she passed on ever saw that interview, ever heard about her so flippantly glazing over them because their transness was ““obvious””.

For all her, erm, “good” intentions, Peirce’s fundamental misunderstanding of Brandon seems to come at the simplest thing — understanding him and accepting him as a man. She chooses not to do this and instead projects onto him this butch lesbian who just simply never existed. Her own existence as a lesbian really doesn’t matter in the context of Brandon’s story, because she isn’t transgender, because she never lived anywhere near the midwestern United States where the original crimes happened; she was never capable of understanding Brandon.

Is this article going to be kind to Peirce? I think it would’ve tried to be, had I found any sort of proof that her view on Brandon had shifted, had she done what Donna Minkowitz did and corrected herself all these years later. But in doing my research, I found an interview she did back in January of this year (2019), in which she brings up…. a “Boys Don’t Cry” follow-up.

“…I can’t tell you the title, but it’s a- romantic sex comedy. It’s a follow-up to “Boys Don’t Cry”. And it’s pretty girl, handsome girl.”

I can’t find any more information on this film, but, yeah, clearly Peirce still views Brandon Teena as a woman and that is seriously fucked up and frustrating. I don’t know what she means when she says this film is going to be a follow-up- to a true story about a trans man’s brutalization and murder, no less- but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

That’s What Brandon Would Do

So, Hilary Swank — I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. In her interviews at the time, she was considerably more respectful of Brandon than Peirce ever seemed to be, gave him at least the dignity of being referred to as a man and with masculine pronouns. And upon winning her Oscar for her portrayal of him, she continued to refer to him as Brandon, as a man, on the stage of the biggest award ceremony for cinema.

I read a lot of reviews and interviews done at the time of this film’s initial release, and only truly through Swank did I get a sense of genuinely caring about Brandon’s story. My problems aside, that sentiment does mean something.

However, even from Swank, there are some serious issues outside of just the fact that she was cast at all.

Peirce and Swank talked a lot about Swank’s audition, as she made the effort to be as masculine as possible (packing and binding, attempting to speak in a lower register, etc.), and this got her noticed. But the part of this story that sticks out to me is where Swank lied about her age. The citation of this part of the story seems to have been lost to the pits of Old Internet, but, in short:

“During her audition, Swank, who was 22, lied to Peirce about her age. Swank said that like Brandon she was 21 years of age. When Peirce later confronted her about her lie, Swank responded, “But that’s what Brandon would do”.”

I think that that interpretation of Brandon manages to capture everything wrong with the film’s attitude towards him. Hillary Swank was cast, in part, because she portrayed Brandon as a liar. To her and to everybody involved, Brandon Teena was a woman who lied, who deceived, who spun the truth even in completely unnecessary situations.

The portrayal of trans people as liars is such a deeply dangerous thing. It’s the thing, in fact, that gets us murdered. And, yes, I know that this movie came out in 1999, it was not exactly the greatest of time for transgender people or any LGBT person. Almost every article from the late 90’s misgenders Brandon, refers to him as a woman or a lesbian, or only ever really referred to him in the context of sex or in the context of lying. You know, the only two things trans people are ever brought up for — how we fuck, or who we’re “fooling”.

But that’s why this movie should’ve been so important; Peirce had a responsibility to her community, and had she talked with transgender men about Brandon, she might’ve created a film in which she showed a general audience how dangerous it was to exist as a trans person at the time and in that area of the country, and how evil it is to just brush us off as liars in denial about our own identities. She could’ve helped push for our humanization; instead, she just helped beat the stake even further into the dirt.

Again, I’m angrier with Peirce than I am with Swank. In doing my research for this, I found an interview with Swank in which she talked about “Boys Don’t Cry” and about the casting of cis actors in trans roles as it continues today. While the initial article I read gave me the impression she was incredibly flippant with the controversies, the actual interview gave me proof she had actually grown with time:

“…there are people, “who have said I shouldn’t have done Boys Don’t Cry”. She understands this. It is complicated, and consciousness has grown a lot in the past two decades, thanks in part to the conversation her film started, back in an era when the script didn’t even use the word transgender…The argument is often that there aren’t any trans actors who are famous enough to get a project made. But “nobody knew who I was when I did Boys Don’t Cry,” says Swank. “I was a newcomer — and the movie did well. The important thing to remember is people are wanting to be seen for who they are,” she adds. “And people are fighting for their space in the world”.”

So, yes, I am still frustrated that Swank was cast and that the film helped ensure that improper casting in regards to trans storytelling has persisted to the present day. But for all of her shortcomings (Swank still is, after all, a cishet white woman, and has the understanding of one), she genuinely seems to have respect for the transgender community and seems to have educated herself over the past twenty years. The first time I watched this film, the most I had done prior was skim the Wikipedia page and then jumped right in; this second time around, I’m happy to accept even the slightest silver lining; while Swank should never have gotten the role, she’s continued to use it for educational purposes and respects us, and that’s something.

The Brandon Teena Story

Ina 1998, a documentary titled “The Brandon Teena Story” was released, and the “Boys Don’t Cry” page cites that the documentary was used in the creation of its script in order to use the most accurate dialogue possible. Because of this, and in part because I was putting off re-watching the film, I decided to give the documentary a look and see how the Boys filmmakers were further influenced.

I don’t want this article to be me making excuses for the 90’s. Because for every “that was just what it was like back then” argument, I want to say “okay, but we still existed”. Despite the social and political climate, we never stopped existing, and we’ve always been around. And I have a hard time believing that Peirce, as a lesbian, didn’t have access to LGBT circles, that she didn’t know anybody to get her contact with a trans man.

But I say I don’t want this article to be excuses because this documentary was… very 90’s. It’s exactly what I expected when I read the tagline: “ALL BRANDON WANTED WAS TO BE ONE OF THE GUYS. UNFORTUNATELY HE WAS A GIRL”. It’s also very funny that one of the critics quotes on the cover reads that it “bends over backwards not to sensationalize a murder case” when sensationalizing is exactly what it does.

For only an hour long, the documentary fails at two key elements. Firstly, it falls into the trappings of pigeonholing transgender men (how we fuck and who we’re fooling); even though it reaches back into Brandon’s past more than “Boys Don’t Cry”, it only does so to tell us about Brandon’s ex-girlfriends and how they just had no idea he wasn’t biologically male. Annoying and exploitative, but, again, exactly what I went into it expecting.

Secondly, the documentary just… isn’t really about Brandon? It starts out that way sure, but once we’re done talking to his exes, it turns into a true crime documentary. It felt like I turned on an episode of Snapped by mistake, where the victim gets lost in the shuffle as we instead focus too much for too long on the murder and murderers.

I don’t feel a moment of sympathy for the men who murdered Brandon, and putting pictures of one of them as a child over audio of his sentencing is not going to make me feel anything outside of white hot rage.

Tom Nissen once said “I don’t feel real guilty about killing [Brandon]. I think [he] probably would have been killed by someone anyway.” Any effort to make me feel pity for him or John Lotter is wasted breath.

I definitely see where some influence came from in “Boys Don’t Cry”. The only audio we get of Brandon is the police interview where he has to recount being raped (fun!) and has to fend off the officer’s questions wondering how the men didn’t sexually abuse him before (even more fun!). The documentary has pity for Brandon in a very removed sense, as it treats his murder as just something that was bound to happen rather than something wholly preventable; as we’ll go into, that’s heavily reflected in the film as well.

But points to the documentary — 75% of the time, those being interviewed referred to Brandon as a man. It’s more than I can say for Kimberly Peirce!

Someplace Beautiful

The short version of this article is my Letterboxd log for my rewatch of the film: “ if i killed myself and left a note that just said “boys don’t cry” literally nobody would would have any questions ”.

The first time I sat down for Boys Don’t Cry, it was for that transmasc list I mentioned way back at the beginning of the article. And in retrospect, I think I would’ve hated any movie by the time I was halfway through that list. So against that better judgement I so rarely listen to, I decided I needed to give this movie a fair shot, removed from that list, and give it a rewatch for this article.

Besides myself, it was actually… kind of hard to find other trans people who have talked about this movie. Certainly there are none that I can find from the time (1994–2000), but thankfully the internet is a little more helpful in allowing me to locate trans voices in this conversation. During this search, I came across a quote that really stuck on some of my own primary issues with the film at it’s core:

“While trying to speak out against his murder, it reinforces the perceptions that led to his murder… a bumbling insult to the trans man who was killed, in a manner that simply encourages more misunderstanding (and thus more death), leaves me so angry and tired.” — Sally Jane Black, 2017 Letterboxd

The first time I watched “Boys Don’t Cry”, I too pointed out that in trying to generate sympathy from a mainstream audience, the film instead reinforced the same transphobic stereotypes that led to Brandon’s brutalization and murder. My main gripe was that it was packaged and sold as a “cautionary tale”, that the crimes against Brandon weren’t transphobic violence but instead what was to be expected for his daring to live as who he was.

To actually talk about the movie for a changeupon a second viewing, in some ways it isn’t as infuriating, and in some ways it is more. I wasn’t bored, rather sharply focused on following the story and watching as the broken foundation it was built upon lead to its continued failures. Not only is it a film that fails Brandon, it ends up failing everybody else too (Tisdel and everybody within Falls City are depicted to all be that one kid in college who got addicted to every drug on the market; its no wonder this film generated so many lawsuits) (Tisdel especially was warranted in her lawsuit, good grief). And on a technical level, while there are some interesting shots and transitions, there are a lot more bizarre editing choices that just felt like everybody was getting off on how much of a martyr they thought they were turning Brandon into.

When the film takes the real dialogue from Brandon’s police interview, it isn’t really to much effect. Yes, obviously its painful to hear it, and I can say that the actors in the scene properly inflect the emotions put across in the original recording, but the rest of the sequence fails this.

If that sequence of Brandon’s brutalization wanted to be effective, it shouldn’t have shown the rape. It would’ve been so much more powerful to hold on Swank and allow her to emote as she recounted the details, don’t cut back to the rape scene as if we’ve somehow forgotten that’s whats happening. Show what leads up to it, show the aftermath, all of that is fine — you don’t need to show us the rape to make us feel something. I just feel gross and exploited.

While on the subject of dialogue, there’s also a lot of innocuous lines that really jumped out at me the second time around. Now aware of Peirce’s transphobic attitudes towards the Brandon story, simple lines spoken by other characters really carry a double meaning I can’t tell if she intended to have or not. Things like “people like [Brandon] hallucinate twenty four hours a day”, the shift in Lana’s language towards Brandon after he’s held naked in front of her, that change from “handsome” to “pretty”. Even in the 3rd edition script (not the final shooting script, which I had trouble finding), the first time Brandon is referred to as ‘he’ is in big, blocky quotation marks. There is no doubt this is Peirce’s script, rotting through with transphobia.

In the beginning of the film, when Brandon is on his date in the roller rink, and his date says he seems to be from “someplace beautiful”, I rolled my eyes. I don’t understand how a script can manage to infantilize and victim blame so much. Again, in making this a romance-driven film in the style of Romeo and Juliet, the “doomed from the start” message overtakes any bullshit message about having the “courage” to live as yourself.

If I saw this when it came out, I wouldn’t get any “just be yourself” moral, I’d see a film that told me “you are destined to be murdered for who you are, and nothing will change that”.

That script I mentioned earlier actually didn’t seem to be half as bad, if at least more focused on who Brandon actually was. It contains drafts of scenes that contained Brandon’s family and home life, as well as showing the girls he dated in Lincoln and being generally more true to the real life events. On the other side of the coin, it assassinates different characters and is still built on the same fundamentally broken foundation, and ultimately it would still fail. With Peirce at the helm, there’s no way this project could’ve ever succeeded in a way that did Brandon any justice.

If alive today, Brandon would be turning 47 in December. When he was murdered, he had only been 21 for two days shy of three weeks.

The story of Brandon Teena is not one of an epic, Romeo and Juliet love story; it was never a story about a cisgender woman’s “bravery” to love a trans man in the midwestern United States. Kimberly Peirce’s obsession bordering on fetishization of the relationship between Brandon Teena and Lana Tisdel was, ultimately, the largest nail in the coffin for the film.

As it is with every transgender man, Brandon Teena was more than who he was having sex with. He was more than his romantic and sexual relationships with women, apparently contrary to popular belief.

He was a younger brother. He was known to lift weights. When he was 18, he made a hard push to enlist in the Army. He was a romantic, who once got a girl’s name tattooed on him after just a brief time of dating. In the clamor to sensationalize him and his “love story”, the media en mass has erased the man who lived to focus on the romance that didn’t.

(And, Christ, there is a far better love story in the relationship between Brandon and Gina, the woman he dated before Lana. According to an article in a 1995 Playboy, upon approaching Lana after the funeral, Gina was told that Brandon never talked about his friends from his hometown, except for “this one girl and how much he still loved her”. If you wanted to focus on a love story for Brandon, focus on his relationship with Gina, end the film when he leaves for Humboldt, make it about the romance rather than trying to double-fist a romance alongside the tragedy of his murder. If done properly, you would have a film about transgender acceptance and about true love without milking the real story for tragedy.)

Boys Don’t Cry” is important in that it is one of only a few mainstream depictions of transgender men. But outside of that distinction, there is nothing special or valuable to warrant remembering. When there is finally an outpouring of transgender content in the same way that there is for general LGB content (though of course this is still meek in comparison to the cishet media market), I think that “Boys Don’t Cry” will finally be allowed to be pushed back into relative obscurity; a film that while notable for the time of its release, no longer should be used as an educational tool.

I think about Brandon a lot, and even more so this past month. I hope he knows that what happened to him was never his fault. And I hope that all the trans kids living in that area of the United States know that his fate is not destined to be ours. We are not doomed to the so-called “death of a deceiver”; Brandon never was either.