It’s always been encouraging to me that young trans and gender variant people continue to push the boundaries of gender identification and presentation in ways that those of us who are well into our middle-agedness could never have imagined when we were that young.
There are times, though, when that kind of youthful forward thinking exceeds the boundaries of healthy and necessary progressive activism and crosses into true disrespect for the history and progress of transgender people and expression and those who had a role in it. A recent appearance by “Boys Don’t Cry” filmmaker Kimberly Peirce at Reed College during which she was unfairly and unmercifully heckled underscores this problem.
In large part, the issue stems from an inability or unwillingness of trans and trans-supportive youth to properly judge media in the context of the era in which it was created. The world of today isn’t the world of a generation ago, particularly for trans people. The college students who heckled Ms. Peirce at this event were judging her and her film, which was created almost 20 years ago, by the modern standards we have today for popular media about trans people and how those stories can and should be told.
Brandon Teena had been murdered in 1993 and the trial of his murderers, John Lotter and Thomas Nissan, was ongoing when I first began paying attention to all things transgender in early 1995. At that time, there existed only the beginnings of what would eventually come to be called the transgender community. It was an entity which existed almost entirely online, those of us who frequented trans-relevant and supportive chat rooms, message boards, and email lists.
For the most part, the gay and lesbian community wanted nothing to do with us. No doubt due to the sensationalistic aspects of the case, the anti-trans hate crime which was Brandon Teena’s murder was one of the very first trans-relevant news stories in many years to break through to mainstream media coverage.
Unsurprisingly, mainstream media consistently misgendered Teena as a woman in their coverage. To make matters worse, in order to further their own political agenda gay and lesbian community media and political activists attempted to co-opt the story as their own by publicly redefining Teena’s gender identification and sexual orientation as lesbian.
Our activist community was small then and our media reach outside of the trans community almost nonexistent. Many trans people spoke out online and publicly protested against erasing Teena’s male gender identity in the media, with the Transexual Menace among the most vocal. It was through the activism around this misrepresentation of how Teena lived his life that politically active trans people began to coalesce around common interests and concerns, eventually forming the beginnings of the trans community we have today.
This is the reality into which “Boys Don’t Cry,” an independent feature film starring Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny was released in 1999. When young people complain that Peirce chose Hilary Swank, a cis woman, to play the part of Brandon Teena, the argument is that she should have chosen a trans man to play the part instead. Were we talking about a film released today, or even a modern remake of this one, I’d wholeheartedly agree, but because I lived through most of the ‘90s as a politically-conscious trans woman, I know it’s a completely unfair and unrealistic expectation.
For one thing, there were no out trans male actors of any notability at the time, nor any trans actresses, for that matter. None. They just didn’t exist. Swank, who won an Oscar for the role, was basically an unknown herself at the time, with Sevigny the only actor of any real note in the film.
It’s also important to understand how the film was perceived by trans people at the time it came out. We were thrilled, to put it mildly. Finally, a movie featuring a trans person as the lead character in a drama instead of comic relief, and on top of that, an Oscar awarded for the portrayal of that role. At a time when trans people were mostly ignored if we weren’t being openly disparaged in the media, we couldn’t have been happier or more proud as a community. It was the first time we’d broken through in a big way, and it filled many of us, myself included, with hope for the future.
Context is indeed everything, especially in a case like this, and it helps none of us to unfairly call out groundbreakers like Kimberly Peirce for work that doesn’t live up to progressive standards which didn’t exist when it was created.
Yes, my youthful sisters and brothers, fight as hard as we did, but also fight smart because we all lose when you attack the wrong side.