A reader writes: “I’ve noticed lately how many trans guys of my generation and a bit younger (I’m 29) first recognized themselves in the media while watching Boys Don’t Cry. I can count myself among those guys.
“I was a senior in high school and newly out as a lesbian, and I didn’t know enough about trans people (I wonder if I knew anything at all) to use that language, but I knew that there was something in this character (and his real-life counterpart) that resonated in me. I haven’t thought much about it, but recently a few YouTube channels have addressed media representations of trans men and many of the guys mentioned this connection to Boys Don’t Cry.
“My question is whether you think it’s problematic that so many of us have come to identify ourselves through such a brutal film and circumstance. I’d also love to hear from your readers about their thoughts on this, including trans women. Is there some media image of trans women that seems to hold a similar place in the community? What impact does it have?”
Boys Don’t Cry was also one of the first media representations I had of trans men. I was a couple of years into my transition and saw it at the theater when it was first released. Prior to that, I had seen the documentaries The Brandon Teena Story, on which the film was based, and You Don’t Know Dick, a documentary featuring a fantastic collection of guys, including many of my early heroes. Other than that, I was not aware of any films featuring or about trans guys.
Of course, we don’t know for certain that Brandon Teena was trans or how he truly identified. We basically “adopted” him after his death as one of us. But based on what I know, I am going to operate under the assumption that, had he lived, he might have eventually come out as trans and transitioned. However, I also want people to keep in mind that, as far as I know, we have no documentation of how this individual truly identified, and I could be way off base.
I think that there are positives and negatives that come with seeing ourselves through Brandon Teena. One positive is that, like Matthew Shepard for gay men, Brandon has come to symbolize the hatred and violence that trans men can be at risk for and subjected to.
His story serves as both a cautionary tale for trans men and as an educational tool that the general public can easily swallow, knowing that Hilary Swank will go home and magically turn back into a woman. I think that seeing his story has the capacity both to remind trans men that all is not always well and to energize us in terms of the fight – we aren’t going to take this; this is not acceptable.
I think another positive of identifying with Brandon is that it gives young trans men a sense of history – his murder happened almost twenty years ago. It gives all guys, but particularly those within a certain age range, a sense of a shared experience and a reason for continuing to press forward with demands for recognition and rights, including the right to be safe and the right to self-expression without the threat of violence.
There is also some (small) sense of justice – that his killers were caught, tried, found guilty, and are in prison, and that his mother received a monetary award for the negligence of law enforcement.
In my opinion, the negatives of having Boys Don’t Cry as a person’s “entry point” into the trans man community are that it can be scary for a young guy who is struggling and isn’t sure what he should do; it can reinforce the negative parts of being trans without offering hope; and it can overshadow the very positive trans male role models out there who have done and are doing incredible things for the community, but who are not getting the mainstream airplay because violence sells – hard work, path-building, and barrier-breaking does not.
I think everyone should know about what happened to Brandon Teena – it’s an important story. But I also think it’s unfortunate that it’s really the only story that has made it into mainstream consciousness, and then only for a brief period of time – we may still be aware of it, but the mainstream public has long since moved on.
I would like to see trans men and trans women get mainstream recognition for more than dying. It seems that the only time the media is interested in us is when we’re killed. And I think this is a problematic message that Boys Don’t Cry also sends. But I still think it is an important film (although I prefer the documentary), and my ideal situation would be that it would be one of many (many, many) that young trans guys are exposed to as they move into the community.
Readers, what do you think? And trans women: “Is there some media image of trans women that seems to hold a similar place in the community? What impact does it have?”
(Other films I would recommend: Southern Comfort, You Don’t Know Dick, Call Me Malcolm, Still Black – and that’s just scratching the surface. I know there are more out there – they are all indie, and I can’t think of them all right now, so I hope readers will chime in with other films as well.)