20 Years Later, 'Boys Don't Cry' Still Inspires Admiration And Debate

Oct 21, 2019
Originally published on October 21, 2019 4:28 pm

Boys Don't Cry opened in theaters Oct. 22, 1999, first on 25 screens before spreading to hundreds. It became a runaway hit that drew rave reviews for its empathetic portrayal of a young person on a quest for love and acceptance — based on the true story of murdered Nebraskan Brandon Teena — at a time when transgender characters were just not represented on screen.

When Riki Wilchins began transitioning in the late 1970s, she says there was very little trans visibility, even in large cities.

"Trans people were like unicorns," Wilchins says. "I mean, no one had actually seen one in the wild. There was really no one to talk to. The term transgender wasn't even in use."

In the early 1990s, Wilchins co-founded Transexual Menace, one of the first transgender rights organizations. Among its first goals was the documentation of anti-trans murders, which often went unreported. And when they were, says Wilchins, the stories were often coded.

"When trans people were killed the only way we would find out about it was there would be four paragraphs in the back of the local paper, you know, 'Man Found Wearing Articles Of Women's Clothing Murdered In Alley,' says Wilchins. "And that meant that a transgender woman had been violently murdered, but you had to kind of read backwards."

The murder of 21-year-old Brandon Teena was different — it garnered national headlines. In 1993, Teena was killed in the town of Humboldt, Neb., along with two witnesses, Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine. The brutal triple homicide garnered salacious, victim-blaming headlines, such as "Cross-Dresser Killed Two Weeks After Town Learned Her True Identity."

When two men stood trial for the murders, members of Transexual Menace and their allies planned a vigil outside the Falls City, Neb. courthouse. They were met with a harsh reception, recalls Kimberly Peirce, who directed and co-wrote Boys Don't Cry.

"We were standing in front of the court building and guys would go by in their big truck and scream terrible things at us and throw things," Peirce says. "And certainly us being there, you know, was catalyzing some kind of anger and that was scary."

Peirce, then a graduate film student at Columbia University, had hitched a ride to the trial with Riki Wilchins and other members of Transexual Menace. She decided to make her thesis film about Brandon Teena after reading an article about him in the Village Voice.

"I fell instantly in love with Brandon," Peirce says. "I was coming at it as a person who was discovering my own gender queerness, and getting to know trans people, and saying, 'Help me tell this story in a way that would be the most authentic.' And I wanted to tell his story as a movie so that other people could empathize with him."

Peirce's thesis evolved into a full-length feature film, and over the next four years she immersed herself in Brandon Teena's world, returning to Falls City to interview his girlfriend and other townspeople. When it was time to cast the film, she says hundreds of actors auditioned, starting with the trans community.

But Peirce says trans actors were harder to find than they are today. The part ultimately went to a relatively unknown cisgender actress: Hilary Swank. When Swank won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, she used her acceptance speech to honor his courage.

As the first film to introduce mainstream audiences to a transgender man, Boys Don't Cry was a landmark, says Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD. But today, Adams says we expect trans roles to be played by trans actors, who now appear in such popular television shows as Good Girls and Grey's Anatomy. He points to Orange is the New Black's Laverne Cox.

"Prior to Orange is the New Black, almost every transgender character was portrayed by a cisgender actor," Adams says. "And with transgender women, men playing them, which only reinforced in people's minds that transgender women are not women, but just men in dresses."

Transgender directors and writers also work behind the scenes on hits including Transparent and Pose.

At the same time, Boys Don't Cry has taken on a more complicated legacy. Some trans audiences object to the brutal violence depicted in the film, others to Peirce's decision to cast a cisgender actress.

Wilchins says sure, the film might not be made the same way today, but Peirce doesn't deserve the backlash.

"It's not fair to go back and apply standards 20 years later that didn't exist back then," Wilchins says. "What she did is a major, major accomplishment. It legitimated and made possible all of these other representations that we've had since."

That includes an increasing number of nonbinary characters who are portrayed by nonbinary actors. One of those actors, Asia Kate Dillon, of Showtime's Billions, has called on the major acting awards to jettison gendered acting categories altogether.

Although visibility continues to expand, violence against trans people persists. According to the most recent figures, at least 19 trans people have been killed so far this year, the majority trans women of color. Nevertheless, Wilchins says she's hopeful that will change, encouraged by other recent studies that indicate that binary definitions of gender have less meaning for the next generation.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When "Boys Don't Cry" opened 20 years ago, it introduced moviegoers to a transgender hero, a character that simply was not represented on-screen at the time. The independent film became a box-office hit, and it earned its star, Hilary Swank, an Oscar. It was based on the true story of Brandon Teena, who was brutally raped and murdered because of who he was. Allyson McCabe reports on the legacy of "Boys Don't Cry."

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Today, trans actors appear on such popular TV shows as "Orange Is The New Black," "Good Girls" and "Grey's Anatomy." Trans directors and writers work behind the scenes on "Transparent" and "Pose." But when Riki Wilchins began transitioning in the late 1970s, there was very little trans visibility, even in big cities.

RIKI WILCHINS: Trans people were like unicorns. No one had ever actually seen one in the wild. And there really was no one to talk to. The term transgender wasn't even in use.

MCCABE: In the early 1990s, Wilchins co-founded Transexual Menace, one of the first transgender rights organizations. And one of its first goals was to document anti-trans murders, which, if they were reported at all, were often coded.

WILCHINS: When trans people were killed, the only way we would find out about it is there'd be, you know, four paragraphs in the back of the local paper, you know - man found wearing articles of women's clothing murdered in alley. And that meant that a transgender woman had been violently murdered, but you had to kind of read backwards.

MCCABE: Brandon Teena's murder was atypical. It garnered national headlines. Two men were put on trial, and members of Transexual Menace and their allies planned a vigil outside the Falls City, Neb., courthouse.

KIMBERLY PEIRCE: We were standing in front of the court building, and guys would go in their big truck and scream terrible things at us and throw things. And certainly, us being there, you know, was catalyzing some kind of anger. And that was scary.

MCCABE: Kimberly Peirce had hitched a ride to Falls City with Riki Wilchins and members of Transexual Menace. At the time, she was a graduate film student at Columbia and decided to make her thesis film about Brandon Teena after reading about him in the Village Voice.

PEIRCE: I was coming at it from a person who was discovering my own genderqueerness and getting to know trans people and saying, help me tell this story the way that it would be the most authentic. And I wanted to tell his story as a movie so that other people could empathize with him and love him. And I wanted to bring him to life in such a way that people would not be compelled to treat him unfairly, but instead treat him with love and humanity.

MCCABE: The thesis evolved into a full-length feature film, and over the next four years, Peirce immersed herself in Brandon Teena's world, returning to Falls City to interview his girlfriend and other townspeople. When it was time to cast the film, hundreds of actors auditioned. Peirce says she started with the trans community but says trans actors were harder to find than they are today. The part went to a relatively unknown cisgender actress, Hilary Swank.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYS DON'T CRY")

HILARY SWANK: (As Brandon Teena) Look. I never been on a highway or the Grand Canyon or any place like that. Until I came here, I never even been out of Lincoln. I never even met my dad.

MCCABE: "Boys Don't Cry" opened on October 22, 1999, on 25 screens, then spread to hundreds. It became a runaway indie hit that drew rave reviews for its empathetic portrait of a young person on a quest for love and acceptance. When Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, she used her acceptance speech to honor his courage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWANK: To remind us to always be ourselves, to follow our hearts, to not conform. I pray for the day when we not only accept our differences, but we actually celebrate our diversity.

MCCABE: "Boys Don't Cry" was a landmark, says Nick Adams, director of transgender representation for the media watchdog group GLAAD. But today, he says, we expect trans roles to be played by trans actors, like "Orange Is the New Black's" Laverne Cox.

NICK ADAMS: Prior to "Orange Is The New Black," almost every transgender character was portrayed by a cisgender actor, and with transgender women, men playing them, which only reinforced in people's minds that transgender women are not women, but just men in dresses.

MCCABE: That awareness and the violence in the film has brought something of a backlash against "Boys Don't Cry." But Riki Wilchins says Kimberly Peirce doesn't deserve that.

WILCHINS: Who is authorized to tell what story shifts over time? It may not be the way we would do it if we did the story again, but it's not fair to go back and apply standards 20 years later that didn't exist back then. We needed that story told, and she did a phenomenal job and put out a phenomenal movie. And it legitimated and made possible all these other representations that we've had since.

MCCABE: Riki Wilchins says visibility matters, but it hasn't stopped the violence. According to the most current figures, at least 19 trans people have been murdered so far this year. Nevertheless, Wilchins is encouraged by other recent studies that indicate binary definitions of gender have less meaning for the next generation.

For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.