In 1999,”Boys Don’t Cry” became the first film to represent transgender masculinity in a believable way. However, at a recent Reed College screening that point was lost on a group of transgender students who showed up to protest it. Visiting filmmaker Kimberly Peirce was greeted with signs declaring “Fuck Your Transphobia,” “You Don’t Fucking Get It,” and “Fuck This Cis White Bitch.” Their beef wasn’t new: The movie portrays the plight of a transgender man, but it doesn’t feature a transgender performer.
While this may be a misguided attack on a respected queer filmmaker and vital piece of independent film history, it would be irresponsible to dismiss the complaints outright.
Over the 15 years since the film’s release, Peirce has faced criticism for casting cisgender actress Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, a transgender male. She’s also been criticized for directing the film as a cisgender lesbian, and for erasing from the film’s narrative the murder of Philip Devine, an African-American man who died by the same hands as Brandon Teena.
The concerns of these demonstrators are rooted in their own experiences of erasure, discrimination, and violence. (I am white, gender non-conforming, and trans masculine.) “Boys Don’t Cry” is a vital film, simultaneously joyous and brutal; it was game-changing in its representation of trans existence at the time.
But how far have we progressed since then? Sure, we’re a far cry from “The Crying Game,” but Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of a transgender woman in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Eddie Redmayne was nominated for “The Danish Girl,” and — despite witnessing the public outcry that followed those two recent films — Mark Ruffalo is producing “Anything,” with Matt Bomer cast as a transgender female sex worker (another overused stereotype.)
To his credit, Ruffalo apologized eloquently to the trans community, tweeting: “I hear you. It’s wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.” That’s more than Peirce has done.
The glowing praise heaped on men for daring to play trans women insults trans people. Playing a trans woman is a shortcut to awards consideration precisely because it’s considered brave for a cis man to don a wig and allow his masculinity to be questioned. But what about the bravery of the 21 transgender people who were murdered in 2016?
The casting of cisgender actors in trans roles says to trans people: You do not matter. You are not good enough actors to tell your stories. You are just a man in a dress, an unattractive woman. Your survival is not as important as our bottom line. You do not exist.
It is not fair to then say to those people: Hold your horses. Progress takes time. Be grateful you’ve got Laverne.
To be fair, progress has been made. In his acknowledgement of the trans community, Ruffalo has already done more than most. Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor have both said in interviews that while they stand by Tambor’s casting as Maura on “Transparent,” they didn’t realize the repercussions until after the fact. “Her Story,” an independent web series made by transgender writer and actress Jen Richards, was nominated for an Emmy award this year. And The Academy recently set a precedent that a trans actor can be submitted in both gender categories.
But just because things are better than they were does not mean they’re resolved. Such is the lesson of Black Lives Matter — and, for that matter, the dangerous myth that Barack Obama’s election solved racism in America. Young transgender people like these Reed protestors may have benefitted from the wider acceptance that films like “Boys Don’t Cry” helped usher into Hollywood, but they are not wrong to demand more. To dismiss their concerns because their tactics are caustic would be a mistake.
Like the people of Ferguson when Michael Brown’s grieving father told them to “burn this bitch down,” or the brave women of Black Lives Matter who stormed the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally despite being told “Bernie is not your enemy,” these students used incendiary tactics to make their point, and it worked.
The question we should ask is not whether these actions are disrespectful to a celebrated queer filmmaker. We need to explore what should change now — so that, in the future, transgender people won’t feel their only recourse is to label a celebrated queer filmmaker as a bitch.