On Wednesday, the Library of Congress announced that “Boys Don’t Cry” was among the list of 25 films joining the National Film Registry, along with “Purple Rain,” She’s Gotta Have It,” and “Clerks.” Few films have had as lasting an impact as Kimberly Peirce’s deeply personal feature debut, which was released 20 years ago in 1999. Produced by Killer Films’ Christine Vachon (among others), “Boys Don’t Cry” was the wildly successful final chapter of the New Queer Cinema, the kind of scrappy, risk-taking, independent cinema that defined much of the decade.
The film told the true story of 21-year-old trans man Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in 1993 in Humboldt, Nebraska. In telling Brandon’s story from his perspective, “Boys Don’t Cry” effectively jump-started the larger conversation around trans rights — one that had been virtually nonexistent until that point.
“Boys Don’t Cry” grossed over $20 million at the worldwide box-office, garnered rave reviews from top film critics, and earned Hilary Swank an Oscar for Best Actress. In her acceptance speech, Swank thanked Brandon Teena using he/him pronouns, a courtesy missing from much of the press surrounding his murder, and even from some film critics. For many trans men, “Boys Don’t Cry” was the first time they had seen themselves onscreen. For others, it was their introduction to the very concept of a transgender identity. During her red carpet interview with Joan Rivers at the Oscars that year, Peirce recalls being amazed hearing Rivers say the word transgender on national television in 1999.
In the 20 years since its galvanizing release, its legacy has grown complicated in the LGBTQ+ community. Though the true story brought much-needed awareness around the violence trans people face, some have criticized the casting of a cisgender actress in the lead role, though Peirce spent an exhaustive three years auditioning trans and queer people before casting Swank. (Peirce will soon donate her archives, including hours of audition tapes, to the Academy).
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In 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump, student protestors disrupted a lecture Peirce was slated to deliver at Reed College. Their chief concerns were that Swank and Peirce are cisgender (Peirce identifies as genderqueer), and that the film’s graphic depiction of violence was exploitative of trans people.
In a candid and wide-ranging phone conversation with IndieWire conducted last month, Peirce addressed these concerns in great depth, though she refuted the idea of a widespread backlash. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Since there’s been some misinformation around this, how do you identify?
I always called myself a dyke. I don’t identify as a lesbian, because I’m genderqueer. At that point [in the late ’90s], the only language I had available to me was this word lesbian that never felt right. I was always a female-bodied person, but I didn’t think of myself as a fully female identifying person. We didn’t have the word genderqueer.
You first heard about Brandon Teena through an article in The Village Voice. What was that moment like?
I fell completely in love. I loved it so much that I thought somebody ought to tell the story, and tell it in a way that brought dignity, brought into life, was honest to him, and we’ll bring you inside the story. So that was my desire. I hope people can understand, ’cause I’m only beginning to understand it now. 20 years later. It was crazy. I was in graduate school at a straight white heteronormative environment, living uptown at Columbia [University]. I was like, I want to tell this story of this person who lived and loved as a man. There was no paradigm for that.
Were you interested in his story out of some sense of personal identification?
Yeah, 100%. Well, 100% and more. It was also a great story. The Brandon story was a continuation of my homosexual desire and my gender-queerness. I was trying to understand myself and there was no language for me. So in many ways, “Boys” was my articulation of my own self and my friends, because I have many friends [who identified as] lesbians and now identify as trans men.
How did you begin researching the film?
At the time that I got interested in Brandon Teena’s story — he passed away in December, 1993 — and by 1994 I was completely obsessed with telling his story. I didn’t know trans people, and the lesbians that I knew didn’t know trans people. There was not much overlap that I ever saw between trans people and what we would call gay people back then. I knew Brandon was a trans man, and so I was looking for trans people to talk to, both MTF and FTM. I wanted to understand Brandon on his own terms.
I’m reaching into the dark in a culture that hadn’t yet articulated this for itself. And that’s important. Of course there are trans people who are self articulating, as there’s always been all kinds of people who identify however they identify in terms of sexual preference and gender identity. But the culture didn’t have a foothold, nor did gay culture, have a workout place for sexual preference, gender identity. Of course people were doing it, but the movement hadn’t yet embraced it.
How would you explain the casting process?
Being able to bring the audience inside this character required great acting. I spent three years looking, and this is important for me to convey. I don’t think Silas Howard and Harry Dodge were yet identifying as trans when they auditioned. I auditioned drag kings, I auditioned trans people, everybody. At the time, it was insane that my vision of the movie was that I would cast a trans person. But I just thought, I’m going to find somebody who lives the way Brandon does. Whatever we have to do to get there, we will. When I finally made the choice of the person that I chose, it was only because that person came the closest to bringing to life the person that we all wanted to bring to life. That was what the choice was based on.
The protests at Reed College must have been very painful. How has the retroactive criticism of the film affected you personally?
I would love to give you a counter-narrative. Over all these years, [and until] Reed, I had never experienced a person who didn’t love Brandon and love the movie. There hasn’t been this long-term issue. I also wouldn’t define what’s happening as a backlash. It was a day, two days after Trump was elected. Do you know what state the world was in? They were not going to class. And they were protesting. It was led by one lesbian, was it led by a trans person? One lesbian who the school had problems with and that lesbian ended up leaving. I was in shock, but I stayed for two and a half hours and I said to them, “Whatever question you have, I will answer. As long as you’re respectful.
One kid said off the bat, “Why did you put the rape in?” I said, ‘Because Brandon was raped.’ And he said, ‘What if it makes people feel bad?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m a Jew. If I tell a story about the Holocaust, it makes me feel bad that the Holocaust happened. It would make me feel bad to see Jewish bodies getting destroyed, but what would I be doing if I didn’t show the danger? I might be encouraging the violence.’ You cannot take the rape out just because it makes people uncomfortable. If you take it out then you’re saying that rape is not a big deal or he didn’t get raped.
I haven’t had a sort of, “Oh my God, people have turned against my movie,” because that hasn’t been my experience. I completely understand and respect that there are sensitivities to the film and they may evolve over time. Different people may have various sensitivities to different things in the movie. But if you look at the arguments, does it reflect on how a movie is actually made and what choices are made? That’s number one.
Number two, any of this talk about violence — I will go toe to toe with anybody. Given that I’m a survivor of physical and sexual abuse, I am deeply passionate about never creating what I call pornography of violence. I never want to create a situation where you see the person I’m having violence unleashed upon in a way that makes you disrespect that person or makes you want to unleash violence on another human. Every day I shot, I just kept saying to myself, “Am I adding to violence? No. I believe I’m adding to humanity.” And that’s the responsibility we carry on our shoulders.
What was your ideal outcome for the movie at the time? Did you have any idea of the impact the film would have?
I thought, “If it can open at the Two Boots cinema and you can get a piece of pizza and my friends like it, then I’ll be happy.” My idea of success was just that I didn’t fuck it up. That I didn’t do to Brandon and what those guys did to Brandon. I had done nothing. I’d never made a movie. I was in love with this story that was way bigger than me, way more sophisticated than me, and it’s because I was so in service to Brandon that I became the director that I am.
I’ve appreciated every single bit of success that this movie has garnered, but I never foresaw it. Because it wasn’t my goal. And it wasn’t really in the realm of possibility for somebody in the ’90s and making that kind of movie, particularly about the way I had sex. The way I made love to women and the way I dress up as a guy, none of that was in the vernacular.
What was it about that time in American cinema that produced so many excellent queer stories?
The rewards system was very clear. We were finding our own identities. We knew who we were sleeping with, but our identities weren’t reflected outside. We got to make meaning out of that. It was unique and it was raw. We had something to say.
Do you think the current queer cinema feels less radical than those early films?
I think it’s probably harder now because queer culture has assimilated and diversified. Look, I’m not going to say we should go back to being called deviants and that we should have it be difficult. But I think that mainstreaming and assimilation is having an effect on the type of stories that we’re experiencing and the stories that we’re making and the arts. The early queer stuff for us was like, we lived and died for it because we had never seen our sexuality on screen. There was no internet. You couldn’t sit home and just go search the internet for gay sex. You had to go to the video store or you had to go to the gay and lesbian film festival. So, yes, I’m really interested in the mainstreaming of the culture and the continuation of a radical queerness. That has been my home for a long time.