Lesbian film: Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

I am writing a lesbian film series, and typically I will only write about films that depict happy lesbian stories, however this film cannot be left out of the discussion even though it’s a tragedy. Many films kill off lesbian characters or make them go back to men at the end just because the creators of the story don’t like happy lesbians and assume the audience won’t either, but this film is not like that. This is a true story and the reason it ends in tragedy is because Brandon’s life really did end in tragedy. It’s not a fictional cautionary tale about how you should not become a lesbian or else you’ll go crazy and die, it’s a real-life case of homophobia/transphobia killing someone and it brings to light that injustice.

My review series contains lots of older films, and obviously since this one is from 1999 I assume many of my readers have seen it already. Feel free to discuss it if you want to; I’m sure you have thoughts on it.

Brandon was a young working-class lesbian living a rough life of alcoholism and crime, and she moved to a new area to start over living as a man. She made friends with a new group of troubled youths and dated other girls all without them finding out she wasn’t really male. This worked for a period of time until her new friends finally found out that she was female. What followed was an onslaught of homophobic abuse mostly coming from men, and it didn’t end well.

Popular belief is that Brandon was a trans man who was subjected to transphobia. I believe she was a lesbian subjected to misogyny and homophobia. Carolyn Gage wrote an excellent essay called The Inconvenient Truth about Teena Brandon which can be accessed here. If you have any interest in this story, this is the essay you should read about it. Gage points out that Brandon was a survivor of incest and that her behaviour can be more accurately described as the behaviour of an incest survivor rather than an “innate gender identity,” as the transgenderists want to believe. Gage cites research on the female child’s response to incest that is relevant here. Incest survivors will sometimes identify with the aggressor and imitate his behaviour in order to become the powerful instead of the powerless. They also dissociate from their female bodies which are a source of trauma and powerlessness and create new personas for themselves. As Carolyn Gage reports:

“Brandon is reported telling Brodtke [her therapist] she wanted to be a male, “to not have to deal with the negative connotations of being a lesbian and because she felt less intimidated by men when she presented herself as male.” (Jones, 83) If this is true, what Brandon told her therapist was not that she felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body, but a woman trapped in a world where it was dangerous to be female, and especially dangerous to be lesbian.”

Brandon’s mother was harassing her and trying to out her as a lesbian and she had to file a complaint with the police. She was nowhere near being able to live safely as a lesbian.

“Jones’ book does not record any attempt on Brodtke’s part to challenge Brandon’s internalized lesbophobia. There is no record in her narrative of efforts to supply Brandon with information about lesbian culture or lesbian history, information about lesbian coming-out groups or groups for young lesbians. There is no record of her attempting to connect Brandon with an adult lesbian who could counsel or mentor her. The “gender identity disorder” (GID) diagnosis reflects the historical heterosexism of the mental health field, which has traditionally understood gay and lesbian desire as evidence of the desire to become a member of the other sex.”

After a brief time in therapy, and without ever treating her trauma related to sexual abuse, the doctor referred her for sex change surgery. Apparently, the answer to helping a girl with sexual trauma is to perform surgery on her genitals.

“Instead of a diagnosis related to trauma, the therapist apparently sent Brandon home with information about “gender reassignment” surgeries, which would include such procedures as suturing the vagina, removing the breasts, ovaries, and uterus, transplanting the nipples, constructing an appendage using skin grafts from the thighs, and administering steroids. Brandon’s friends reported that Brandon expressed a marked ambivalence about these recommendations.”

Carolyn Gage describes how to help a traumatized female recover, and it involves reintegration with the self, not continued dissociation. Sex-change surgery effectively affirms the alternate persona that the traumatized female has developed as a coping skill and brings her farther away from reintegration. Gage also points out that labeling the traumatized female’s PTSD responses as an innate gender identity protects her perpetrator (abuser) because it takes him out of the picture. Her essay is spot-on, and of course, her pro-woman analysis really angers the transgenderists.

I discussed Carolyn Gage’s essay with my partner, who was a bit skeptical. My partner pointed out to me that homophobic doctors have long assumed that homosexuality was caused by trauma or sexual abuse, and so diagnosing a transgender identity as coming from sexual abuse may be just as inaccurate. Fair enough. I cannot state for certain that Brandon’s gender dysphoria is a result of trauma, but neither can anyone state for sure that her dysphoria wasn’t the result of trauma. I think at the very least this issue needs to be explored before a transsexual diagnosis is made—traumatized individuals need to first be treated for trauma before being referred for surgery. Not all traumatized children will grow up to be transgender, and not all trans-identified people have a history of trauma, however, when someone in fact has been traumatized, we should not be jumping right into a gender identity diagnosis without addressing the trauma symptoms.

In the film, even though Brandon is assumed to be a trans man, there are noticeable references to her being a lesbian. Near the beginning, her cousin says to her, “Why can’t you just admit you’re a dyke?” When she is outed as female among her new group of acquaintances, they don’t become violent because she’s trans, they become violent because she’s a lesbian: the violent men specifically say they are going to go and fix some dykes. (By fix, they of course mean beat and rape.) If this was transphobia, and not homophobia, wouldn’t they have used the slur “tranny” instead of “dyke”? The film presents specifically homophobic violence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the real-life men who did this to her had specifically homophobic intentions as well.

Once it is known that Brandon is female, the homophobic bullies turn toward her girlfriend, Lana, as well. Lana stands by her “boyfriend,” insisting that she is male, and doesn’t think of herself as a lesbian. But there are a couple of details in the film that raise questions about Lana. I cannot say anything about the real-life Lana who dated the real-life Brandon, but the Lana in the film is presented as though she may not have been straight. At one point when Brandon and Lana are having sex, Lana sees down Brandon’s shirt and notices the top of her breasts that are showing over her binder. I’m pretty sure a real-life FtM would make sure to bind tighter than this so that her breasts do not show. It seems to me that this is an attempt by the filmmakers to make us wonder whether Lana realizes that Brandon is female. Later, when the two men are forcibly pulling down Brandon’s pants and forcibly holding Lana’s head toward Brandon, telling her to look at her “boyfriend”‘s parts, Lana refuses to look. Is she just being polite, knowing that Brandon doesn’t want to be looked at, or is she refusing to confront the fact that her lover is female? I was left suspicious that Lana knew Brandon was female and was refusing to consider the possibility of being a lesbian.

This reminds me of something I heard second-hand from a Facebook friend. Apparently there are online butch/femme communities where women talk about specifically wanting to be with FtMs. These women obviously don’t want to be with biological males, or else they would be, but they don’t seem to want to be seen as lesbians either. I haven’t met any of these people personally, but this seems to be a thing. While watching the film I wondered about Lana. The filmmakers subtly implied that Lana was one of those women who likes to be with a man who is female, who doesn’t see herself as a lesbian but gets to be with a man who is less dangerous to her than a biological male would be. We could get into long arguments over whether these women are lesbians or not, but we won’t come to any conclusions other than this one: lots of females who love females don’t want to call themselves lesbians these days.

I don’t think I can possibly say this often enough. I am a proud and happy lesbian; I love masculine women as women and I don’t think they need to change or pass as men. I am happy to be with a woman who defies the patriarchy’s expectations of women and I think her version of womanhood is fantastic. It makes me sad that there are quasi-“femmes” out there who want their partners to transition. If someone really, really needs to transition, then fine, but right now there is incredible pressure on tons of women to transition even though they’d likely live happily as dykes. This pressure on everybody to transition is rooted in homophobia.

At the end of Boys Don’t Cry I cried hot tears of rage. It’s infuriating the way Brandon was treated and none of that should have ever happened to her. She deserved to be allowed to be herself and dress the way she wanted and love other women and live safely and free from violence. This remains true whether she was a lesbian or a trans man.

After Boys Don’t Cry, my partner and I discussed the case of the trans man who was assaulted by a taxi driver recently. It’s the same situation. A woman tries to live as a man, but as soon as the biological males around her identify her as female, they subject her to corrective sexual assault. This is because men want to remind rebellious women that they are female and will be treated as such, no matter how they identify. The whole “bathroom debate” has oversimplified the fight for transgender rights. It’s one thing to allow a trans man to use a male bathroom, but it’s another thing to address the fact that if she doesn’t pass she will be subjected to male violence against women on the basis of her female biology. Transgenderists aren’t going to liberate trans people from oppression without addressing patriarchy and male violence.

Although Boys Don’t Cry is a sad story with a tragic ending, it is an essential title in the lesbian film collection, because this story is extremely important and we need to make sure that this sort of violence stops happening.

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9 thoughts on “Lesbian film: Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

  1. This was superb. That movie was wrenching. It seems like a regular character-based movie. And then all the violence happens at the end. And it’s like real male violence. Crazy terrifying men pitching a giant rage fit. They shoot the other young woman with the baby. Just because she’s there and they’re going crazy with their guns. That’s one of the all-time great cinematic portrayals of hate. Which obviously is not pleasant to watch but it’s a truth that needs to be told.

    I agree completely that this was homophobic violence and that Teena Brandon was a lesbian. The stuff you have about the incest and trauma and the shitty therapist sending her for a sex change, holy crap, I didn’t know that stuff. That is all just so wrong.

    I just now remembered a young woman, I can’t remember offhand where I read about this. It was in like 1998. She was locked up in a psychiatric hospital by her parents because she was gay. I don’t know how overtly that was acknowledged but that’s what everyone understood. And it became a big cause célèbre. I’m just totally sketchy on the details. But anyway when she finally was freed from the psychiatric hospital she ended up pursuing a sex change. But during the period when people were fighting legally on her behalf that was never mentioned. Because it was un-politik as they tried to get her out or because she only took that up later I don’t know. But that’s another example of a lesbian going down the trans road. Anyone else remember that case? It was in the US in like ’98. Sorry to bring you something else sad, purplesage.

    PS I got Fingersmith out from the library. It’s 19th-century London setting is so gorgeous. I wish they had Tipping the Velvet. I want to see these male impersonators you speak of… 😊

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  2. Lets cut to the chase on this story. My partner was living as an OUT Butch Dyke IN NEBRASKA when Teena Brandon was here and when she was killed. Being a Nebraska native she told me that IN NO WAY could Teena Brandon BE OUT as a Lesbian in a town as small as she lived in and that she WOULD have to pass as a dude to survive. Total hostility to Butch Lesbians and gays in general.

    When Teena Brandon was murdered…it sent a chill through to her and EVERY BUTCH DYKE IN NEBRASKA!! But then she was hanging out with a criminal element…and like anyone male or female who gets found out decieving someone sexually there are awful consequences.

    My spouse made it VERY CLEAR that Teena was not trans..the trans movement jumped on the story and transed her after the fact, making her a cause celebre…to bolster it. It was a great tragedy, the problem with few resources for Lesbians and gays to connect in rural environments.

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  3. It makes sense to me that human sexuality is deeply influenced by our most intimate relationships growing up, as well as our social environment. I think we underestimate how much people who lead more “conventional” lives are shaped by their environments as well. Having heterosexuality, marriage and narrow gender norms hammered into you since childhood leaves no one unscathed.

    Historically, people who engage in relationships in which the power differential is unclear (same-sex) are pathologized and a cause for their pathology is sought out. But why shouldn’t we look at folks in opposite-sex relationships and dissect them as closely? My sense is that there is no more or less pathology in those relationships.

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  4. Interesting post! You know, it was a discussion about this movie that first made me question the doctrine of gender identity, if just a little bit. It was a blog post on a libfem site that was listing all the movies they could think of that depicted sexual violence against women. Someone suggested Boys Don’t Cry which triggered an argument over whether this was an example of sexual violence against a female or a male. The woman who suggested it made the point that Brandon was raped *because* she was female. If she had been in fact male, she would not have been raped by those men. The other argument was basically, “trans men are men, therefore this movie shows sexual violence against a man”. I wasn’t convinced. I was still a ways away from peak trans, but this argument stayed with me.

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  5. I couldn’t get through that movie, walked out of theater and cried in the car. There’s a documentary that was done by two young women, prolly don’t want to see right now, but it’s good, very good, they interview the killers, the cops, her friends. That girl didn’t stand a chance in that town.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I have watched the movie and the documentary as well. I tried to watch the movie again recently, but I couldn’t watch the rape scene again. The documentary is certainly worth watching.

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  6. Great post! One comment I wanted to make is that the (so-called) “online butch/femme communities where women talk about specifically wanting to be with FtMs” that you refer to are indeed common ~ but the problem is that these websites are run/filled with people who are NOT actually Butch OR Femme. Such online communities promoting transition are populated with messed-up straight women pretending to be Femme and by the vulnerable real lesbians that fall for their crap and are sadly often persuaded to transition. No real Femme would want an FtM. We are lesbians, we love lesbians as they are. Such websites are a part of the widespread misrepresentation about B/F that my partner and I are trying to counteract. Thanks for listening!

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