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'Boys don't cry'

By Deirdre (Al Dente) Sinnott

The brutal rape and murder of trans youth Brandon Teena shocked many in the small Nebraska town of Humboldt where the events occurred five years ago. But it came as no shock to the many thousands of trans people who live under the threat of violence every day.

Since December 1994 when Brandon Teena--and his friends Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine--were all murdered by John Lotter and Tom Nissen, various artistic attempts have tried to put the events in perspective. Two plays and two films have so far chronicled the short life and violent death of working-class youth Brandon Teena.

The latest attempt is the film "Boys Don't Cry," directed by Kimberly Pierce. The film is a fictionalized account of Brandon's last few months on earth. The writers and director have taken some liberties with the facts of the case.

In fact, one of the women whom Brandon Teena reportedly dated in real life has asked that her name be removed from this film. The ethical issues facing a filmmaker fictionalizing a story about real people--some of them still living--make this film a target of justifiable criticism.

But the film also makes an important contribution. It reveals with an unflinching gaze to a mass audience the violence wielded by bigots against someone seen as "other."

For transgender and transsexual people--and many others whose lives have been wounded as targets of such frenzied reactionary violence--the graphic portrayal of brutality may be extremely painful and difficult to watch.

The film begins in Lincoln, Neb., where Brandon Teena--whom this reviewer felt was played quite convincingly by Hilary Swank--runs from bigots who have discovered the "secret" of his birth sex.

Teena moves to Falls City, where he is initially accepted by a group of friends. There he begins a love relationship with a woman named Lana--played with warmth by Chloë Sevigny.

But his life begins to unravel when Falls City Sheriff Charles Laux arrests Teena and publicly exposes the fact that he was born female-bodied. This exposure leads two of his former "buddies" to gang-rape Brandon Teena. And the forcible outing by the police eventually leads to his later murder at the home of Lisa Lambert.

Lambert's friend in real life--Phillip DeVine--was also murdered at the house. But this was not depicted in the film. This omission unfortunately means that viewers don't know the part that racism played in this murderous attack. DeVine was an African American man who was visiting the virtually all-white town at the time of the attack.

There are large issues that are not covered in this film. Brandon Teena's identity and murder are taken out of social context. Trans oppression as a whole is not explored, for example.

Neither is the question of working-class oppression.

In the beginning of the film Lotter and Nissen have recently been released from jail. The entire area is extremely economically depressed. There appear to be very few jobs for anyone--especially former prisoners--and poverty is commonplace. Drugs and alcohol that numb the mind and senses are used heavily by all characters throughout the film.

Lotter and Nissen are the kind of white straight men so marginalized in the working class that they can be seduced by right-wing ideology into blaming trans people and women for their problems.

Ultimately Brandon Teena was killed for attempting to be himself in a world that has little tolerance for sex and gender variations. This intolerance isn't simply a symptom of living in a small town in Nebraska.

A mountain of historical evidence reveals that transsexual and transgender and intersexual people lived in small cooperative communities for thousands of years before the division of society into haves and have-nots. And they enjoyed the respect of their communities. But these were societies based on sharing the fruits of communal labor in which each member's contributions were vital and therefore appreciated

Brandon Teena is a victim of quite a different historical period. Under capitalism, a tiny handful of families claim to own the vast system of production that has been built through the collective labor of the working class. Ideology that whips up bigotry plays an important role in such an unjust and unequal economy. It disarms and weakens the potential unity of the giant laboring class.

Had there been no 1969 Stonewall uprising--which subsequently unleashed the massive modern movement for lesbian, gay, bi and trans liberation--Brandon Teena's death might have passed unnoticed and this film would never have been made.

And the progressive struggle to shed light on his murder is a part of the growing movement for trans liberation--a social movement that may end up shaking the current notions about sex and gender to their very foundations.

But it will take a truly massive and united struggle against all forms of bigotry to put a stop once and for all to the kind of violence that claimed Brandon Teena's life--and the lives of so many other trans people.

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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