Trans Rights and Cancel Culture

I was recently interviewed with director Kimberly Peirce on NPR’s All Things Considered for the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough film, Boys Don’t Cry. NPR focused on how much the political landscape had changed since an unknown actor named Hilary Swank won the Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena — a transgender man assaulted, raped, and eventually murdered in Falls City, Neb., after allegedly being outed by Sheriff Charles Laux.

Laux, far from being repudiated by the community, was later elected to County Commissioner, and eventually appointed to school bus driver — a position from which he recently retired. As a 2012 look-back by The Atlantic found. the current Richardson County Sheriff, if not exactly “woke,” is at least is more sensitive to LGBTQ concerns.

If the landscape has not shifted all that much in rural Nebraska, it has certainly shifted in the greater U.S. It is impossible to communicate to today’s transgender activists how revolutionary Peirce’s film was at the time.

Besides The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — a film about professional drag queens Down Under, we had The World According to Garp — in which a large, schlumpy white guy (John Lithgow) plays a transsexual woman; Kiss of the Spider Woman — in which a large, schlumpy white guy (John Hurt) plays a transsexual woman; Dressed to Kill, in which a large, schlumpy white guy (Michael Caine) plays a shrink by day and a transsexual woman who moonlights as a homicidal serial killer by night. The latter film actually foreshadowed the HBO movie Normal in which yet another large, schlumpy white guy (Tom Wilkinson) playing a transsexual woman made me want to moonlight as a homicidal serial killer. But we digress.

We also had The Crying Game — a genuinely brilliant film which every cisgender viewer thinks is about a transsexual woman but almost surely is not. 

And Peirce’s film, which broke the mold. I first met the director over 20 years ago, in the backseat of our car, which was also carrying queer author Leslie Feinberg as we drove from Kansas City to Falls City to hold a memorial vigil outside the courthouse where Brandon’s two killers were being sentenced for murdering him.

Unlike any director of those aforementioned films, Peirce was what we would now call genderqueer: boyishly handsome, androgynously dressed, short-haired, and alarmingly hard-bodied. She asked shyly if she could tag along because she’d been writing a screenplay about Brandon’s life and untimely death.

I think it’s fair to say none of us believed a thoughtful drama featuring a transsexual protagonist had any chance of being financed, made, or distributed by a major studio — let along embraced by a general audience. But Kimberly surmounted each of these hurdles, through her frankly crazy conviction.

In the process, she produced one of the definitive transgender films of all time, one which surely launched a thousand other trans-themed efforts that might otherwise never have seen the light of day, such as Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club, Transamerica, Orange Is the New Black, Sense8, Pose, and The Danish Girl.

Boys Don’t Cry proved that trans stories could be told in authentic ways, without exploiting trans characters for freak value, and that there was a mainstream audience for this content. And Hilary’s Oscar for a brilliant acting job simply confirmed all this.

NPR asked me about the film and its lasting impact, and the current political struggle to feature only transgender actors in transgender roles — one which shifted into high gear when Scarlett Johansson very publicly committed to staring as a transgender man named Dante Gill in Rub & Tug, and her just as public withdrawal from the project following a major backlash.

But during the interview I was mainly thinking of something else, of the cancel-culture protest of Peirce during a screening of Boys Don’t Cry at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where she was variously accused of a) profiting from violence against transgender people by making a film about Brandon (I am not making this up), b) being transphobic for casting a cisgender actress, c) failing to be transgender herself; and d) other similar capital crimes against campus woke-ness.

The thing that has always stuck with me about this episode was a poster that read, “Fuck this cis white bitch.”

I found this, still find it to this day, completely incomprehensible. I simply cannot find a framework of analysis to think about it in any productive way.

Yet it was also my mind recently, as I was walking my dog at 6 a.m. in Miami Beach. A group of gay men were making a lot of drunken noise right outside our unit after exiting the local White Party. I asked them, “Hey, I don’t mean to be an idiot here, but I wonder if you can just dial it back a little bit — my daughter is asleep is that bedroom.”

As they passed, one of them turned on me and yelled, “Shut up, entitled white cis bastard.”

Again, a frame of reference for me to respond adequately or even think about this slur simply escapes me.

I was also thinking of Kimberly and Reed College when I was called out in a queer youth group for using the term “transsexual” to refer to a popular Black actress who is… ummm… transsexual.

I was told by a young nonbinary queer that “we” don’t use the word anymore because it “binarizes gender.” (I  wrote about this in The Advocate piece I Was Recently Informed I’m Not a Transsexual.)

This was news to me, first because “we” have used the word for four decades now  and second, because when said actress was looking to transition to female, she went to a gender identity program for transsexuals that I co-founded.

So maybe this is what NPR should have interviewed me about. Unlike President Obama, I’m not looking to jump into the call-out culture debate. But I do think parts of our community are approaching a point of diminishing returns — or perhaps more accurately a point a no-return, if not unconscious self-parody — where denouncing each other’s political imperfections or their genetic failure to simply be born as a sufficiently abjected body — becomes the height and point of political activism.

Then we will have finally reframed Descarte, who very nearly said (and probably politically incorrectly at that): “Cogito ergo sum ego prædico”— “I denounce, therefore I am.”

Riki Wilchins is an author and advocate.


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