October 4, 2019 at 1:51 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ at 20: rethinking trans actors
Boys Don't Cry, gay news, Washington Blade, transgender actors, transgender characters
Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her work in the 1999 movie ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ (Photo by Bill Matlock; courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures via Blade archives) 

It’s been 20 years ago this month since the release of “Boys Don’t Cry,” the Fox Searchlight movie that depicted the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man played by Hilary Swank, who adopts a male identity in Nebraska but is murdered in a hate crime.

Directed by Kimberly Peirce, whose interest was piqued by a 1994 Village Voice article about Teena, the film was made for $2 million and made $20 million at the box office. It premiered Oct. 8, 1999 at the New York Film Festival and went into wider release later in the month. 

Swank won a bounty of awards for the role including prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Chicago Film Critics, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Independent Spirit Award, the Golden Globe and the Oscar. It was both widely praised in reviews at the time and holds an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

It’s unlikely, though, that Swank would get cast in the role were it made today. With trans actresses Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross having been cast on the Ryan Murphy FX drama “Pose,” and Scarlett Johansson all but forced to withdraw last year from her planned movie “Rub & Tug” (she was to play a trans character based on Dante Gill, who ran massage parlors in the ‘70s and ‘80s that were brothel fronts) after a backlash ensued, many say it’s a new day for trans actors. Of Johansson, trans actress Trace Lysette (Shea on “Transparent”) wrote on Twitter, “Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived.”

Cisgender backlash

Cis, straight actor Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing trans in the 2013 movie ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ (Photo courtesy Focus Features via Blade archives)

Elle Fanning drew ire the year before for being cast in “3 Generations” as Ray, a female-to-male trans teen. A groundswell had been building with actors like Matt Bomer in “Anything” (2017), Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” (2015) and Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) drawing muted but present backlash. 

Conversely, on TV, trans actress Candis Cayne earned the distinction of being the first trans actress to play a recurring trans character on a primetime show when she played Carmelita on ABC’s short-lived “Dirty Sexy Money” (2007-2009). Trans actress Nicole Maines plays the first trans superhero as Dreamer/NiaNal on The CW’s “Supergirl.” In its latest report, GLAAD says there are 26 trans characters currently on TV, vs. 17 in its previous report. 

Leto ended up winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role. Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his and back in 2005, Felicity Huffman was nominated for playing trans in “Transamerica.” A trend was clearly at play — playing trans is Oscar catnip for cisgender actors. 

That’s a problem, working trans actors today say.

“The Academy seems to see it as some heroic transformation, but is it any more a feat of acting than what, say, Daniel Day-Lewis did as Lincoln, or any number of great performances you could name,” says Samy Nour Younes, a trans male stage and screen actor in New York. “Beyond the fact that they’re playing another gender identity, the roles are usually not that good. If you watch ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ ‘Transamerica’ or ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ which is the worst among them, they’re not particularly well written characters period, not because they assumed a marginalized identity, but we think there’s something inherently taboo or exotic, but in a stigmatized kind of way, about it. Like, ‘Oh, you’re so brave, you deserve an Oscar,’ when it actually wasn’t that great.”

Younes says “Transparent,” the hit 2014-2019 (it just wrapped with a musical finale on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 27) show on which he guested twice in its fourth season, was a game changer just before “Pose” hit big. Although cis actor Jeffrey Tambor played Maura, a retired college professor who comes out as trans, creator Jill Soloway enacted a “transfirmative action program” for the show (cast and crew) where trans applicants were hired in preference to cis applicants. Tambor (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Arrested Development”) left the show in late 2017 amid sexual misconduct allegations. 

“Just letting trans people in the room — directors, writers, consultants — makes a huge difference,” Younes says. “That’s when we start getting layered and nuanced characters that tell stories beyond their transitions, with interesting people. We’re seeing less and less of a need for the Eddie Redmaynes of the world who say, ‘Oh, I did so much research,’ which I call bullshit on that because if you’d really done so much research, you’d have an understanding that we’re not just some costume you can slip on which just helps solidify the Academy’s thinking that that’s all it is and playing trans becomes a farce.” 

The casting conundrum

Tammara Billik, a veteran Hollywood casting director known for her work on “Married … with Children” and the famous coming-out episode of “Ellen” in 1997, says things have come a long way since the “Boys Don’t Cry” era.

For one, she says, TV has come into a “golden age” that has “provided a lot more opportunities for all kinds of inclusive roles.”

“Not just with ‘Pose’ and ‘Transparent,’ but now there are a number of trans actors,” Billik, a lesbian, says. “I just read something about their being a trans actor in a series regular role on ‘The Politician’ with Ben Platt. I didn’t know anything about that. It’s happening without a big splash, it’s happening on weekly shows, so I think there is tremendous progress in terms of the trans actor community, particularly on TV.”

Film, she says, is different.

“When ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ came out, gosh, I don’t think I knew a trans actor at the time. … It certainly wouldn’t have been a time when a trans actor would have been cast. Now you would be hard pressed to cast that role with a cis actor,” Billik says. “You just wouldn’t do it, right?”

She says the Johansson episode was “a giant shift.”

“In both a good and bad way,” Billik says. “It’s good for the actors and a good way to show more diversity on television but we’ve also seen a backlash against particularly trans women of color. I’m not saying ‘Pose’ is responsible for it, but people get angry when you show them the truth. We’re all wondering why so many trans women of color are being targeted for violence. Is it because we’re seeing their images more on TV, is it because people have been emboldened by Trump? I don’t know the answer to that.” 

It’s an issue GLAAD has been working on for years. Nick Adams and Alex Schmider, GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program team, work with TV networks, production companies, showrunners, script writers, casting directors and agencies as well as PR firms to help bring what it calls “fair and accurate representations for transgender people to the screen.”

They say things are improving dramatically.

“Hollywood is beginning to tell more accurate and well-rounded stories about transgender people and casting trans characters more authentically,” Schmider said in an e-mail comment to the Blade. “Not only are trans characters starting to be written with more nuance, complexity and humanity in the worlds in which they exist, but casting has also begun to evolve in positive ways.”

By their count, there’s only one cis actor still playing a trans role on TV. 

The issue is a bit more complex, casting vets say, than “casting more authentically.” Alexa L. Fogel, casting director for “Pose” and a slew of HBO shows such as “Oz,” “The Wire,” and others, says it’s “a really complicated issue” that has multiple angles.

“TV is easier in that you’re creating characters, you’re creating roles, you’re creating stars,” she says. “In the case of ‘Pose,’ none of these people were known before. A lot of them hadn’t really acted before. These roles could be crafted around these people’s strengths to some degree, not so much in the character of Elektra, with her we had to find someone who could deliver what was on the page, and that was challenging for sure, but I think the other side of it is that certainly with films, there are certainly situations in which you need to sell tickets to things. Certain things might not get made without movie stars. These are complicated questions and I don’t know that anyone knows the answers to them all yet, but it’s a conversation.”

The decision to cast trans actors on “Pose” was made prior to Fogel’s involvement with the show. She says that added a layer to the casting process, but she didn’t see it as an extra burden.

“It’s part of the joy of the job,” says Fogel, who declined to state her own sexual orientation or gender identity. “It’s about rising to the challenge. I never considered that it couldn’t be done. It was just about, you know, doing the research, getting ambassadors to the community, making sure I had enough time to meet enough people. Anytime you do something that’s less visible, it’s more time consuming.”

How deep was the talent pool?

“I wouldn’t say it was a huge talent pool, but I’ve done a lot of projects where you just have to really put your head down and do extra research and this was one of them,” she says. “It was challenging but it never felt that it was going to be impossible. It just meant we had to do extra work.”

She’s not aware if the Screen Actors Guild tracks its members’ gender identity (SAG did not respond to requests for clarification on that). Fogel says membership is easy to secure once she casts a lead role.

Could ‘Pose’ be a fluke?

Indya Moore as Angel on ‘Pose.’ Moore is one of several trans actors in the cast, which has been a game changer for trans representation on TV. (Photo by JoJo Whilden for FX)

Is “Pose” a one-off or a game changer? 

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think yeah, the ground is certainly shifting in terms of the conversation,” Fogel says. “I think it’s ultimately about the writing, about the culture and what people feel like they want to see. People want real representation and that seems to be happening across the board.” 

Billik agrees.

“‘Pose’ is telling a story that’s really spectacular and a lot of people are really responding to it, so I don’t think it will be a one-off,” she says. “I think we’ll see a whole slew of trans actors cast because of it.”

Aneesh Seth, a trans actress on the Netflix show “Jessica Jones,” says there’s still “a long way to go.”

“Athough trans folks have gained some control over the types of trans narratives out there, they can still tend to be reductive and focused on our trauma,” she said in an e-mail. “Where are the stories of trans folks winning? Falling in love? Having successful marriages and careers?”

Is this the end, at least, of the big stars taking home Oscars and nominations for all the major trans movie roles? And how realistic is it — theoretically — for a trans actor to have given the caliber of performance Swank gave in “Boys Don’t Cry”? 

Some say it’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument. If trans actors had been given time to build up their resumes on equal footing with a Swank or a Jared Leto, who knows what they might have achieved? That’s not to say they had easy rides — Swank and her mother, for a time, lived out of a car upon moving to Los Angeles as Swank pursued her dream. But inarguably, upon starting her acting career, she got cast in varied roles far faster and more regularly than any trans actor would have fared, especially in the ‘90s.

Fogel, especially, says it’s hard to account realistically for “what ifs.”

“You can’t really know the answer to that without doing the work,” she says. “I couldn’t have answered any of these questions about ‘Pose’ before I’d done it. The process is so important when it comes to casting. You really have to do the work to find the people, it’s all about the process.” 

Looking ahead

The path ahead, many agree, is bright. 

“I actually think Time magazine jumped the gun a little bit when they put Laverne Cox on the cover for ‘Orange is the New Black’ and said it was ‘The Transgender Tipping Point,’” Younes says. “Not to take anything away from her, but I think the tipping point is actually now because it’s not just one, it’s multiple roles. There’s a brand new pool of talent and we’re more open to the fact that it could come from anywhere.” 

Several folks interviewed for this piece mentioned bit parts they’d seen trans actors cast in of late. Billik just saw “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway and said one of four ladies in the opening number was trans. Younes knows a trans colleague in the ensemble in “Tina: the Tina Turner Musical,” which opens at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway next month (previews are in October). He also cites two trans actors with brief speaking parts in this summer’s “Spider Man: Far From Home.”

GLAAD reps helped cast Zoey Luna, a trans Latina actress, in “The Craft” reboot from Sony as Lourdes, one of the lead girls in the coven who happens to be trans. In 2018, not one of the 110 major studio films released included a trans character, according to GLAAD.

“So this casting and character are game changers in the film landscape,” Schmider says.

Non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon on Showtimes “Billions,” is another positive step, many agree. And Daniela Vega made history in “Fantastic Woman,” a 2017 Chilean drama that won an Oscar. Vega was the first trans presenter in the history of the Academy Awards when she presented in 2018. 

“This isn’t a trend, this isn’t just the topic du jour,” Younes says. “For decades, all we could get were playing the dead hooker on ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ … I hope it’s a continuing trend for trans people making inroads in entertainment.”

SIDEBAR: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’: problematic in retrospect?

Although it was seen as fairly groundbreaking in its day, the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry” hasn’t aged particularly well, some argue. 

Donna Minkowitz, the writer of the original Village Voice story that inspired the movie, apologized last year in a piece she wrote (also for the Voice) called “How I broke, and botched, the Brandon Teena Story.”

“For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing,” Minkowitz wrote. “Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated ‘her’ body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. … At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead ‘easier,’ more conventional heterosexual lives.”

The trope of the butch lesbian who takes things “just a little too far” and comes out as trans, is a recurring one, trans actor Samy Nour Younes says. He, too, found the film adaptation “problematic.” 

“There was a similar storyline on ‘The L Word,’ when Max Sweeney starts taking hormones and becomes this raging monster, a really awful storyline. Seeing some of those things and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ were the first representations I saw of a trans masculine storyline and stopped me from coming out sooner.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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