Katie Couric asks the wrong questions about genitalia. Piers Morgan sensationalizes gender change. Kimberly Peirce—the director of the Oscar-winning ‘Boys Don’t Cry’—sets the record straight
Twenty years ago, in 1994, filmmaker Kimberly Peirce was a down-on-her-luck 27-year-old film student at Columbia University. Living in an enclave of artists, intellectuals, and queers in Manhattan’s East Village, she lagged behind on rent; her unpaid phone line was cut and she’d already depleted her life savings. According to a recent cover story in Columbia Magazine, she didn’t even have the funds to retrieve the raw footage of her first film from DuArt, a local processing center on West 55th Street in midtown.
Luckily, independent producer Christine Vachon (Kill Your Darlings, Happiness, Kids) swooped in, along with support from the Sundance Institute and Hart Sharp Entertainment, helping Peirce bring transman Brandon Teena to life in what became, five years later, her breathtaking debut, Boys Don’t Cry.
It’s been two decades since the brutal rape and murder of Brandon Teena. And while we’ve made significant strides in trans awareness and visibility since then, some media mavens— Katie Couric and Piers Morgan—fail to cover transgender issues with a nuanced understanding and sensitivity.
Peirce’s theories about why transgender people unsettle some might explain why. And who better to ask? She dedicated five years of her life to researching and filming her 1999 dramatization of Brandon Teena’s heartbreaking story. It garnered numerous awards, including a Golden Globe and Oscar for its lead actress, the incomparable Hilary Swank, and last year, Outfest, the prestigious LGBT film festival, honored Peirce with the 17th Annual Outfest Achievement Award for her beautifully daring work.
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To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Brandon’s passing, Peirce spoke to me from her L.A. office. Fresh off a whirlwind press junket for her latest directorial effort, a remake of Steven King’s Carrie, she eloquently mused on queer culture and politics—and how Brandon might have fared in today’s world.
We’ve made important progress since 1993. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011, allowing gays to serve openly in the military; DOMA was ruled unconstitutional last year, granting gays the right to wed. Has queer culture gone mainstream?
I think it’s great that gay people can get married, but I am also very open to the idea that all people get the rights and benefits that marriage offers even if they are not married. I know a lot of queer people, including myself, who find our experience of queer culture has been a powerful and formative part of our lives, and we don’t want to lose that as queer life gains acceptance in the mainstream. I’d like to see all people have their civil rights protected regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, sexual preference, etc.
Do you think our cultural comfort with transgenderism has changed since 1993?
I certainly see more trans visibility. Even the queer movement changed its name from GL to GLBTQ. I know more people who are living openly as either transmen or transwomen. Some are choosing to physically transition using surgery and hormones. Some aren’t. And there seems to be more trans visibility in mainstream culture, which can mean more family members are learning about trans issues. My family members and their friends may not have known trans people or seen them represented or depicted in pop culture before 1993, but if they’re consuming pop culture now, they’re probably seeing more trans people and more realistic depictions of trans people—Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars, Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black. That said, there is still work to be done. I would push to keep improving awareness and sensitivity.
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Why do you think trans people unsettle some people so much?
Gender identity can be a profound thing for many of us. We may have a gender. We may have multiple genders. Yet, we have a society that suggests there are only two genders, that assigns us one of those two genders and tends to suggest we stay put in the one we are originally assigned to. Society can place expectations on how we, as a “male” or as a “female,” should dress, cut our hair, talk, and behave. It’s encoded in our language. Unless you’re calling someone by their name, it’s very hard to refer to them without “gendering them.” Even the law and our jobs treat us differently as either men or women.
Given all these expectations put on us regarding gender, it’s not surprising that some people might be unsettled by someone who they think doesn’t fit into that simple binary. A person might be unsettled because they find that person threatens the simplicity and comfort they get from being one of only two genders.
Another reason a person might be unsettled is because they have their own transgender feelings. They might feel they are not the perfect girl or the perfect boy, so when they see somebody venturing into this area that perhaps they’re curious about they may feel pressured to explore it. They might feel threatened they are going to be exposed.
Arthur Dong made a great documentary called Licensed to Kill, which I studied when I was making Boys Don’t Cry. He asked a number of men who were in prison for having killed gay men why they committed this crime. Many of the men interviewed revealed scenarios where they had felt desire for gay men, had lured them into situations or entered into situations where they could explore their desire, and then they killed these gay men. It was heartbreaking. It seemed to me these men who killed gay men did so because after satisfying their desire, they were terrified of their desire being exposed to these men, to themselves, and to others. So they destroyed the thing (these gay men) that revealed their desire.
Read more: Kimberly Peirce - Transgender Perceptions in Society - ELLE
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