On November 14th, 2019, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies (LGBTQS) Program started its first year-long lecture series since 2008. Known as “QueerCurrent,” the series was revived with the help of the current Dean of Humanities, David Schaberg, and began with a talk from Stephan Pennington, an Associate Professor of Music at Tufts University and a UCLA alumnus.
Pennington studies the intersection of performance and identity, as well as their political implications, using subject material such as jazz, video game music, and the Black banjo revival. His lecture on the 14th was based on a single chapter from a larger project, a forthcoming book called “Passing Tones: Transgender Vocality and Race.”
The chapter he presented on Thursday focuses on “Boys Don’t Cry,” a 1999 film that recreates the story of trans man Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in 1993. Pennington explores the concept of contextual empathy, or how empathy is generated for trans subjects within a specific setting (in this case, a movie). Accordingly, his lecture was entitled “Boys Don’t Cry. . . or Sing: Contextual Empathy, Silence, and the Trans Masculine Soundscape.”
Pennington prefaced his talk by telling the audience about his personal stake in the issues at hand and his inability to be completely dispassionate. For one thing, Pennington was born the same year as Teena, so he cannot help but imagine how their trans masculine experiences were similar yet drastically differentiated by the contexts in which they grew up. Teena, on the one hand, lived in a rural Nebraskan town, while Pennington is from the much larger and more urban San Francisco, where he had access to more resources and acceptance.
However, Pennington was not directly involved in much of San Francisco’s gay scene, because he joined the army before attending college. While there, he met many queer folks from the Midwest, like Teena. They did not have access to the new queer politics that were burgeoning in the early ‘90s, and they had to be subtle about their gayness at a time when detection could result in a dishonorable discharge or incarceration. Additionally, the presidential election of 1992 sparked controversy over Clinton’s proposal to allow gay people in the United States military, which later turned into the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Pennington and others had to listen silently as their peers loudly proclaimed that they would kill any gay soldiers who served with them.
While Pennington was away from home, the AIDS crisis was reaching a turning point; Queer Nation was working furiously to reclaim slurs; the documentary “Paris is Burning” explored the ballroom scene in New York; Judith Butler addressed the performativity of gender in her well-known book “Gender Trouble;” the term “queer theory” was coined; and activist groups such as The Transexual Menace were formed.
“The time period from 1987 to 1994 was just as important as 1969 [the year of the Stonewall riots] in framing the queer reality we currently live in,” insisted Pennington.
But despite the increased visibility of and advocacy for queer folks at this time, Pennington expressed disillusionment with some progressive spaces. For example, he talked about the time he asked an LGBTQ+ rights advocate what her organization planned to do to help gay folks in the military. Her response was simple, “Well, I don’t believe in the military, so I don’t believe gay people should be in it.” This demonstrates a lack of contextual empathy because this person’s fixation on her ideal world caused her to overlook the painful realities of the very people she was striving to protect.
As Pennington explained, “Her queerness had no room in it for my family.”
A similar situation arose in 2016 when a Reed College screening of the film “Boys Don’t Cry” was suppressed by LGBTQ+ protestors. Although some articles disagreed on their reasons for disrupting the event, inside sources claimed it was a critique against a pathologizing film and a director who were not up-to-date with the queer community.
Pennington’s chapter on “Boys Don’t Cry” tackles the issues that came to his mind in the ‘90s and after the 2016 protest: If something is mainstream, does that mean it has little value? And if something is outdated, is it instantly worthy of protest?
Before launching into an analysis of “Boys Don’t Cry,” Pennington backtracked and described the first movie he ever saw with a trans masculine character, the 1991 film “My Father Is Coming.” This German indie movie made by a lesbian filmmaker is more light-hearted than the biographical “Boys Don’t Cry,” but it was nowhere near as accessible. Moreover, its trans masculine character Joe is a side character, not the protagonist. Yet it is possible to analyze both Joe from “My Father Is Coming” and the depiction of Brandon Teena from “Boys Don’t Cry” with the idea of “cowboy resonance” in mind.
“Cowboy resonance” refers to the tropes popular in Western films that reinforce masculinity, specifically the concept of the silent individualist. Think of the stoic cowboy who says very little, smiles knowingly during important scenes, and then rides off into the sunset at the end of the story. This kind of characterization creates “believable” masculinity, and it allows people to study what subtle indicators suggest masculinity versus femininity.
Pennington quickly listed several features that are coded as masculine when it comes to speaking habits. For example, it is generally seen as masculine to: speak monotonously; curse; poorly articulate words; use volume for emphasis; remain expressionless; take up space; and gesture from the shoulders and elbows, as opposed to from the wrists. On the other hand, it is almost never coded as masculine to sing, hence part of the lecture’s title, “Boys Don’t Cry. . . or Sing.”
Both Joe from “My Father Is Coming” and the depiction of Brandon Teena from “Boys Don’t Cry” emphasize their masculinity by remaining silent and by being contrasted with more talkative characters. Pennington shared several scenes from the films to better point out where masculinity or femininity is emphasized. Oftentimes, the trans character’s gender was exaggerated by being placed next to someone with a different, louder gender. For instance, there is a scene in Boys Don’t Cry where the main female character sings on stage, while the trans masculine character watches silently, even as the other men around him holler and jeer.
Significantly, Pennington pointed out how the same tropes of silent masculinity are used to convey different personality types. In the case of “Boys Don’t Cry,” Teena’s silence is seen as admirable and respectful, while in “My Father Is Coming,” Joe’s silence is markedly predatory and disquieting. In fact, Joe’s narrative aligns with the harmful stereotype that trans people who pass as cis are somehow deceptive toward the people attracted to them. In “Boys Don’t Cry,” it is clear that discussing one’s gender identity is up to the individual whose gender is in question because the people who force disclosure are rapists and murderers. This contrast demonstrates that subversive indie films, such as “My Father Is Coming,” are not inherently more progressive than their mainstream counterparts, such as “Boys Don’t Cry,” which tells a more disturbing story but which encourages more empathy toward its trans character.
Another aspect to look at while comparing these films and their portrayals of trans masculine characters is their choice of casting. “Boys Don’t Cry” cast a cisgender woman to play Teena, while “My Father Is Coming” cast a cisgender man to play Joe. While many people would critique the choice of “Boys Don’t Cry,” Pennington admitted it made the possibility of being trans more palpable for him. While Joe seemed like an unattainable fantasy, the depiction of Teena left more room for Pennington to recognize himself in the character. After all, a trans man might look like a cis woman in the eyes of a cisnormative society, so it can be important to show that such appearances can be misleading.
“[Brandon’s trans identity] isn’t outdated, but it is specific,” Pennington reflected. “[Moreover,] having a cis woman play him reflected Brandon’s lived experience.”
This discussion is especially relevant, because 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of the film “Boys Don’t Cry.” With this reminder, much of the popular controversy has returned with increased strength. Like the Reed College protestors in 2016, some people believe the film should not be lauded as progressive when it has such a tragic ending and was told by cis people. They also critique the terminology used in the film and the complication of Teena’s identity.
However, Pennington suggests that the film tells a unique kind of experience that should not be censured for its lack of clarity or precision, because some people can relate to that sense of isolation and confusion.
“Brandon’s trans identity isn’t ambiguous, but it is messy,” Pennington insisted. “The Reed protestors wanted a cleaner story, but one of the movie’s strengths is its messiness.”
After explaining the main critiques of the film, which revolve around the (mis)representation of trans people, Pennington pointed out that an important critique often goes unnoticed by many: the erasure of a Black disabled character.
As Pennington proceeded to explain, the film only covers two deaths (those of Brandon Teena and Lisa Lambert, both white). However, the hate crime of that night extended to a third person, Phillip DeVine, whose name is not even mentioned in the film’s credits. The director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” Kimberly Peirce, claimed that the excision of DeVine from the story was aesthetic, not political. She said she wanted a cleaner story and did not want to introduce too many characters or muddle the story’s message. This means the film does not explore how racism and transphobia overlap, and it perpetuates the myth that the Midwest is exclusively white. Moreover, it eliminates a potential point of identification for viewers. Pennington himself admitted that he would have identified more with DeVine’s masculinity, as a Black cisgender man, than with Teena’s, as a white transgender man.
Just like Pennington’s discussion with the woman who didn’t believe in the army, what was meant to be a progressive film lacked contextual empathy toward all the victims of the hate crime and so it reverted to internalized regressive rhetoric.
“There is a truth in transphobic violence that shouldn’t be whitewashed,” Pennington concluded.
Furthermore, “Boys Don’t Cry” is a film that, for all its messiness and erasure, has a lot to say about the complexity and formation of identity and how that relates to the film’s soundscape (what is said and by whom). Pennington offered an intriguing introduction to his current book and doubtless would have made more connections and insights had time permitted it.
The next talk in the “QueerCurrent” lecture series will be held in the first half of Winter Quarter, sometime in January 2020. Until then, students are encouraged to keep up with other LGBTQ+ related events on campus, especially those sponsored by the LGBTQS Program. For more information, check out the program’s official website.