AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When "Boys Don't Cry" opened 20 years ago, it introduced moviegoers to a transgender hero, a character that simply was not represented on-screen at the time. The independent film became a box-office hit, and it earned its star, Hilary Swank, an Oscar. It was based on the true story of Brandon Teena, who was brutally raped and murdered because of who he was. Allyson McCabe reports on the legacy of "Boys Don't Cry."
ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Today, trans actors appear on such popular TV shows as "Orange Is The New Black," "Good Girls" and "Grey's Anatomy." Trans directors and writers work behind the scenes on "Transparent" and "Pose." But when Riki Wilchins began transitioning in the late 1970s, there was very little trans visibility, even in big cities.
RIKI WILCHINS: Trans people were like unicorns. No one had ever actually seen one in the wild. And there really was no one to talk to. The term transgender wasn't even in use.
MCCABE: In the early 1990s, Wilchins co-founded Transexual Menace, one of the first transgender rights organizations. And one of its first goals was to document anti-trans murders, which, if they were reported at all, were often coded.
WILCHINS: When trans people were killed, the only way we would find out about it is there'd be, you know, four paragraphs in the back of the local paper, you know - man found wearing articles of women's clothing murdered in alley. And that meant that a transgender woman had been violently murdered, but you had to kind of read backwards.
MCCABE: Brandon Teena's murder was atypical. It garnered national headlines. Two men were put on trial, and members of Transexual Menace and their allies planned a vigil outside the Falls City, Neb., courthouse.
KIMBERLY PEIRCE: We were standing in front of the court building, and guys would go in their big truck and scream terrible things at us and throw things. And certainly, us being there, you know, was catalyzing some kind of anger. And that was scary.
MCCABE: Kimberly Peirce had hitched a ride to Falls City with Riki Wilchins and members of Transexual Menace. At the time, she was a graduate film student at Columbia and decided to make her thesis film about Brandon Teena after reading about him in the Village Voice.
PEIRCE: I was coming at it from a person who was discovering my own genderqueerness and getting to know trans people and saying, help me tell this story the way that it would be the most authentic. And I wanted to tell his story as a movie so that other people could empathize with him and love him. And I wanted to bring him to life in such a way that people would not be compelled to treat him unfairly, but instead treat him with love and humanity.
MCCABE: The thesis evolved into a full-length feature film, and over the next four years, Peirce immersed herself in Brandon Teena's world, returning to Falls City to interview his girlfriend and other townspeople. When it was time to cast the film, hundreds of actors auditioned. Peirce says she started with the trans community but says trans actors were harder to find than they are today. The part went to a relatively unknown cisgender actress, Hilary Swank.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOYS DON'T CRY")
HILARY SWANK: (As Brandon Teena) Look. I never been on a highway or the Grand Canyon or any place like that. Until I came here, I never even been out of Lincoln. I never even met my dad.
MCCABE: "Boys Don't Cry" opened on October 22, 1999, on 25 screens, then spread to hundreds. It became a runaway indie hit that drew rave reviews for its empathetic portrait of a young person on a quest for love and acceptance. When Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, she used her acceptance speech to honor his courage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SWANK: To remind us to always be ourselves, to follow our hearts, to not conform. I pray for the day when we not only accept our differences, but we actually celebrate our diversity.
MCCABE: "Boys Don't Cry" was a landmark, says Nick Adams, director of transgender representation for the media watchdog group GLAAD. But today, he says, we expect trans roles to be played by trans actors, like "Orange Is the New Black's" Laverne Cox.
NICK ADAMS: Prior to "Orange Is The New Black," almost every transgender character was portrayed by a cisgender actor, and with transgender women, men playing them, which only reinforced in people's minds that transgender women are not women, but just men in dresses.
MCCABE: That awareness and the violence in the film has brought something of a backlash against "Boys Don't Cry." But Riki Wilchins says Kimberly Peirce doesn't deserve that.
WILCHINS: Who is authorized to tell what story shifts over time? It may not be the way we would do it if we did the story again, but it's not fair to go back and apply standards 20 years later that didn't exist back then. We needed that story told, and she did a phenomenal job and put out a phenomenal movie. And it legitimated and made possible all these other representations that we've had since.
MCCABE: Riki Wilchins says visibility matters, but it hasn't stopped the violence. According to the most current figures, at least 19 trans people have been murdered so far this year. Nevertheless, Wilchins is encouraged by other recent studies that indicate binary definitions of gender have less meaning for the next generation.
For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.