was once incarcerated by my daydreams — luscious headcanons (private fan fiction starring classmates) next-door neighbours, and undie models from Reader’s Digest ads.
Actually expressing myself was unthinkable: the juvenile atmosphere around me was congested with heterosexual nomenclature (boobs/pussy); while I had no vocabulary to enunciate my desires. Unless you count playful homophobia. Insults trending with middle-school bullies were commonly one of three: chhakka, kojja, or ombodhu — each a cruel synonym for hijras, India’s marginalized transgender community.
If their English were passable, I’d be called a eunuch. They did not understand what these words meant, just the hatred they qualified. All they could see was a boy being not-a-boy, and the abuse took on a dark misogynistic flavour. Sissification: Real men employing the privilege of demoting lesser men into femininity. (My internal multitudes compressed into a stereotype.)
I had asked my mother what ‘gay’ meant when I was younger, but her descriptions were cryptic and clinical — almost as if they referred to “those freaks out there” as if denying the possibility that her own baby boy might be one of them. For the longest time, I remained uninformed of the semantic vigor of the word, never once considering that being gay could refer to the boisterous fantasies conjured up by my hormones.
And then, in late 1999, my parents grudgingly agreed to have an internet connection (India’s fastest: a supersonic 16 kBps) installed in my bedroom. I did what anyone would do when faced with reams of unsupervised data: I exhausted entire inventories of porn.
It was during one of my subtle Yahoo! searches for ‘gay video’ that I came across a coarse DVD-rip of a Hollywood flick called Boy’s Don’t Cry. A low-budget production released in October 1999, it told the true story of a man named Brandon Teena, who had lived and loved; and, for these reasons, had been raped and murdered in redneck Nebraska.
(The title alone struck the most ironic of chords. I bawled my eyes out while watching it).
You see, Indian men are allowed to fight men, rape women, and beat and kill their wives, but shedding tears is a scandal. Every one of our variegated languages has this phrase in some form or another. Huḍugaru aḷuvudilla. Chelerā kāmde nā. Ladke Nahi Rote. Boys just aren’t supposed to cry — it means you are weak, a wuss, no more worthy of manhood than a woman.
It means you are a chhakka.
The importance of being strong-silent-straight is further etched on the collective consciousness by popular Bollywood in the reiteration of queer folx as distortions: predators, child-sacrificers, man-haters, pimps, traps, perverts.
This is not to say that all queer Indian cinema is insensitive, but such films are more likely to be indie; and therefore inaccessible to most people in the country (who rely on theatre halls and television screenings for entertainment). At 12, I had never watched any sort of movie that showed queerness in a positive light. And certainly not one about transgender people.
Which is why my gut reaction to watching Boy’s Don’t Cry was swirling envy (with a splatter of misogyny). Why was Brandon, obviously a woman to my tweenage mind, allowed to be a man, when I, an actual man, was insulted for being feminine?!
It didn’t matter to me that he was brutally violated and shot in the head. I just wanted to be accepted like he was, by his friends, by his lover. I too wanted a lover to love, and to be open about it. It never crossed my mind that his (unintentional) openness is what led to the miserable third act of the film. My tears did not mourn Brandon’s murder, but my own lack of freedom.
I am not proud of these initial attitudes, but I cannot condemn them either, given my inexperience and my disconnection from queer space. However, with multiple rewatches, delicate subtleties began to untangle. Brandon was a man, in that there is no argument, but he was a different kind of man than Nebraska was used to. He was gentler, kinder, more easygoing. The maleness that I had once thought core to him was a fussy cultivation of the Midwestern macho standard. Denim jackets, plaid shirts, bawdy guffaws; roughhousing, beer-chugging, picking fights.
Brandon incorporated all these traits into himself, exerting great effort to manufacture a successful gender-pass. I saw myself empathize with him more and more — his public life a morbid reflection of my own — where he bound his breasts and packed his boxers with a prosthetic penis, I learned to walk sans sashay and vocalize in a lower pitch.
At this point, I suppose I must thank my parents for my relatively peaceful childhood. As naive as they were about gender variance, they never once told me to man up. When I was six, I insisted on and received a Princess Aurora doll from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty — tbh, I mostly just smeared crayon warpaint on her face and sent her to fight my G.I. Joe army.
When I was nine, entranced by the recent Miss World pageant on TV, I drew up a blueprint for an evening gown and begged my mother to sew it for me — she did, and I wore that sparkly organza dress everywhere (inside the house). When I was twelve, I came home from school with scuff marks and a bruised cheek, and my father silently took me in his lap and held me as I wept. He ended the period of solace by telling me, once again, that boys don’t cry, but he let me do it anyway.
The rules of the world may have suffocated me, but my parents were always there to buoy me up: a staunch pair of oars in my trembling lifeboat.
Brandon had no such safety net in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was raised by a disabled single mother, shunted between homes, sexually abused by his uncle for several years. His mother, while caring for him deeply, rejected his identity — to the extent that his gravestone still deadnames and misgenders him. He was expelled from school, harassed by the law, chased out of town. He finally escapes the clutches of his old life when he moves to Falls City, NE, finding new friends, family, and, perhaps, a blossoming courtship. Until his two drinking buddies find out his secret.
None of the men in the movie, or my life, had to pretend. Masculinity is their birthright (and they who attempt to thwart the patriarchy must face its prophetic justice.) Us criminals are sorted by gender before being tried for our anomalies: the men by treachery, the women by audacity.
As a cisman, I was technically camouflaged by my anatomy, but the occasional lapses into femininity stained me a gender traitor — neutered, vulnerable, farcical — sentencing me to minor punishments such as verbal abuse and the occasional beating.
As a transman, Brandon was seen as a woman who had “the balls” to impersonate a man, a being far above female prestige. This social climbing was intolerable to his killers (who derive their life-force from the male power structure). Their experiments — humiliations, beatings, rapes — taught him that there is no indignity better than the evaporation of the self, layers of identity sheared off one by one.
Brandon, trusting in the equal protection of the laws, reported the assault (a grievous violation of the bro-code). The law was unsurprisingly lethargic — Brandon’s mother later explained that “the police were bigots. They were referring to [Brandon] as ‘thing’…” — allowing the monsters enough time to track down and finish off their quarry.
Boy’s Don’t Cry was a cinematic triumph; it won a host of awards and entered several best-of-the-year critic lists. Hilary Swank’s crystalline portrayal of transgender struggles delivered a measure of tenderness rarely granted to queer folx in film. Cine-Brandon’s life was his own — he was shy, playful, lonely, horny, depressed, aggressive, passionate, and as masculine as he wanted to be. (With some distortions: his girlfriend, Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny), treats what he calls “a sexual-identity crisis” with an implausible grace: “I don’t care if you’re half-monkey or half-ape; I’m getting you out of here”, or, “Button up your pants. I know you’re a guy”.
These injections of Hallmark-Romance™ were furiously diluted by the real Tisdel: she claimed that she had dumped Brandon as soon as she heard that he was transgender and called the movie the “second murder of Brandon Teena.”
Life, as film critic Pauline Kael tells us, is too complex for facile endings.
Actually, if Kael had reviewed the movie, she may have been the only critic to get to its heart — most others may have lamented Brandon’s murder, but they did so with the transphobic implication that it was a casualty essential in the accomplishment of any great work of art. That is why I have referred to the gruesome fate of Brandon Teena multiple times in this essay — because, in the end, it does not matter how convincingly Hilary Swank could replicate a transman; how cinematographer Jim Denault’s “artificial-night” captured the gloom of the Corn Belt; how Shakespearean the tale, all romance and tragedy; how director Kimberley Pierce humanized Brandon, such cis-benevolence — the only point to be driven home is that Boy’s Don’t Cry is not bigger than Brandon.
It is Brandon.
A cheerful man with a brittle dream — extinguished by those who could not abide by the nature of his freedom, because that would have meant interrogating their own uncomfortable realities. His killers end up in prison, but they are pleased in themselves — they have reestablished their manhood by emptying Brandon of his.
This is the most toxic of masculinities, the demand that boys and men bond over the subjugation of people less manly than themselves.
Twenty years after the film’s release, the situation has not improved. No, that’s a misleading statement. It has gotten considerably worse. At least 26 American lives (and innumerable others) have been erased by testosterone brutality and civil indifference last year alone, prompting the American Medical Association to label transphobic violence as an epidemic. In 2020, amidst the severity of Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns, legislators are sneaking in anti-transgender bills at an unprecedented rate.
At the same time, the highest courts of various nations continue to wax eloquent about the urgency for gay rights/dignities/marriages, but remain uniformly dismissive of transpeople. To paraphrase, sexual deviations may be excused, but staking claim to the infinite ocean beyond the binary is unacceptable.
Life was not so tough on me. I came out at 16, through a series of SMSes that swept through home and school with an indiscriminate bluntness. The fallout was pleasantly minimal: My closest friends were more concerned about the upcoming exams, and my parents refused to discuss it (in India: a best-case scenario). My brazen flamboyance raises no eyebrows anymore. Time has ironed out most of my pubescent trauma — I had two generous decades to learn how to forgive those who had inflicted their own insecurities on my being — in the words of the wise Mother Aughra: minds forget, scars remember.
But Brandon is made only of scars. His closing memories were of being dragged out from under the bed, shot through the chin, then stabbed in the chest (his twitching a physiological act of final resistance). Now: His eyes have eroded, his tongue has shattered, his heart has turned to dust. He cannot think, he cannot speak, he cannot hope. How can he forgive?