The 1999 dramatic film Boys Don’t Cry (a film we’ve mentioned at least three times in the past) depicts the real-life murder of Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old trans man who was brutally battered and raped by his murderers a week before they finally shot and stabbed him to death. Its director Kimberly Peirce was inspired to make the film when she read a long feature on the murder that Donna Minkowitz wrote for The Village Voice. But in a recent self-reflective feature, Minkowitz laments her article’s “implicit anti-trans framing,” calling it “the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written.”
“In particular,” Minkowitz writes, “I conjectured that Brandon’s long-term sexual abuse by an uncle and a rape in high school had led him to [renounce] his ‘female’ genitals and breasts.” In the resulting article that she wrote, I shouldn’t ever have suggested that Brandon wanted to be a man because he was sexually abused, Minkowitz didn’t call Teena trans or a man, putting Minkowitz’s own perception of who Teena was over that of Teena himself and those who knew him best.
“It’s the aspect of my article that makes me cringe the most today,” she adds, before revisiting the story of Teena’s life and death as a way of “rebuilding solidarity” during this “time of enormous cruelty in the body politic” against trans people, presumably a reference to Donald Trump‘s anti-trans administration.
The author also reveals that she was initially “electrified” by the Brandon Teena story because she saw Teena as a very butch lesbian, not realizing that gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate things.
Because many of Minkowitz’s lesbians peers during the ‘80s and ‘90s imagined themselves playing the role of men in society to reclaim their power in a misogynist world, Donna Minkowitz assumed Brandon Teena was pretty much the same.
Donna Minkowitz also disregarded most of the sympathetic and humanizing things Teena’s mother said during their interview because Minkowitz considered Teena’s mother a conservative homophobe for refusing to fully accept Brandon Teena’s queer identity.
Later in the original article, Minkowitz also said, “Brandon experienced enormous sexual ‘frustration,’ or a terrible diminishment of pleasure, because, as reported by his lovers, he chose never to be touched on his vagina or his breasts.” But Minkowitz had no way of knowing about Teena’s sexual feelings and says that she merely projected her own feelings onto Teena as a fellow survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Most troublingly, Minkowitz’s original article basically blames the many things Teena did to survive — seducing women and sometimes stealing their money — as being acts that led to his murder: an act of victim blaming.
While Minkowitz’s realizations seem like no-brainers now, but she wrote the article in 1994 when mainstream journalism and most of the world weren’t well acquainted with trans issues.
In fact, Donna Minkowitz mentions that when Brandon Teena first reported his rape to the police of Falls City, Nebraska back in 1993, the word “transsexual” conjured mental illness and criminality. In fact, local police refused to arrest the perpetrators because they considered Teena unstable.
Then-Sheriff Charles Laux stated, “What kind of a person was she? The first few times we arrested her she was putting herself off as a guy.” Teena’s mother later successfully sued the sheriff for failing to arrest the men who’d murder her son a week later.
If you want to read Donna Minkowitz’s original article about Brandon Teena, it’s available at the bottom of her recently published reflective feature.