Trans people come of age at least twice in their lives. For many, the process of coming into oneself is beautifully long and continuous. Because of that, coming-of-age movies can be especially important to us; for me, they were not just entertainment, but a crucial developmental device.
Today, with HBO’s Euphoria, we have perhaps the first traditionally coming-of-age show or movie that features a trans character played by a trans actor. Until the last several years, trans people barely existed within the American consciousness. Our community was mostly seen as one, nameless stereotype. And so, our people do not have a long history in coming of age films—or cinema in general. We were given no Stand By Me.
Still, queer and trans people have a way of appropriating and inverting mass culture in order to build our own histories out of stories that were never intended for us. Some of those examples are included in this list below. They by no means represent any sort of collective transgender perspective, and they do not even approach whatever the community would call “best representation.” But to me, they are meaningful artifacts that speak to coming of age transgender. Here, in no particular order, are the five movies that shaped my experience coming of age as a trans person.
The Matrix, 1999
When the Wachowski sisters debuted their legendary science fiction philosophical action film, The Matrix, in 1999, it was an immediate hit. The story follows a hacker with the handle Neo, who is contacted by individuals who inform him that his life is a lie and he lives in the Matrix, a world designed to nullify the human conscious. Like all other humans, his physical body is back in reality, plugged into the Matrix by machines.
Neo is given a choice: take the red pill, which will awaken his body within the real world, or take the blue pill, which will erase his knowledge of the Matrix and allow him to complete his comfortable life, despite the fact that it isn’t real. It’s an existential question that speaks to the nature of reality, truth, and the decisions that each of us make, at one point or another, to either elect a life that is real, regardless of the cost to our safety, or to conform to a society that promises to appear less difficult in exchange for our true selves.
For many transgender people, the Matrix is an obvious allegory for the decision to either transition and live one’s truth, or remain hidden in a false identity that our culture created. When the Wachowskis created The Matrix, they were known as brothers, but in the following years, they would both come out as transgender themselves. In a way, the movie they made posed its question right back to them: Red, or Blue?
Gun Hill Road, 2011
This film is a rare exception to the body of transgender filmmaking. Gunhill Road follows the story of a transgender teenager living in the Bronx who confronts her gender—and herself. Her father goes to prison, and in his absence, the girl goes through experiences familiar to all transgender women, like encountering love from a man who cannot love you publicly, and having to learn how to walk through the world as a woman when the world never wanted to see you that way.
Gunhill Road stars a transgender actress, Harmony Santana, and touched a community of transgender women who had essentially never been represented on screen. It will always be one of the 21st century’s most poignant and important early transgender stories—one that changed the way we think about trans life in the U.S. and how to portray such a life onscreen.
The Crying Game, 1992
This is an example of a film that was created by and for cisgender people during a period history when trans people were entirely invisible in mainstream culture. The Crying Game is a thriller, but is best remembered for the relationship between a man and the “exotic” woman he falls in love with at a nightclub. The woman, of course, is exposed to be trans, and the film primarily chronicles the man’s experience discovering this part of her identity, and how he handled it.
The Crying Game is an artifact that reveals how distorted and discriminatory transgender narratives have been in the film industry, and yet the trans woman character at the heart of this story, Dil, is one of the better portrayed trans characters of its time. Still, the film is tainted by prejudice: When the man who loves her realizes she is trans, he runs to the bathroom to vomit. While the audience is immersed in the bigoted themes that shape this story, I’ve included it here because, like it or not, the film is one of the most iconic 20th century movies featuring a transgender character. It is a part of our history, a problematic product that both fails us and once was all we had. Understand that, and you’ll be closer to understanding how trans people have pieced their history together, taking from popular culture and instilling it into our real world, underground. Many trans women have told me that despite its obvious inherent problems, the film is meaningful to them in some way.
Pose is the only television series included in this list. The groundbreaking series is simply too significant to transgender storytelling to exclude. The series, now in its second season, follows the lives of trans women of color living in New York City in the 1980’s, deep within ballroom culture.
The series has a broad scope on the lives of its characters—from the way that Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), experiences the HIV diagnosis of her best friend Pray Tell (Billy Porter), to the brutal love story between Angel (Indya Moore), and Stan (Evan Peters), which, for the first time in history, expertly depicted the way that straight men desire trans women in secret, then ultimately fail them. It is, in my view, the most important narrative document of transgender culture in the U.S., enlisting transgender people before and behind the camera, while successfully telling a startlingly high number of interwoven stories that have never been told before.
Boys Don’t Cry , 1999
The same year the Wachowski sisters spoke to trans audiences with their existential exploration in The Matrix, Boys Don’t Cry brutally depicted the corporal reality of transgender men in the rural U.S. Following the true story of trans man Brandon Teena, portrayed by cis woman actor Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry documents one of the most well-known murders of a transgender person at the hands of men driven by prejudice and hatred.
Teena’s life, and ultimate death, is a love story. Away from home, Teena pursues a life as himself, without sharing his gendered past with the woman he falls in love with, or her friends and family—a group of deeply bigoted, backwoods white men.
It is sickening that Teena’s story could be considered a coming-of-age story, given the fact that his coming of age resulted in his real-life death. But coming of age is far too frequently a sickening experience for transgender people living today. Knowing that we may be killed because of who we are is part of transgender life. Boy’s Don’t Cry is, like The Crying Game, a film filled with problems, the most glaring being that a cis woman was cast to portray a transgender man. It may not be a responsibly told story, but it is one among a small number of movies that showed our existence onscreen—and so, at that time in history, it was one of those rare moments when we were seen, however inadequately.
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