Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, the fictionalized story of the brutal, real life rape and murder of transgender man Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) in Humboldt, Nebraska, was one of the most controversial, but best received films of 1999.
On the Reed College campus, Boys Don't Cry is one of the most controversial and worst received films of 2016.
Last month, Peirce visited the Southeast Portland campus, meeting with Reed faculty and students and giving a lecture on the first evening, and screening and hosting an hourlong Q&A about Boys Don't Cry.
But according to accounts on blogs, the student newspaper and from Reed College Director of Communications Kevin Myers, the second night's screening and talk were disrupted by a small group of students protesting Peirce's depiction of violence against transgender people.
J. Jack Halberstam, the professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and gender studies at the University of Southern California who first wrote about the incident, reported that protesters were specifically concerned with three issues.
First, they were upset that Peirce, who is a lesbian, was a non-trans person profiting off of "the portrayal of violence against trans bodies," that Swank, a non-trans identified actor, was cast as Teena over a transgender actor, and that "the graphic depiction of rape in the film and feel that the scene is poorly orchestrated and the film is too mired in the pathologization and violation and punishment of transgender bodies."
Some students' method of protest included tearing down posters advertising Peirce's appearance on campus and putting up posters in the lecture hall in which Boys Don't Cry was screening with slogans including "Fuck Your Transphobia" and "Fuck this cis white bitch."
Although the students did not attend the screening, they arrived at the lecture hall to protest during Perice's Q&A, reportedly shouting those slogans as well as "bitch" at Peirce as she appeared, speaking over Peirce as she attempted to begin her presentation. According to Myers, the disruption lasted for approximately 10 to 15 minutes.
Myers told WW that "After the disturbance, Peirce addressed the protesters concerns regarding why she had cast a cisgendered female actress to play a trans man; how she researched and prepared for the film beyond reading Brandon Teena's diary; and why she chose to include the rape scene in the film. With the exception of the questions by one or two students (which have been well chronicled), Peirce and others believed that part of the Q&A was productive."
The protests prompted a response from both Reed's Dean of Faculty Nigel Nicholson, who published a letter to Reed's student body in the December 2 issue of Reed student newspaper The Reed College Quest, and Reed president John Kroger, who stated in a press release that "expressing dissenting viewpoints is central to intellectual debate, as is made clear in Reed's dissent policy. All views, however, must be expressed in a way that does not deliberately obstruct others from sharing their ideas. Such conduct has no place at Reed College."
"The atmosphere was intensely hostile," wrote Nicholson about the protests in the College Quest. "The principle that a speaker, any speaker, should be treated with respect was explicitly rejected."
"[T]he actions that I saw were not animated by the spirit of inquiry or the desire to learn that usually animates Reed audiences," continued Nicholson. "The students had already decided what they thought, and came to the Question-and-Answer session to make their judgments known, not to listen and engage. Some brought posters bearing judgments and accusations. Others asked questions, that, while grammatically questions (that is, they ended with question marks), were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict the speaker. It felt like a courtroom, not a college."
These protests have garnered national, mostly negative attention from outfits including conservative publications like Reason and the Washington Times. J. Jack Halberstam wrote: "This is an astonishing set of events to reckon with for those of us who remember the events surrounding Brandon Teena's murder, the debates in the months that followed about Brandon Teena's identity and, later, the reception of the film."
Despite her tumultuous reception on the second day of her visit, Myers told WW that Peirce was gracious and kind during the 10-15 minute protest, and that she would return to Reed in the future.