Boys Don’t Cry

A Revisitation

For Liz, Who Guards the Archive

Credit: Matt Kennedy

Matt Kennedy


When writing my master’s thesis on transness and death, the above scene acted as an archival object.

One that I was unsure existed.

I wrote through the uncertainty ‘of myself in the doorway of my uncle’s house’ and reflected on how I felt the scene had manifested in my mind as a memory, a photograph or as potentially fictitious. 

For the longest time this scene haunted me. 

Years later I found the photograph. 

Buried among insurance paperwork, birth certificates and mould in my parents’ attic there I was frozen in time, meeting my own eyes across multiple iterations of lived lives. 


Death and its relationship to loss was the conceptual backdrop to my initial engagement with queer theory. I was and remain interested in the intellectually generative insights death, loss and by extension archive, memory & haunting afford us in examining the complexity of trans life. My thesis at its heart wanted to understand why it felt like a version of me, an otherly gendered version of me, had died and why I was haunted by certain objects, photographs, documents and texts. 

Queer Autoethnography 

This pull to understand brought me into theoretical kinship with queer theory and rooted me in a deep appreciation for qualitative methods specifically autoethnography. Queer theory enticed me initially through its self-description as a form of ‘subjectiveless critique’ that could not be defined by its objective of study (Eng, Halberstam & Munoz, 2005, p10). Queer presented a dynamic modality of intellectual engagement that was uninterested in attending to existing ontologies and epistemes. Rather, queer insisted on facing away, ‘reading against the grain’ (Hall, 2003). As such, pairing the subjectiveless critique of queer theory with autoethnography provided me with an opportunity to engage a more muddled history of trans subjectivity that resisted narrative coherence. 

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand socio-cultural experience. In a sense, autoethnography moves to capture lived experiences and place them in relation to broader social phenomena. Thus, queer autoethnography as a theoretic compound allows for the creation of narratives which bring together the ‘ideas, intentions, practices and affects of queer theory with the purposes and practice of autoethnography’ (Adams & Bolen, 2017). In this instance, I have a rare opportunity for revisitation through a queer autoethnography. Now knowing the scene that began my consideration of trans embodiment, memory and death is a photograph, I am drawn again into a reckoning. 


Photography has often been named as a medium with spectral characteristics, a form of capture that has something to do with loss, absence, death and pastness. This photograph haunts precisely because it presents a past that cannot be reconciled with the present. The child in the photograph is both me and not me. My younger self is heralded into being by a series of referents no longer of relevance to me. The spectre in the photograph knows only a sense of self named as she & her and her name; Clíodhna. She embodies a subjective position and experience of gender that is dead to me, dead in the Derridean sense of having one’s remains, not just one’s body, but everything one leaves behind, totally at the mercy of others, to be exposed. In this context, this photograph creates a contradiction between my embodiment now and my previous embodiment. 

The Violence of Inspection

Thinking with Sontag ‘to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have’(1979, p.14). This conceptualising of the violation of photography names a certain discomfort that this photograph produces within me. The photograph disrupts the here and now of my identity. Presenting an otherly gendered version of myself to the world, the photograph has the power to destabilise the legitimacy of my manhood and point to inconsistencies in my embodiment, in my narrative, in my timeline. 

         In a way this photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that I existed for a period of time as a young girl. That I was not always Matt, not always hailed into being by he & him. This enacts what Jay Prosser has described as the fear ‘that the image is more real than the subject; that the photograph is the referent’ (1998, p.220). This fear is particularly relevant in relation to a scene in Kim Pierce’s Boy Don’t Cry (2000) in which Brandon Teena is depantsed in order to show his body to his girlfriend Lana with the aim of delegitimising his manhood. During this scene Brandon experiences an ‘out of body and out of time’ (Halberstam, 2005, p.86) moment which is captured through the positioning of him outside of his body watching the violence of inspection unfold.

Credit: Fox Searchlight

This moment in Boy Don’t Cry creates an incident of haunting which I can attest to feeling. Brandon is positioned as a ghostly figure outside of himself, othered by the ways in which people are viewing him and his gender. The camera in this moment functions as a cisnormative tool of violation, forcing the viewer to participate in this violence of inspection. When I look at the photograph of my former self, it invokes the violence of inspection in another form as it forces me to witness myself as something other than a man. This is a distinctly trans experience where ‘photographs of a pretransition self threaten to incarnate a “dead” self that one is not’ (Prosser, 1998, p.217). The power of this photograph to haunt lies in its ability to represent more than simply a past notion of self. The photograph is at once an archive of my previously gendered self but also a threat to my current embodiment. Photographs of trans people throughout the lifetime of our transitions (both social and medical) brush up against the limits of gendered representation. This photograph of me simultaneously evokes a gendered haunting where the referent (the me in the photograph) and the subject (me, presently) are given equal access to the potential of the “real”. How can this be reconciled? 


One project of reconciliation would require more nuanced accounts of transness which do not rely on narrative coherence. I continue to question in my work why and for whom trans people are expected to perform a narrative telling that resolves gendered incoherencies in our timelines. The expectation on trans people to maintain narrative coherence to conceal our transness ultimately can have detrimental physical and psychological implications. Throughout Boys Don’t Cry Brandon is forced into forms of retelling that legitimise his manhood while also preventing him from acknowledging the fullness of his experience and in the end the revelation that Brandon is trans results in his murder. In part we employ gendered narrative coherence for safety, as often acknowledging our otherly gendered pasts outs us leaving us open to hostility similarly to Brandon. However, many trans people find agency in reworking the past to reflect their current embodiments, genders and identities. I have always struggled with this. 

         There is no theory here, only to say that the actualisation of my transness was accompanied by so much loss, trauma and rejection that it really did feel like something, someone, died. This was the messaging I internalised from my family and rather than dismissing it, I leaned into it, I worked with it, I embraced it. I find agency in acknowledging an otherly gendered past. I look to Avery Gordon to name the ways in which haunting can be transformed into reconciliation. A meaningful reconciliation has always moved me to grief. How do you grieve yourself? My loss has always been ambiguous and creates a kind of disenfranchised grief. Because my loss does not produce the loss of a coherent, visible life, an entity, a person; because it is the loss of a life, the grief and the mourning required to resolve it, is just as ambiguous as the loss itself. Where is that loss and how does mourning take place? In part, it takes place here as a kind of textual mourning by acknowledging the loss, by making space for the ghost. More nuanced accounts of trans life imbued with complexity, paradox and contradiction facilitate a kind of reconciliation that looks like a willingness to be haunted, a willingness to revisit and acknowledge a past ‘which constantly diminishes but never vanishes’ (Doty, 1995, p.4). 

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