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Before We Knew Better: This 90s movie accepted LGBT people in a way society hasn’t yet been able to

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  • Luke Kurtis
By Luke Kurtis

essayist, poet, & photographer

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

In this mini-series, we return to movies and TV we’ve loved to see how they depict gender. Does it hold up in 2019? Warning: contains spoilers.

When did it come out? 1992

How does it hold up? Really well

Ah, the 90s. It was a magical time when Nirvana’s loud sounds and Jewel’s innocent coos happily co-existed on alternative radio. One significant touchstone of the decade is how elements of LGBTQ culture were becoming part of the mainstream. Madonna’s “Vogue,” George Michael’s “Freedom,” and Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” all came out in 1990—and what’s more, they were cool. While the gay community in general still wasn’t mainstream for most of the 90s, these moments of LGBTQ representation in popular culture helped introduce the idea that labeling people as “man” or “woman” just wasn’t good enough.

Few other films of this era evoke this as clearly as The Crying Game. For its commentary on gender as a social construction, The Crying Game was unlike anything else at the time. Neil Jordan’s thriller showed audiences that our identities do not have to be defined by our biology, but instead are merely a factor that we can choose to incorporate (or not) in the self that we construct.

For its commentary on gender as a social construction, The Crying Game was unlike anything else at the time.

The film takes place in the early 1990s in Northern Ireland and England during The Troubles. Fergus is one of several IRA members who kidnap Jody, an English soldier. While holding Jody hostage, Fergus makes an unlikely connection with the prisoner. Just as Fergus prepares to kill Jody on behalf of the IRA, Jody makes a run for it. Fergus finds himself unable to shoot the prisoner in the back, but Jody gets run over and killed by a British armored vehicle. Racked with guilt, Fergus escapes to England and assumes a new identity to hide from his former comrades. He befriends Dil, Jody’s lover. Another surprise connection for Fergus: falling in love with Dil. But Dil has a secret of her own. When the IRA shows up again and forces Fergus to participate in an assassination plot, Dil’s life is at risk. But Dil, outraged when she finds out that Fergus was involved in Jody’s death, ends up murdering Jude, one of Fergus’s IRA colleagues. In an effort to protect the woman he loves, Fergus takes the fall.

Part of what is so fascinating about the film’s treatment of gender is that, at first, it doesn’t seem like it’s about gender at all—in fact, it starts off looking an awful lot like a classic story of entrapment. In an early scene, Jude, a textbook femme fatale, seduces Jody in order to take him hostage. The most heteronormative music in existence, Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” really drives the point home.

Except that’s not what the movie is about at all. In the second half of the film, when we are introduced to Dil, all those expectations of gender and sexuality that seemed to define the first half of the film are questioned and torn apart. Dil’s secret? She has a penis. Except it’s not exactly a secret. Everyone in her sphere—her friends, colleagues, and local bartender know. Fergus, an outsider, wasn’t in the loop. It’s not until Dil and Fergus begin to make love that Fergus learns the truth. Dil, comfortable in her own skin, is simply surprised Fergus didn’t know—that element of her body isn’t something she thinks about an awful lot.

That’s not to say Fergus sets the best example for accepting trans people, at least not at first. When Fergus first sees Dil naked, he vomits in the bathroom sink, then runs away. The next day, he feels bad that he reacted this way and tries to apologize, but she ignores him. After she’s cooled off a little, though, Dil goes to visit Fergus at his work. Fergus is still processing all this, but he can’t deny his attraction to Dil. He continues to see her, even if he’s resistant to a physical relationship. And, ultimately, after a messy confrontation with Jude from the IRA, Fergus takes Dil’s place in prison for a crime she committed. If that’s not love, what is?

The big reveal might be handled a bit differently for today’s audiences, but the point about loving someone exactly as they are is exactly on point. As Sadie Edwards, a trans woman who avoided the movie for many years, wrote for Autostraddle once she finally watched it: “Where others saw the disgust, I saw the love story, the part that said that a trans woman could find love, even with all her parts.”

Fergus’ disgusted reaction to Dil was a frank depiction of what many trans and queer people experience.

The first time I saw this movie, I remember thinking Fergus’ disgusted reaction to Dil was a frank depiction of what many trans and queer people experience. What’s striking is how Fergus comes to accept Dil to the point of sacrificing his freedom to save her own. Though the circumstances are different from my own life, I found a lot to relate to. When I came out to my family, had they come around and tried to understand what I was going through the way Fergus came around to Dil, it would have made all the difference.

Even though it was a bit offbeat, The Crying Game snagged the 1993 Oscar for best original screenplay, along with five other nominations that year, including a best supporting actor nomination for Jaye Davidson, who played Dil, as well as best picture. It may have been so well received in part because it wasn’t marketed as an LGBTQ film. In fact, there was no such thing as a “gay film” in mainstream entertainment at the time (the release of Philadelphia the following year would propel gay films firmly into the mainstream). But The Crying Game still introduced a more fluid interpretation of gender, which is exactly what makes the movie so progressive. Jordan’s treatment of gender is an intersectional exploration of, as the New York Times put it, “the blurred nature of love, trust and compassion.”

Were the movie to be made today, I think it would find an even bigger audience than it did the first time around, since the values are more widely accepted today. But don’t take that progress for granted. Gender non-conforming individuals and the LGBTQ community as a whole remain targets of discrimination. We are still banned from serving in the military, blocked from using the restrooms that match our gender identities, sent to conversion therapy, barred from bringing our dates to the prom, can be fired, can be denied housingwe can even be kicked out of an Uber. LGBTQ people are still significantly more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression and are at higher risk of suicide than heterosexuals. Politicians shape this discourse—immediately following the election in 2016, the Trevor Project, the leading organization dedicated to suicide intervention for LGBTQ youth, experienced a 116% surge in contacts to their crisis services programs. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. The truth is that far too many of us queer folks don’t have a Fergus in our life—someone that accepts us just as we are, even if it takes a little work to get there.

When I watch The Crying Game today, I can’t help but think how the representation of trans people has evolved, from underground-turned-Tony-winning stories like Hedwig and the Angry Inch to mainstream TV series like Transparent. Even trans characters on otherwise non-trans shows, like Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black, would have been unthinkable in 1992. Jordan’s use of the secret reveal might just have been a necessary tool back then to get mainstream audiences invested in a trans character. The fact that we no longer need to do that is at least one way we’ve made progress.

Movies like The Crying Game are essential. A film can build a world where there’s no us vs. them, male vs. female, gay vs. straight. Instead, there’s a more diverse existence where black and white fades into gray and differences are eliminated. And if we can imagine that on screen, we can make it a reality.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

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