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The silence of the transvestites

Someone named AntBreach tweeted a post by Jos Truitt on Silence of the Lambs, a response to a Bitch post by Sarah Marshall. Marshall makes some reasonable points about the movie, while criticizing the essential device driving the plot: the villain, Buffalo Bill, murders women for “women suits” in an effort to satisfy his transgender desire. Truitt acknowledges and expands on Marshall’s critique, but then takes an unexpected turn, talking about beginning to “reclaim” the character of Buffalo Bill and questioning Marshall’s claim that the heroine of the book, Clarice Starling, “is, simply, good.”

AntBreach is baffled by this. He reiterates the claim made by Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’s original novel (and the film) that “Billy’s not a transsexual,” a claim repeated by Marshall. He then wonders, “If you want to reduce stigma against trans people, why would you insist one of cinema’s most gruesome horror villains was trans all along?”

At this point I have to make a confession: I have never watched the entire Silence of the Lambs. Shortly after it came out, when I was still in the closet, I was invited to join some friends who were watching it on video, but after the first half hour or so when I figured out it was going to be an unrealistic fantasy about transgender actions, I made some excuses and left. I don’t care if you like the cinematography or the storytelling or the acting or any of that. I’ve never liked horror movies, and on top of that I have very little patience for hateful fiction that distorts and belittles my experience or that of my people. So fuck The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fuck Deliverance, and fuck Silence of the Lambs.

Because I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I’m basing this post on what other people have written. If you think any of my source information is incorrect, feel free to let me know.

The answer to AntBreach’s question is that Lecter never said Buffalo Bill wasn’t trans. He said that Bill wasn’t a transsexual – and if he wasn’t a transsexual, he was a transvestite. As Truitt points out, this is the same gatekeeping technique – sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell – developed by Harry Benjamin and practiced by the medical establishment for over fifty years. It is contemptuous and inhuman whether it is coming from Hannibal Lecter, or Ray Blanchard, or Clarice Starling.

As a transvestite myself, I am not at all comforted by the idea that Buffalo Bill wasn’t a transsexual. Transphobia isn’t the hatred of transsexuals, it’s the hatred of all of us. Marshall makes this core point by saying that Lecter’s statement “doesn’t change the fact that Buffalo Bill is depicted as a character whose queerness is inextricably bound up in murderous desire.” I wish that Marshall had also accepted that Buffalo Bill was trans, not just some unspecified form of queer.

But I’m pretty sure that Marshall is not a transvestite, and neither are Truitt or AntBreach, or for that matter Harris or director Jonathan Demme, or Lecter, or Starling, or Benjamin or Blanchard. And this gets to the problem that I have with so many of these articles: people who aren’t transvestites pontificating on who we are, what we feel, and what we do and why – or even using us as an insult to demean each other. Even Truitt’s article is problematic in this regard, reproducing essentialist narratives of gender.

This discussion raised other questions: is that really the way to deal with stigma? What should trans people do about all these horror movies? I’ll tackle them in future posts.

In the meantime, do me a favor: next time you’re tempted to write something about transvestites, try to talk to at least one transvestite and find out what we think. You can ask me, but I’m not the only one out there. And no, transitioned trans people don’t count. If you think you don’t know any transvestites, think about how many writers thought they didn’t know any gay men or lesbians fifty years ago.

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1 Comment

  1. “They” could ask me too about how I feel and what it means to be a transgender woman who has no transition plans.

    I agree that we are too silent. I plan to show my face at the upcoming Transgender Day of Visibility in SF. That’s not much but it’s a little. It’s interesting to me anyway that we are so silent. If one believes that the trans umbrella has a Gaussian distribution then there is a much higher population of folks like us.

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