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Owning Ed Gein

You may remember that Jos Truitt wrote a post about reclaiming the character of Buffalo Bill, the villain of Silence of the Lambs, as trans. AntBreach responded, “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?” As I said in my previous post, Buffalo Bill may not have been transsexual, but that just means he was a transvestite, which is still a way of being transgender. And because the character was a caricature of transgender desire, I said on Twitter that he was trans the same way Amos and Andy were black. The same is true for Doctor Elliot in Dressed to Kill.

I still don’t like the idea of “reclaiming” Buffalo Bill or treating him as any kind of hero, even to the extent he reflects any kind of transgender reality. But I do think we should own the very real trans person he was based on, Ed Gein.

Ed Gein confessed in 1957 to killing two women and making (or attempting to make) suits and masks out of their skin, as well as skin taken from corpses buried near his mother in the local cemetery. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and died in an asylum in 1984. His story is not only the basis for Buffalo Bill, but for Norman Bates in Psycho and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We get three fictional serial killers for the price of one real killer.

It needs to be said that Gein committed horrific crimes and is not a suitable hero or role model for anyone, anywhere, ever. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t transgender. He was, everyone knows he was, and we look like fools for pretending he wasn’t.

AntBreach’s question speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of how stigma works, one that is unfortunately all too common. When confronted with a negative association, one response is to simply reject the association. “Trans murderer? Well, no, that person wasn’t really trans!” This is bullshit. It doesn’t work when cyclists, or Jews, or members of any other group try to whitewash themselves and pretend that they don’t have any murderers, or rapists, or bad people. Everyone knows deep down that it is well-nigh impossible to have a group that big with no murderers, and on some level they see through the bullshit. It’s the same thing with transgender murderers, rapists and plain old mean people.

The case of Ed Gein (and the caricatures based on him) is particularly challenging because he wasn’t just a trans person who killed. His crimes were colored by his transgender feelings. They are transgender grave robberies and transgender murders. But there are a lot of killers whose crimes are colored by their gender experiences and their sexualities. Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy committed gay murders. Gary Ridgway’s and Ted Bundy’s backgrounds as straight men colored their crimes. Female serial killers tend to kill husbands, children or elderly people in their care.

Gein’s transgender actions do not mean that the rest of us trans people are likely to commit those kinds of crimes. Gein was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychopathy, and those of us who don’t have either of those are a lot safer to be around. There is no evidence that murderers are any more common among the trans population than they are among the general population, and I haven’t heard of anyone else who has done what he did with corpses.

The way to deal with stigma is not to deny negative associations, but to acknowledge them and move on, and drown them out with positive and neutral associations. Why yes there are transgender murderers and rapists, but there are also brilliant transgender comedians, artists, composers, authors, film directors, computer programmers, scientists, teachers, athletes – and on and on. And there are trans people who are not particularly monstrous or particularly brilliant, but are just people like Joe down the block who goes out once a month in a wig and heels, and Liz at the coffee shop who likes to wear neckties all the time. There are trans people with enough love in them to drown out all the hate that people like Gein bring.

So yes, Ed Gein was trans. So are lots of people who aren’t murderers. Let’s see some more movies about them. Maybe some day we can even have a horror movie where the killer’s crimes aren’t colored by any transgender feelings – but our pretty, spunky heroine is a transvestite.

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