Sunday, October 15, 2023

We Are All Buffalo Bill: Embracing the Revolutionary Monstrosity of the Third Gender

 She's putting on her lipstick in the mirror while the music blares. There are knives by the blush and a loaded .357 Magnum next to the rouge. She's applying eyeliner as her victim's screams grow louder than the bassline. She turns up "Goodbye Horses" to drown them out. There are moths on the multicolored spools of fabric. There are skulls on their wings. There is a thorn tattooed on her side and rings shaped like serpents on her fingers. Her powerful shoulders flex as she works her antique sewing machine like a lave, sewing the flesh of her victims into something that will conceal those muscles. The screams grow louder but not oud enough. She's dancing before a blinking camcorder now, bathed in a woman suit constructed of 'real girls' with her other thorn tucked between her thighs. Now she's gingerly prying a pupa from its cocoon and caressing its newly formed wings. A terrifyingly deep voice escapes from those lipstick smeared lips. "So powerful..."

This was my introduction to Jame Gumb, better known as Buffalo Bill, the genderfuck villainess of Jonathan Deme's brilliant 1991 horror masterpiece, Silence of the Lambs. This was also the frighteningly feral image of androgyny that generations of genderqueer kids like me grew up with, and it hurt. The fact that I also happen to be a lifelong horror buff who adores this movie along with the 1988 Thomas Harris novel of the same name that it was based on didn't exactly soften the blow. While both Demme and Harris attempt to go to great lengths to have FBI Agent Clarice Starling and Doctor Hannibal Lecter explain that "Billy is not a real transexual... He thinks he is, he tries to be, he's tried to be a lot of things, I expect." these hollow words from the cisgender peanut gallery do even less to soften that blow. Regardless of how the professional class in the psychiatric-police state chooses to label her, Billy clearly identifies her desire for femininity as a strength and it is her androgyny, her refusal to play by traditional gender norms that makes her monstrous to the audience.

The conclusion that many kids like me were forced to come to was that our own inability to play by those rules, a predilection which we shared with one of cinema's greatest villains, marked us for the same fate that she embraced like a spider to a fly. Our identities could only result in unspeakable acts of barely human savagery. Ted Levine took up permanent residence in our mirrors and this isn't exactly an ideal foundation for adolescent self-esteem. More than a few of us chose to break the mirror and use its tainted shards to carve up our flesh like one of Billy's humps. Painful memories like these are part of the reason why even bitter anti-assimilationist radicals like me rejoice in the fact that at least today kids have access to enough information on their identities to give them some assemblance of hope that not fitting into either of the government approved genders doesn't have to result in a violent death in the basement.

But hope can be a dangerous thing, especially for a community that remains at least as marginalized as we are half-heartedly celebrated. While Walt Disney may decorate his parades with Pride flags that represent more identities than I can count, his conglomerate, along with other supposedly woke Fortune 500 giants like Goldman Sachs and Shell Oil continue to sling millions of dollars to the same politicians and lobbies that openly seek to strangle young gender outlaws with police state legislation before their arms are even strong enough to put up a fight. If anything, inclusion into mainstream civility has only made these muscles weaker. Many young trans people have been lulled into a state of learned passivity, being taught that their only hope for survival rests exclusively on the shoulders of an alliance between big government and even bigger business. Meanwhile, this exact same alliance pushes our prescribed foes to embrace them as the only force that can contain Queers like me before we can convert their kids.

Like most culture wars, the current gender war is little more than an excuse to keep both sides of the fight reliant on the same systems of power that exploit us both. However, since my community remains and will likely always be a minority, we are the ones with the most to lose and we are the ones most likely to lose it. The statistics on this fact are painfully clear. Trans people are more than four times as likely to be the victims of violent crime than we are to be the perpetrators. And it is with this fact in mind that I suggest the unthinkable. Perhaps Buffalo Bill isn't such a horrendous role model after all. 

Not because of the crimes that she commits against innocent women who are just as likely to find themselves exploited by the same chauvinistic culture that drove Billy to seek shelter in the confines of her basement lair, but because she represents everything that terrifies the bigots and in this fear resides power. Jame Gumb was a child of systemic abuse denied her right to transition by a corrupt, gatekeeping, medical establishment who told her that she was too broken to be female, too "savage" to be a "real transexual." So Gumb became something else, something too strange to be filed away in the DSM. Jame became Billy, a monster too powerful to be ignored. God help me but I can relate.

Growing up I was raised to believe that my body was a commodity that everyone had a right to put their hands on but me. My body belonged to my parents, my body belonged to the church, my body belonged to the schools and the cruel adults who ran them like indoctrination camps. I had no idea what the hell I was other than powerless. I was carefully groomed to assume gender roles that felt totally alien to me and I was groomed even further to believe that these alien feelings made me broken and irredeemable. There were no genderqueer people on popular sitcoms back then. There were only villains. 

Creatures like Marilyn Manson, Sinead O'Connor and Dennis Rodman who embraced their roles as pop cultural monsters with a charismatic zeal that terrified my abusers and empowered me to finally stand up to them. I could put on my black lipstick like warpaint and chant rhymes about the "beautiful people" and suddenly I was the one with the power to make big people feel small. Years before I had ever even heard of words like genderqueer or genderfuck, I embraced my otherness and weaponized it against conformity. These acts of guerrilla theater may have led my conservative Catholic school to accuse a 14-year-old pacifist of plotting a school massacre, but they may have also saved my life.

This is a radical strategy that has not been unheard of among gender outlaws throughout history though much of this history has been conveniently erased. During the halcyon days of pre-Christian pagan Europe, it was not uncommon to find public acts of crossdressing practiced freely at festivals, rituals and carnivals as a means to create a temporary escape from the crippling social obligations and hierarchies of agrarian civilization. These acts of ecstatic chaos were embraced as a way of life by heathen third gender sects like the Scythian shaman of the Enarei and the Roman priestesses known as the Galli. The Catholic Church did its damnedest to reign these outlaws in and constructed strict binary gender roles as a means of governing diverse societies beneath a single universal order but genderfuck remained a potent tactic for rebellion used to strike terror into the hearts of the governed for centuries.

Renegades from the hills of France to the moors of Scotland dawned women's clothing during raids and riots against the scions of church and state, from the Luddite Rebellions and the Ribbonmen to the Rebecca Riots and the Whiteboys. This proud peasant tradition also includes the fearsome Molly Maguires who carried their acts of genderqueer upheaval across the pond to my home state of Pennsylvania after the Potatoe Famine drove them from Ireland to coal country.

It is my conviction that we must revive this tradition of self-identifying as a threat and adopt rebellious third genders over assimilationist tropes. Trans people have tried playing nice with the straight world and where has it gotten us? With a dozen milquetoast TV shows streaming and more torches and pitchforks aimed at our throats than ever before. The reality is that the things about the trans community that terrify polite society most are precisely what makes us strong. We are ungovernable perverts that defy categorization. We are self-made monsters that require no man's permission to mutate and evolve into shapes and shades unseen by Christian civilization. We are dangerously free, and you and your children could be too, because liberation is a contagion that corrodes all conformity in its wake. 

We are all Buffalo Bill, and you are right to fear us because you don't know what pain is.

Peace, Love & Empathy- Nicky/CH

Soundtrack: Songs that influenced this post

* Goodbye Horses by Lazurus Q

* The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson

* Collect by Torres

* Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground

* Queen by Perfume Genius

* The Emperor's New Clothes by Sinead O'Connor

* Victim of Love by Erasure

* You're Pretty Face is Going to Hell by the Stooges

* Genesis by Grimes

* Army of Me by Bjork

This post is devoted in loving memory to all the nameless bastards of Gaza who have been erased for embracing the monstrous roles assigned to them by small men with big toys. I grieve for all of them because every monster is born innocent. 

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