“Do Transsexuals Eat Women?” Defanging Trans Horror Tropes.
A little over twenty years ago the GENDYS Conference included an unfortunately named presentation called “Do Transsexuals Eat Women?”, by Press For Change trans activist Stephen Wittle. It explored from various angles pop culture ideas of transsexual predation, concluding that such fear-mongering is rooted in misogyny, does immense harm to women (trans and not) and gender-non-conforming folks and the idea that crossdressing/transsexuality in and of itself manifests or harbors a predilection to violence has little basis in reality. And then, after 1994, there never was a movie with a cross-dressing serial killer ever again.
I can’t imagine being able to compose a comprehensive list of all the “trans killer” movies in existence but here’s a start:
Psycho (1960), Homicidal (1961), Black Lizard (1968), No Way To Treat A Lady (1968), Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970), Dr Jekyll And Sister Hyde (1971), Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971), A Reflection of Fear (1972), Private Parts (1972), Three On A Meathook (1973), Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974), Freebie and the Bean (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Dressed To Kill (1980), Terror Train (1980), Deadly Blessing (1981), Girls Night Out (1982), He Lives By Night (1982), Unhinged (1982), A Blade In The Dark (1983), Sleepaway Camp (1983), Fatal Games (1984), Delerium (1987), Stripped To Kill (1987), Vultures (1987), Hide And Go Shriek (1988), Sleepaway Camp 2 (1988), Sleepaway Camp 3 (1989), Silence Of The Lambs (1991), Relentless 3 (1993), Deathwish V: Faces Of Death (1994), Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), Schizophrenic: The Whore Mangler (1997), In Dreams (1999), Terror Firmer (1999), Hunting Humans (2002), Seed of Chucky (2004), The X Files: I Want To Believe (2008), Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (2010), House At The End Of The Street (2012), Insidious Chapter 2 (2012), Sleepaway Camp 4 (2012)
“In the world of Krafft-Ebing, there is no such thing as benign sexual variation. Everyone who departs from reproductive, monogamous, male-dominant heterosexuality is described as criminally insane.” — Pat Califa, Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism
With so many films hinging on this theme, one would assume there was some sort of epidemic of bloodthirsty transgender murderers. In the real world, one would be hard pressed to find enough over the past hundred years to count on one hand, if that many. Neither crossdressing or being transgender/transsexual are considered part of the FBI profile for serial killers. It’s such a persistent idea, however, that it was used as a desperate defense move in the Unabomber case (and has become part of the narrative), despite multiple psychologists finding no evidence of gender struggles.
Although many of the films bear a hazy “Based On A True Story” caveat, it could be more effectively argued that these films are based on more of a social reaction than a historical one. Yes these films legacy can be traced back to Ed Gein, but also to Christine Jorgenson and the rapidly changing views on gender variance in the middle-to-latter half of the 20th Century.
As I’ve mentioned this before in several of my articles, there was a window of time when Christine Jorgenson’s medical transition was considered a marvel of the Atomic Age. Her story, and that of lesser known Atomic Age Transsexuals captured headlines and imaginations. Unfortunately, the latter quickly turned sour alongside the emerging concerns surrounding the “Lavender Scare”. Communists were seen as a threat to the social order, and gays and the gender-non-conforming were seen as threats to traditional values. Changes in attitude were abrupt. TIME Magazine suddenly dropped using female pronouns for Jorgenson and other transsexuals. Publications developed a much more adversarial tone towards transition, and a concerted effort was made to portray cross-gender experience as threatening and pathological.
Even today, it’s likely that most things the average person thinks they know about Ed Gein are complete bullshit. LIFE Magazine ran a spread on Ed Gein a couple weeks after the murder claiming that he “wished he were a woman” even though he hadn’t been interviewed by a psychologist at that point (article ran Dec 2, Gein’s psych evaluations began Dec 9th). Psych evaluations performed on him, by Dr. Warmington and Dr. Edward Schubert, revealed no tendencies towards cross-gender behavior. Warmington himself concluded that Gein’s gruesome creations were a manifestation of his attempts not to be a woman or like his mother but rather to find a “substitute for [his mother] in the form of a replica or body that could be kept indefinitely.” Subsequent evaluations stressed Gein’s suggestible nature and his inability to distinguish what he remembered and what he was told, putting into doubt the revelations uncovered in his polygraph interview where he “cheerfully agreed” with suggestions of fetishistic behavior with the dismembered cadavers.
Wilimovsky: “Do you have any recollection, Eddie, of taking any of those female parts, the vagina specifically, and holding it over your penis to cover the penis?”
Gein: “I believe that’s true.”
Wilimovsky: “You recall doing that with the vaginas of the bodies of other women?”
Gein: “That I believe I do remember; that’s right.”
Wilimovsky: “Would you ever put on a pair of women’s panties over your body and then put some of these vaginas over your penis?”
Gein: “That could be.”
Coverage of the events frequently attempted to infer Christine Jorgenson’s transition as an influence on Gein. The fact that Jorgenson’s biography was first published in 1967 doesn’t stop documentarians from frequently retconning that book a decade back in time into a filthy box on Gein’s floor. Harry Benjamin’s discussion of Jorgenson’s transition was published in academic psychological journals far more inaccessible to the impoverished Gein than the rudimentary layman-level biology and anatomy texts he collected. Even if Gein had managed to acquire local magazines and newspapers that mentioned her transition, this would have been in the early 1950s, and Gein’s grave robbing began in 1948.
The thing about this trope is that aside from its persistence is how pervasive it is. There’s this notion when discussing these films that “no we aren’t ~really~ talking about trans folks in general we’re just talking about…” and it begins with the very first film. The end of Psycho contains this dialog:
District Attorney: He’s a transvestite!
Simon: Not exactly, A man who dresses in woman’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change… or satisfaction… is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive.
It’s worth noting that historians like Estelle Freedman have chronicled legislation and social attitudes regarding social identities rather than behaviors and has noted that “”the frequent overlap in use of the terms sex criminal, pervert, psychopath and homosexual raises the question of whether psychopath served in part as a code for homosexual at a time of heightened public consciousness about homosexuality [homosexuality and gender-non-conformity being considered synonymous in these instances].”
This sort of dogwhistling has plagued trans killer movies for nearly 60 years. Sure there is a blink-and-you-will-miss-it line in Silence Of The Lambs stating that Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill is “not a real transsexual” but Gumb sure as fuck was coded as one throughout the book and film.
“He’s not a transsexual, Clarice. He just thinks he is, and he’s puzzled and angry because they won’t help him.”
And this sort of public image lingers. I named 40+ movies in this article, can you name 40 movies with a trans woman character that is just a regular person and not a criminal or murder victim? Can you name 30? 20? 10? 5?
I didn’t think so.
The spectre of this sort of pathology lingers over bathroom bills and coverage of medical care. Ascribing cross-gender presentation with mental illness diminishes trans folks autonomy and ability to reliably self-advocate, and distorts how our medical care is diagnosed. Images of us as deranged and predatory dehumanize and other us.
Yet also, with such a dearth of actual representation, the sort of nightmare creatures we’ve been shaped into by popular culture can be empowering in their own twisted way. Ideally, one would hope that the situation improves and media decides to present us as something other than criminals and murder victims, but in the meantime if you wanna watch the movies listed above and Frankenstein your own identity from them this Halloween, I’m not gonna stop ya.
I’m not your mom.