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30 years in, The Silence Of The Lambs’ Jame Gumb still deserves better

30 years in,<i> The Silence Of The Lambs</i>’ Jame Gumb still deserves better
Screenshot: The Silence Of The Lambs
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The Silence Of The Lambs is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and after three decades of unhappy marriage to this film, I will not miss an opportunity to gripe about the ol’ ball and chain. Wordplay aside, there is no film I hate more than The Silence Of The Lambs. Those feelings have evolved over the years, from not understanding the jokes about tucking that my family would make at the expense of a trans woman in my neighborhood, to not understanding the hype of how “terrifying” Buffalo Bill was in my teens, to my absolute disdain for the movie as a full-grown adult who has never known a world without its influence. Despite insistence from the film’s text that it isn’t transphobic, the countless experiences directly referencing this film I have had across the 11-plus years that I have been out as trans beg to differ.

Just like a booger-coated finger a centimeter from your face, The Silence Of The Lambs is impossible to ignore. Similar examples of trans exploitation—films as guilty of poor taste as Silence—are forgotten and buried away in niche film circles. This one was handed five Oscars and added to the Library of Congress. Whether it was one, 20, or now 30 years after its release, Silence remains heralded, despite every criticism against it. Yes, the directing is masterful, and the acting is damn near flawless. But these aspects come at the price of consistently elevating the worst piece of fiction to befall trans people. Maybe I am overreaching to condemn Buffalo Bill and The Silence Of The Lambs as being the single worst example of representation with which the trans community has ever been burdened and placing so much blame on it. Then again, it only took a single flawed and biased study by one man to spark the medical community to turn on the trans community for decades.

The entire argument that The Silence Of The Lambs isn’t transphobic rests on a single conversation between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, when the two meet to discuss the modus operandi of Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, after a senator’s daughter is abducted. Clarice points out the lack of correlation between trans people and violence, to which Lecter retorts that “Billy is not a real transsexual.” He also mentions that “there are three major centers for transsexual surgery,” and the first on his list is Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the most influential and respected medical facilities on the planet. Not to try and beat Hannibal Lecter at his own game, but he should know that Johns Hopkins ceased gender-affirming care in 1979.

Since 1966, Johns Hopkins had spearheaded gender-affirming treatment and proudly touted itself as the home of the nation’s first “change-of-sex operations,” as they were known at the time. That all ended with a study conducted by Dr. Jon K. Meyers, head of the hospital’s Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit. Using his position, Meyers judged applicants for treatment on their quality of life based on social assimilation, employment and income status, stability of residency, any legal or psychological difficulties, and marital status. (Although there is no written proof of it due to discrimination, word of mouth by trans people through the years illustrates that patients were also denied based on their looks or ability to “pass.”) In the window of time between first being assessed for gender-affirming surgery and shortly after the operation, Meyers said he found “no significant improvement in any of these criteria.” He basically asked patients if they were living in a new personal utopia while they were still sore and recovering, and used this information to conclude that gender dysphoria was a problem that should be treated psychologically rather than physically via hormone-replacement therapy or surgery.

The study was criticized by Meyers’ medical peers for the small sample size, his interpretation of the information, and that a similar study with a larger number of patients over a wider period of time showed universally more positive improvements. However, this was enough to give Dr. Paul McHugh, Johns Hopkins’ chief of psychiatry from 1975 to 2001, the ammunition to shutter all trans-related care two months after the study’s publication, asserting that continuing treatment in light of this evidence was “facilitating mental illness.” To this day, McHugh continues to echo this stance within conservative circles, where he is often quoted in anti-gender discussions. With such a conclusive ruling from an esteemed institution like Johns Hopkins, most hospitals across the country ceased providing similar trans healthcare within the following decade. “Transsexualism” would get reclassified as a mental disorder in 1980 in the third version of the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, and stayed that way until 2013.

In the same scene in The Silence Of The Lambs, Dr. Lecter claims that Billy only “thinks” they are trans (a bullshit concept referred to as “transtrender” these days), as if it is just the latest in a long line of fads they hope will remedy their self-disdain. But comparing the film to real-world events that Lector is referencing would show that Jame Gumb was attempting to transition for at least a decade before becoming Buffalo Bill. Since candidates for treatment were accepted at individual doctors’ discretion based on their mental well-being, financial status, or even physical attractiveness, Jame likely would have been rejected not for lack of being trans but because of the trauma and fiscal failings of their upbringing. They were not considered an upstanding enough citizen, and therefore were not worthy of help. Bye, don’t let the door hit your ass—or tucked genitals!—on the way out.

So if gender dysphoria is a mental illness, and Jame Gumb would have been considered a “guilt stricken homosexual man” and not a “real” trans person in the eyes of doctors, it’s bad luck that they happened to be alive in the 1980s, when every bigot’s dream daddy, Ronald Reagan, was elected president. After axing the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 within his first year in office, Reagan turned his attention, or lack thereof, to the AIDS epidemic. He almost managed to sneak through his whole first term without even acknowledging the crisis; it wasn’t until 1987 that a commission was appointed by the Reagan administration to investigate AIDS.

At first glance, this all might seem irrelevant to Jame Gumb’s story. But there was a very specific culture that was cultivated during the Reagan years, one of disdain toward those living with mental illness, and a particularly inflamed hostility toward the LGBTQ community. Public opinion toward the so-called “gay plague” was mostly heavy with apathy and mockery. Even with the Hippocratic oath in mind, a national survey of doctors conducted in 1990 showed that “only 24% believed that office-based practitioners should be legally required to provide care to individuals with HIV infection.” If three out of four doctors and most elected officials (you know, the people whose job is to care) couldn’t be bothered, then why wouldn’t someone, oh, let’s say, exploit that queer panic with a 1988 novel and subsequent film that went into a production the following year?

From the start, the LGBTQ community was critical of The Silence Of The Lambs—although mostly for its vague homophobia, rather than the very clear example of transphobia it’s seen as today. This culminated in a large, violent protest outside of the 1992 Academy Awards over the consistently poor portrayal of queer people by Hollywood, and the financial and critical rewards gained from it. The Silence Of The Lambs was far from the only offender of its era: Viewers were also treated to prolonged scenes of men vomiting at the thought of being attracted to trans women in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and The Crying Game (1992), as well as an unnecessary last-minute trans reveal (and subsequent mockery) that ruins the snappy, Clue-esque comedy Soapdish (1991). But while The Silence Of The Lambs was not the only film exploiting trans people for drama or comedy, it was the most effective. And it did so the most savagely—through fear.

When questioned about the transphobia of his film, Jonathan Demme never even acknowledged it as a possibility. After more than two decades of criticism, he never really got it, and the olive branch he tried to extend to the queer community with his follow-up, Philadelphia (1993), means little when he was not able to understand the innate transphobia of The Silence Of The Lambs. Admitting his shortcomings in not making it clearer that “Gumb wasn’t gay” doesn’t dissolve the damage done by his film, in the same way Hannibal Lecter saying “Billy isn’t trans” while actually describing what gender dysphoria is doesn’t negate the portrayal in the film itself.

When interviewed in 2014 about the continued homophobic and transphobic theming of The Silence Of The Lambs, director Demme said:

Well, Jame Gumb isn’t gay. And this is my directorial failing in making The Silence Of The Lambs—that I didn’t find ways to emphasize the fact that Gumb wasn’t gay, but more importantly, that his whole thing is that Lecter’s profile on Gumb was that he was someone who was terribly abused as a child, and as a result of the abuse he suffered as a child, had extreme self-loathing, and whose life had become a series of efforts to not be himself anymore. The idea is that by turning himself into a female, then surely Gumb can feel like he has escaped himself. He’s not a traditional “cross-dresser,” “transvestite,” or “drag queen”—the various labels that respectfully come up for people who love to don the clothing of the opposite gender. So, Gumb is not gay, but there is a reference to a homosexual experience he had which is attributed to this quest. We were all banking a little too much on the metaphor of the Death’s-head moth—that Gumb is trying to achieve a metamorphosis through making his human suit.

Hannibal Lecter might be wrong about Billy not “really” being trans, but he was correct in saying that people like them are made. Within the film, Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb was created by a system that did everything it could to fail them. There is a reflection of this in the filmmakers, who seemingly took every measure to make Jame Gumb wholly unsympathetic in a film that is supposed to be about criminal profiling and the psychology of a killer. Gumb is based on real-life serial killers, and whether the powers that be knew it or would admit it, the circumstances that pushed the character to that point tracks with a real-life culture that is indifferent toward the suffering of people like Gumb.
And if the insistence is that the character was not trans or gay, then there is no reason to include those aspects, other than to sensationalize and exploit the “perversion” of queer people for the shock of cis, straight moviegoers. Essentially, this movie is hovering its finger over all of the things it is denying, while chanting, “I’m not touching you,” over and over.

But, after all of the history and context, what I hate the most is how I have to defend Jame Gumb despite everything in me not wanting to. My life and how I have been treated has been directly affected by this film, and I want nothing more than to flippantly write them off and move on—maybe make some jokes about tucking, laugh at the camp of “cheap shoes” and “fava beans,” and even try to reclaim the film like I have seen other queer people do. But I can’t. This is a character that doesn’t even get the dignity of their gender being acknowledged, at the time or in the years since. “Billy isn’t a real transsexual, but he thinks he is.” If Billy thinks they are trans, that means they are trans!

Having a cis doctor, one who is probably just like the ones who denied Jame more than 10 years earlier, misgender and dismiss the autonomy of someone who knows exactly who they are is absolute cruelty. Hannibal Lecter’s lack of compassion makes sense—he’s a cannibal serial killer!—but his outdated diagnosis is giving audiences a pass to make their own judgments on who is a “real” trans person, and who is worthy of sympathy. This doesn’t lend to the character profiling that the film proudly centers itself around. It makes this a cautionary tale that gets ignored, because we aren’t supposed to care. The “why” of Buffalo Bill isn’t as important as the “what.” They aren’t a person. They are a monster that needs to be hunted down because they weren’t helped sooner. Clarice wins. Lecter wins. The audience wins. Trans people lose.