Last month a new Snapchat filter captured the attention of the cis internet. The cheapest FFS around, this filter allowed people to see what they would look like “as a woman” or “as a man.” It was the exact amount of gender play cis people feel comfortable with. And it probably led a few closeted trans people to make some life-changing discoveries.
Last month was also when I decided to launch an official investigation into my biggest question since entering the realm of trans singlehood. Why do so many people have Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” as their Tinder anthem? You know this song, right? It’s that very 80s one hit wonder best known as the song Buffalo Bill dances to in The Silence of the Lambs. Since joining Tinder back in January I’ve seen multiple accounts each week with this song as their anthem. The only other songs I’ve seen with that frequency are “Make Me Feel” and “Pussy is God,” more expected choices for queer woman Tinder than a serial killer’s getting ready track.
My initial wave of research was met with no response. The two people I’d matched with never replied to my official inquiry. (Yes, I still swiped right on two of them, sue me they were cute.) And no one on Twitter or Instagram or in the Autostraddle Slack had noticed this at all. I started wondering if I was overreacting. Maybe people just like this song. Maybe they’re not even thinking about Buffalo Bill. I did a simple Twitter search of “Goodbye Horses” to see if and why people might still be talking about this thirty-year-old tune.
I began scrolling through dozens of photos of societally approved beautiful women. Cis men who had used the Snapchat filter to look more like cis women than I ever will. They’d all made the same joke. “Siri, play Goodbye Horses.”
Truly my least favorite thing about being trans is when I share something that makes cis people’s faces drop in pity. So cis people, please, temper your reaction when I share this next piece of information.
Every time I looked in the mirror for the first year of my transition I thought about Buffalo Bill.
The Silence of the Lambs means a lot to a lot of cis women. The most well-meaning among them will cringe as they admit their fandom to me. But they don’t need to cringe. It’s an incredible film. Perfect, really. The reason why it was so uniquely damaging to me is because it’s so good. Bad transphobic movies make me mad, but they could never lodge themselves inside me like a death’s-head moth. You need a movie of this caliber for that sort of effect.
One of only three movies to ever win the “big five” at the Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture), Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece was revolutionary. It was rare enough to have a prestige detective story starring a woman, but one that was explicitly about misogyny with no romantic subplot starring a gay woman was completely unique.
The Silence of the Lambs was protested upon its release by cis gay men because Buffalo Bill was read as gay and male. But Buffalo Bill is undoubtedly a trans woman. In fact, her transness is essential to the brilliance of the film.
Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter represent the two types of “men” TERFs fear. Hannibal is the father figure, the violent and masculine specter whose approval and trust is foolishly desired. His uncontainable power is patriarchy incarnate. Bill, on the other hand, is the intruder, a man adopting feminity so he can sneak into womanhood. Hannibal may be the obvious threat, but Bill is the real danger. Hannibal is a menace to everyone. Bill is a menace only to cis women. The film is not accidentally transphobic. Its thematic core is transphobia and it does it so well. There’s a reason why Bill’s defeat marks a happy ending, even as Hannibal escapes to live another day. Just ask any “liberal” TERF palling around on Fox News.
The movie doesn’t understand transness enough to realize its “man sneaking into womanhood” transphobia is about transsexual people. Actually, the movie explicitly says that Bill is not trans. Clarice comically states, “There’s no correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive…”
Hannibal replies, “Billy is not a real transsexual.”
He explains that Bill was abused as a child and this is what caused his gender dysphoria, not true transsexualism. He says that Bill likely applied for sex reassignment at multiple locations and was denied. Of course, in 1991, I could have been denied medical transition simply because I’m not heterosexual. Harry Benjamin’s sex orientation scale linked gender and sexuality, a belief some medical professionals maintained into the 90s. It’s also absurd to say a person can’t be trans due to sexual trauma. Trans people experience child abuse at a greater percentage than cis people.
This all gets heavy really quickly. And that’s why I bit my tongue when a cis woman at a party told me The Silence of the Lambs was the reason she became an actor. I wondered how much of the movie she had internalized. I wondered if deep in her gut she was scared of me and didn’t know why. But I said nothing. I pushed those thoughts down and praised the movie’s craft.
Then my ears burned with a comment I could not so easily ignore. A lesbian nearby was explaining that she could never, would never have sex with someone with a penis. To be fair, some girls just aren’t into passive serial killers.
Before I was single I hated when trans women complained about dating on Twitter. Especially trans lesbians. I often saw trans women talking about how cis lesbians weren’t interested in them, how if cis lesbians were really allies they’d post less hashtags and sleep with more trans people. I hated this so much.
Dating is hard for everyone, I thought. Blaming transness for your dating life is embarrassing and dehumanizing. And doing it publicly! If we actually want to be treated with respect and equality, we can’t advertise our self-pity. There’s nothing less attractive than that. I’d shake my head in judgement, and then curl into the arms of my three-year pre-transition partner.
This attitude was absurd, of course. An entire community cannot collectively play hard to get. These trans women were not required to feign confidence in their late night drunken tweets. They should not have to perform for an imagined cis audience. And this imagined cis audience was not anxiously waiting for some tweets to inform them whether trans women were dateable or not.
My feeling was born, in part, from a TERF talking point that trans women feel entitled to sex with cis women. It’s hard not to internalize that and then push back with a counter-narrative that goes too far. I refused to acknowledge a world where my transness was even an issue. Upon becoming single I saw the cis dating pool as split into two groups: a few cis women who don’t date trans women and most cis women who have no problem dating trans women. But the truth is more complicated.
I hate talking about this. I no longer feel judgement towards other trans women on this topic, but I still feel a lot towards myself. Dating is hard. People don’t want us for so many reasons and it’s pointless (and inaccurate) to connect normal rejection with this one aspect of my identity. But what should I think when someone I’ve been flirting with all night tells me they’ve only dated cis women, but lately have considered “opening that up to trans women”? At the end of the night when they don’t kiss me, how do I know if that’s because of me or because they decided tonight wasn’t the night to get adventurous? This is not a rare occurrence.
I spent the first months in the dating world lying to myself. I’m certainly not hiding my transness, but I never, ever, allowed myself to acknowledge that being trans may be affecting people’s interest in me. I thought if I pretended it wasn’t then I could manifest it as the truth. I wanted to walk into queer spaces with confidence and desirability. I didn’t want “I wish I had a pussy” tattooed on my forehead.
There’s something to be said for “faking it until you make it.” There’s something to be said for the attractive nature of confidence. But living in total unreality is unsustainable. Sometimes I was yanked out of this fantasy with the violent force of someone at a party monologuing about penises. Other times it was subtler. Pangs of my difference I didn’t want to accept. Like every time someone on Tinder had “Goodbye Horses” as their anthem.
The scene starts on a container of old food. Catherine, the Senator’s daughter Bill has trapped in a well, is muttering to herself. She ties an old bone to a string and looks up. The song faintly begins in the background.
We cut to Bill’s love-tattooed hand as she dabs a makeup brush in eyebrow filler. Then back to Catherine as she throws the bone up to Bill’s dog, Precious. As the ooo‘s of the song start it’s revealed that Bill is wearing the head part of a skin suit. This is her whole thing. She’s killing these women and making skin suits out of them. It’s certainly one way to become a woman, if not the most efficient, in my experience.
The rest of the scene continues to cut back and forth between Catherine’s frantic attempts to steal Precious for leverage and Bill slowly getting ready. Bill paints on lipstick in an extreme close-up of her mouth and utters the now famous words, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me so hard.”
As the scene comes to its conclusion, we pull back and see Bill fully made up for the first time. The scalped head looks just like a wig. Her hairless body is wrapped in some sort of shawl which she plays with flirtatiously as she dances. She looks directly into the camera. We are her mirror. She walks back for a full body shot and opens the piece of cloth like the wings of a moth. Her penis is tucked. A grotesque trans body presented with pride.
“Won’t you listen to me/ Good-bye horses I’m flying over you/ Good-bye horses I’m flying over you”
I don’t know why so many people have this song as their anthem. I may never know.
When I first matched with the “Goodbye Horses” fans and asked them about it one said, “that buffalo bill scene is classic” and the other said, “I LOVE the song.” Then they both ghosted. I think it’s probably meant to be humorous or edgy. They likely are not thinking of Buffalo Bill as a trans woman and just think they’re choosing a song that’s closely associated with a serial killer. Or maybe some of them do just love the song.
I still wonder why I’m the only one who seems to have noticed this phenomenon. But I also know it jumps out at me in a way it never would for cis people. And it might jump out at me more so than even other trans women. When I started transitioning I decided to watch every piece of trans media, good and bad. In lieu of a journal I began writing criticism. Looking back, it was an attempt at control. It still is.
Like with dating, I thought that if I could just approach media with a clear sense of purpose then transphobia wouldn’t affect me. But it did. And I was actively seeking it out. The Silence of the Lambs came out on Criterion soon after I began my transition. So not only did I rewatch the two-and-a-half-hour movie but I then spent an additional three hours watching special features. It was a truly miserable day.
Buffalo Bill’s body was the first trans body I ever saw. It’s still one of the few trans bodies I’ve seen on screen. Of course that scene affected me. Of course, I thought of Bill when I looked at my own pre-medical-transition trans body. Of course.
I don’t want to be affected by transphobia. I don’t want to show weakness or vulnerability. I’m told by cis people all the time that transphobic comments and actions and movie characters are “not a big deal.” And I want to believe them. I want to be the tranny who doesn’t care about the word tranny. It’s often felt like my humanity, my ability to be seen as a full person, depends on this apathy. In reality, it’s the opposite.
I wasn’t going to get any more information from these “Goodbye Horses” Tinder matches. And I didn’t need any. There was nothing they could say to confirm or deny the feeling this song still gives me. There was only one thing left to do. I deleted Tinder off my phone.
And I promptly joined Bumble.