Silence Of The Lambs Director Understands Why Film Was Considered Transphobic

Robert Paulson
Authored by
Robert Paulson
GuySpy Editor
July 29, 2014
6:00 a.m.

silenceofthelambsI feel like lately more then ever we are holding the Hollywood accountable for all the messages they are giving us. We seem to be a very enlightened public that doesn’t want to be hypnotized by our mainstream. However, one particular win in beginning to hold studios accountable is that now we’re looking back at films we held dear and asking them to explain or even if necessary apologize for potential negative ideal represented in their otherwise celebrated films. One of the big films under fire has been “The Silence Of The Lambs” and it’s really incredible to see the director finally coming out and apologizing for his negative representation of the trans community. GIven that for a lot of people this was their first interaction with a trans character in film!

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. We didn’t fortify and clarify that enough.

That said, when the film was accused of continuing a history of stereotypical negative portrayals of gay characters, that was a wake-up call for me as a filmmaker, and as a person. My gay friends who loved Silence of the Lambs, including my friend Juan Botas, who was one of the inspirations for Philadelphia, said, “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be a 12-year-old gay kid, and you go to the movies all the time and whenever you see a gay character, they’re either a ridiculous comic-relief caricature, or a demented killer. It’s veryhard growing up gay and being exposed to all these stereotypes.” That registered with me in a big way. That year, we got a number of awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, and at a certain point in the awards ceremony, a dozen young people came into the room with fliers and put them on all the tables and they said, “STOP NEGATIVE PORTRAYALS OF GAYS ON FILM.” I thought, “This is such a bonus.” Because the film is this big success, and it’s now become a part of the dialogue on stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies.” -– Director Jonathan Demme, discussing the controversy surrounding the sexual orientation of the villain (Jame Gumb, dubbed “Buffalo Bill”) in his Academy Award-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs

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