How Buffalo Bill Became My Idol

The Physical Markings of a New Gay Man

The first time I saw The Silence of the Lambs, I sat in the dollar theater in Tallahassee with Dan. We’d cut our Modernist Novels class, resisted the chicken salad in the campus cafeteria, and smuggled a pack of wine coolers into the theater. Movies 8 was predictably slow, but it was a special night—Dan and I were fresh out of the closet, products of an upbringing in the Reagan-era Deep South.

We all remember the film’s hideously queer psychopath Buffalo Bill, a lisper cavorting around his dungeon basement. In the pivotal scene that reveals his motivation for skinning his victims, the camera lingers on visual details that mark his body as abnormal. He has a pierced nipple and several tattoos (a little odd for the early ’90s), and he painstakingly applies eye shadow and lipstick, narcissistically intoning, “I’d fuck me.” At the ultimate moment, he dons a wig fashioned from a victim’s scalp, tucks his penis between his legs, and poses for the camera, a killer characterized by the most enduring, deviant homosexual stereotypes. Bill’s effeminacy marked him as grotesquely murderous.

It was during this scene that two guys behind us proposed that Buffalo Bill should just cut his dick off if he wanted to be a woman. I thought Dan would explode, so I leaned in and told him to never mind the future date-rapists. We weren’t the privileged frat boys, the nostalgic Confederates on the outskirts of the city, or the models from Miami. We were proud, gay, goth English majors, and even though we pitied him (and his victims), we thought Buffalo Bill was the coolest! In the Deep South, we were Buffalo Bill. And we clinked our bottles together and drained them of their Exotic Berry Bartles & Jaymes.

“Let’s get something pierced after the movie,” he suggested. We clinked bottles again.

It took a while for my beaten-up Dodge Colt to warm up during this chilly night, but we maneuvered our way to No Regrets Tattoo and Body Piercing, where a sign over the door read, “From the extreme to the normal, we can handle all of your body piercing needs.” Needs? Did we need a piercing to show our solidarity, to unite with the other gay villains?

Of course we did! We were blank slates, new members of a hated and misunderstood population, and a needle driven through our flesh would prove our aberration!

In a flash, a girl in a black tank top and flowing skirt and armed with a plastic blue piercing gun sat us in adjoining chairs. “Where?” she asked, as if bored by a couple of twinks looking to make a lame social statement. I only pointed to my upper right ear. One dab of rubbing alcohol, one pair of long red fingernails holding my flap of tissue still, one click of the gun, one stud through my cartilage, and I was officially gay. “Twist it now and then so it heals. That’s five bucks,” she said.

I expected a spontaneous pride parade to escort us through the pending stares, taunts, and bashings on the way back to the dorm. But no; it was just a dark Tuesday night, and two gay goth English majors with new wounds had joined the ranks.

“What do we do next?” I asked.

“Let’s twist each other’s piercings,” Dan suggested as he flicked my new stud. I emitted a war cry, grabbed him around the neck, and wrenched his ear. Gay male bonding as its best.

I no longer have that piercing, but I can still feel the scar, a lump of early nineties gay pride on my upper ear. Never mind the freedom rings and pink triangles, the rainbow paraphernalia and assorted hankies in the back pocket. I’d made a statement by mutilating my body. Even though I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery alongside my relatives, I’ll make it into heaven anyway with the rest of the villains. Buffalo Bill might have lodging in a different area, though—I’ll have to pay him a visit and thank him.

John Pruitt teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County. He’s enthusiastically absorbing Christopher Bram’s novels—he’s on number five—and is looking forward to Bram Skyping with his students at the end of November when they read Gossip. John’s a really nice guy—you’d like him.