Killing The Sexes: An Examination of Stigmas and Prejudices Around Transgender People

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Murder in A Dress

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic “Psycho” we follow murderer Norman Bates, who is ravaged by the identity of his deceased abusive mother. Bates is described as a “schizophrenic man” who murders while in a dissociative identity as his mother. While the film was not explicit in classifying Bates as a transgender woman or a ‘transvestite,’ the damage of using a male crossdresser as a murderer caused a growing stigma. One of the most prevalent stigmas of trans women is perpetuated in this movie: the bathroom stalker. “A man dresses a woman, while he predates on other women. First he leers at them in the bathroom and then kills them in the bathroom, and he predates on women because they are women,” (Ellis, 18:58 – 19:10). 

This plot point continued well into the 90s and came to another point of publicity on the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. The Silence of the Lambs presents a more conscious depiction of the murdering crossdresser. Many parts of the film included dialogue to ease the nerves of trans people. Clarice, the lead of the movie, even states in the film that “transwomen are very passive” and Hannibal responds “he is not a real transvestite” when referring to the serial killer Buffalo Bill, who murders women to create a suit of their skin. The steps taken to prevent the growth of prejudice due to the movie’s subject matter do not stop viewers from remembering the disturbing nature of Buffalo Bill. Bill, throughout the film, is seen as convincing himself he is a woman. As a result, the precautionary measures get lost in Buffalo Bill’s disturbing actions. Stigmas of cross-dressing serial killers lead to various stereotypes of transwomen being deceitful liars, which translates into various films where significant portions of the plot are taken up by exposing the “truth” about the trans women.


Throughout modern history, the easiest tactic to turn society against a group of people has been to vilify and dehumanize them. One of the biggest examples of this is the imagery in the Jim Crow south. Black people were depicted as dumb or violent; many images depicted black people with exaggerated features to depict black people as ape-like or monkeys (PBS, Racist Images and Messages in Jim Crow Era). While not as extreme and widespread, the depictions of transwomen in movies and TV shows such as South Park, Family Guy, and Ace Ventura depict them as disgusting, secretive, and liars. At the time those were some of the only depictions of transwomen in television and cinema at all. So all anyone was seeing of trans women was a serial killer or disgusting liars or the butt of a joke, and later as the murdered sex worker in a crime drama. The damage of that is insurmountable. 

When groups of people are stigmatized and demonized on a wide scale you begin to see evidence of public disregard for their well-being and humanity. Roughly .6% of the United States population identifies by gender of which is different than their assigned sex (Flores, 2016). The Human Rights Campaign recorded an all-time high of the murder of transgender people at 44 in 2020. Most transgender individuals murdered are trans women of color. Trans women of color face significant danger, as many are living in poverty and end up resorting to sex work. Many trans women are murdered in cold blood in a supposed moment of “trans panic.” According to the American Bar Association, the “Trans Panic” defense is “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” These defenses are used to claim that the man murdered the transwomen due to being “tricked” because they were trans. On August 13th, 2013 trans woman Islan Nettles was beaten to death on a street in Harlem. Jamie Dixon, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the murder, was quoted saying “I just did not want to be tricked.” The “tricking” he suggests was Jamie flirting with Islan until he realized her identity (McKinley, 2016). Only 8 states (California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, and New York) have prohibited the use of the tactic, meaning in 42 other states a lawyer can argue in a murder trial that the victim’s identity was to blame for their murder.

It is not surprising that practices such as these are around when many see trans people in media as deceitful people who want to trick men. Tactics like these make it easier for people to disregard protections for these people or find ways to misconceive them to excuse a lack of equal rights. In recent years, the media portrayal of trans women has significantly improved. Trans Women, in particular, are getting roles in shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” “Euphoria,” and “Pose.”  These shows portray trans women in a more positive way, such as telling real stories and humanizing them. In shows like “Euphoria,” the trans character Jules’s story is not entirely her trans identity, it is just one part of her character. However, the misconceptions of trans people are still deeply embedded into many people.


The United Kingdom has been recently ravaged by the public display of transphobia and discrimination, recently it has even been ruled that minors must obtain a medical referral and a court order to begin any puberty blockers (Savage, Greenhalgh, 2020). Puberty blockers are a step in transition and are usually given to gender-confused teenagers before or during puberty. Puberty blockers can save lives because they stop or halt puberty, which minimizes distress. Furthermore, medications such as these are used during sex hormone transition. The UK has also been plagued by notable celebrities influencing public opinion on the “trans issue.” The most prominent is JK Rowling.

In 2019 author of the Harry Potter series JK Rowling made international headlines for her support of Maya Forstater, a woman who denied a contract renewal due to her transphobic tweets. However, Rowling claimed she was fired for claiming that “sex is real.” “Sex is real” is a common saying by TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary-Radical-Feminists) or “gender critical,” which is a term used to paint themselves in a better light. TERFs are a group of activists with bigoted views of transpeople, who generally believe that biological sex is the only determination of your gender. “Sex is real” is a statement eluding that transgender people deny biological sex. “Transphobes love to play this game where they pretend that trans people don’t understand basic biology, that’s our problem. As if I did not start taking female hormone because I am acutely aware that my body is not the same as a cis woman’s,” (Wynn, 8:42-9:01). Furthermore, sex being real is the whole basis of the trans entity i.e the sex you were born into does not match with your mind and it causes you distress, so one will transition. Framing transpeople as those who are delusional of their own reality further pushes the narrative that their bigoted views are a defense of the sex that is being “stolen from them,” “transwomen are taking away womanhood,” or “erasing women from spaces.”

Rowling’s comments coalesced into an essay she labeled “TERF Wars.” In this essay, Rowling discusses her “concerns” about transgender people. Rowling delves into many topics such as her concern that young girls are being “converted” by the “trans agenda.” She cites statistics that show a 4400% increase in young girls being referred for transition therapy in 10 years. However this 4400% was a change of around thirty to about two thousand young girls, which is still lower than the percentage of the population of adult trans people in the UK (Wynn, 38:22- 39:11). 

Rowling finally gives context to her true reasoning behind her bigotry. Rowling discusses her sexual assault story as the reasons for her concerns about trans women. Rowling directly feeds into the narrative of dangerous men in dresses stalking women in bathrooms. Furthermore, Rowling manifested her bigotry in a character in her book Troubled Blood. In this book, the killer Dennis Creed cross-dressed to kill women. The narrative of the Trans predator has been ingrained into the brains of so many, that the notion of almost no instances of assault by a trans woman is being buried by an irrational fear of the Norman Bates or Buffalo Bills storming into women’s restrooms and assaulting them. 

JK Rowling is a testament to the prejudice that can occur when specific groups of people are consistently vilified and oppressed. In Sarah Schulman’s book Conflict is Not Abuse, she details a tale of hypervigilance. “ The traumatized person’s sense of their ability to protect themselves has been damaged or destroyed. They feel endangered, even if there is no actual danger in the present because in the past they have experienced profoundly invasive cruelty and they know it is possible.” This fear has only been exaggerated in people such as Rowling with the consistent representation of dangerous transwomen in the media. The thought of a person who is biologically male being in a women’s bathroom is triggering to Rowling, which she admits. However, had the identity of trans women not been tarnished for decades Rowling may have seen the humanity in trans women, not the movie and TV trope. 

JK Rowling is an example of the true harm that dehumanization does. In no way does Rowling deserve sympathy. However, she is a victim of a long-running trope that has manifested itself from the fear of the Norman Bateses and Buffalo Bills, to the widespread vilification of millions of people who just want to ease their pain by seeking medical help, and being recognized by the gender of which they identify.


Work Cited:

“Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2020.” HRC,, Loyal |. “How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States?” Williams Institute, 27 Apr. 2020,

“The Gay/Trans Panic Defense: What It Is, and How to End It.” American Bar Association,

Mckinley, James C. “Man Sentenced to 12 Years in Beating Death of Transgender Woman.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Apr. 2016,

Wynn, Natalie. J.K. Rowling | ContraPoints. Youtube, 26 Jan. 2021,

Ellis, Lindsay. Tracing the Roots of Pop Culture Transphobia. Youtube, 22 Feb. 2021, 

Savage, Rachel, and Hugo Greenhalgh. “UK Court Rules against Trans Clinic over Treatment for Children.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 1 Dec. 2020,